Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be an educational researcher? We have a stereotype of a researcher as a university expert (maybe in a white coat) making startling discoveries. the reality is more than somewhat different. Most researchers plug away at their chosen discipline, making very small discoveries, often only measurements of already known processes. These do add to the sum total of human knowledge but the incements are tiny. This is what the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, referred to many years ago as ‘normal science’ (Kuhn, 1962). The case where a researcher makes a world-changing discovery (like Einstein with relativity or Darwin with evolution) he called paradigmatic science.
This is equally true of educational researchers. There are some examples of paradigm-shifting research (one is perhaps Montessori’s discovery that the correct environment could bring ‘ineducable’ children up to the national standard,) but generally educational research reports just add little bits of knowledge to the larger picture. Most, if not all, of the research described in this column over the years has been of this type. Here are a few more recent examples…
It is one of the mainstays of the Montessori classroom environment that it should be calm and peaceful, and one of the ways of ensuring this is (following Montessori’s recommendation) to have relatively little decoration on the walls, perhaps one or two classical art reproductions but definitely not a riot of children’s art work and posters and mobiles etc. Ann Fisher, professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, USA, recently tested this in a small-scale study. A class of 24 kindergarteners were given a series of 6 introductory science lessons, half in a heavily decorated environment, half in a barer one. Subsequent tests showed that “Children were more distracted by the visual environment, spent more time off task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains when the walls were highly decorated than when the decorations were removed.” (Fisher, 2014)
Another of Montessori’s insights which has yet to impact on the mainstream is the dangers of fantasy to the young mind. For her the danger was of children being trapped in a fugue (remember the little lads who could not get out of Spiderman enactment?) and the loss of contact with nature and its restorative powers. Another aspect of this is the falsity of the underlying message – that the solution to life’s problems lies in an outsider (Cinderella’s Prince Charming, etc.) This was the theme of a popular feminist book a generation ago (Dowling, 1981) and was the subject of an anonymous comment piece (Mittie, 2014) in the Times Educational Supplement recently. The author drew on Dowling’s analysis to point out how damaging the subliminal messages of these fantasies can be.
Another controversial aspect of Montessori is the eschewal of praise. This is so locked into our collective mindset that even many Montessorians have problems with not praising children. Interestingly, one of the implications of research on mindsets is the damage praise can do. Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology at Stanford University, wrote an influential (perhaps even paradigm-changing) book on mindsets (Dweck, 2006), based on years of research, which showed that a belief that talents and abilities were fixed led to reduced achievement whereas a belief that the brain could grow and develop (the growth mindset) enhanced life chances. She has recently been involved in a research study on praise and motivation (Gunderson, 2013). “Contrary to popular belief, praising children’s intelligence did not give them confidence and did not make them learn better” she wrote, noting that praise less likely to take risks, become sensitive to failure and more likely to give up when faced with a challenge. This is because praise reinforces the fixed mindset and does not promote the growth mindset.
So research proceeds with very small steps. But the situation with eductional research is complicated by another factor. Everyone thinks they are an expert on education. We all went to school and we all have very strong views on our own experience – whether the school years were the best of our life or whether those years were largely a waste of time and real learning only started when we escaped school. The effect of this is that if a piece of educational research confirms our own experience we say “Ah, but we knew that all along!” but if it does not then we say “Oh, those ivory tower theorists should spend some time in the real world and then they would understand how it really is!” This paradox inhibits the uptake of genuinely new ideas; and it is a paradox which affects so many people, from the ‘man in the street’ to our political masters who set the national agendas.
So much educational policy is just a knee-jerk reaction to a situation. “Children are failing at school” scream the headlines following the latest international PISA test results. The response? Reform the schools? No chance – increase the length of the school day. many children are falling way behind their potential (certainly true). The response? Change their experience to allow their natural ability to flourish? No chance – expand the rigorous system of targets and tests that stifle creativity and innovation. The list goes on and on.
It is against this background that we view the ongoing failure of the Montessori approach to make any dramatic impact on UK schools. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the gradual accumulation of small researches will eventually become just too great to go on ignoring. In the meantime, keep faithful to the Montessori philosophy. The research will eventually reach ‘critical mass’ and overwhelm the old, industrial revolution-based mass-production, model of education.
Dowling, C. (1981). The Cinderella Complex: Women’s hidden fear of independence. New York; Simon & Schuster.
Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindsets: the new psychology of success. New York; Random House.
Fisher, A.V. (2014). Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children: When too much of a good thing may be bad. Psychological Science 25(7):1362-70.
Gunderson, E.A. et al. (2013). Parent praise to 1- to 3-year olds predicts children’s motivational frameworks 5 years later. Child Development 84; 1-16
Mittie, C. (2014). Cinderella stories set students up for a fall. TES, 16.5.14. p.24-25.
Kuhn, T.S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.