Earlier this week, I served as a graduate committee member for a former Twin Parks Montessori School teacher who finished her doctorate at William and Mary College (Alkhudhair). The topic of the dissertation was early childhood approaches to the development of young children’s creativity. The study examined the beliefs, values and perceptions of early childhood teachers in Montessori and Reggio Emilia-inspired schools. We know that 21st century skills require higher-level cognitive skills and innovation because teachers are preparing children for future careers that haven’t even been invented yet.
A few years ago, as a representative of the American Montessori Society, I visited Beijing. I was impressed by the rapidly increasing number of Montessori schools educating young students in that metropolis – one of the largest and most complex on Earth. It was fascinating for me to see students performing the same math, practical life and sensorial lessons experienced by American Montessori school students. On the other hand, I witnessed some of the language and cultural activities in the classrooms unique to Chinese arts and culture. The intricate sewing especially impressed me. What is it about Montessori that is inspiring this prevalence I witnessed?
Montessori schools are rapidly opening in China to help promote creativity in education. Dr. Yong Zhao, a forerunner in global education from the University of Oregon, expressed to the audience at the 2011 AMS Annual conference in Chicago that there are many things “right” with American education and that China and other “Asian nations are actually reforming their systems to be more like their American counterparts.” Dr. Zhao stated, “No other country comes close to the U.S. when it comes to exports of intellectual property/knowledge (patents, royalties, copyrights, and licensing fees). Diversity of talents, creativity, entrepreneurship, and passion are what allow nations to thrive.” (Zhao, 2011)
Divergent thinking skills are considered to be at the heart of creativity and creative thinkers use both divergent and convergent thinking. Many of us have heard Sir Ken Robinson talk about the decline of divergent thinking in schools where students are taught to know one correct answer. “Divergent thinking isn’t a synonym, but is an essential capacity for creativity. It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways to interpret a question, to think laterally, to think not just in linear or convergent ways, to see multiple answers, not one” (Robinson, 2009). The Montessori method encourages divergent thinking.
Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has similar thoughts on creativity. “It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively. . . . a creative accomplishment is almost never the result of sudden insight, a light bulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work” (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 1). We know that many of the jobs that our students will be engaged in as adults have not yet been invented. As educators we must allow for and support creativity as we prepare our classroom environments.
If we examine the lives of some well-known creative individuals, perhaps we can better know how their learningenvironments influenced them. According to Marissa Mayer*, “You can’t understand Google unless you know that both Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] were Montessori kids. To do something that makes sense, not because some authority figure told you. In a Montessori school you go paint because you have something to express or you just want to do it that afternoon, not because the teacher said so. This is baked into how Larry and Sergey approach problems. They’re always asking, ‘Why should it be done like that?’ It is the way their brains were programmed early on” (Levy, p. 122).
The Google founders also provide this same Montessori-like environment for their employees. It is referred to as the 20 percent Work Plan. Just as it was crucial to Montessori that nothing a teacher does destroys a child’s creative innocence, Brin and Page felt that Google’s leaders should not annihilate an engineer’s impulse to change the world (Levy, p 124).
Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives. “Most of the things that are interesting and important and human are the results of creativity.” (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 1) When people are engaged in creative activities, many feel they are living their lives more fully than at other times.
How does the Montessori method encourage creativity?
Montessori classrooms offer:
- Ground rules, and a framework that is built on values and honesty
- Include well trained teachers who are role models and know when to step in or stand back
- Opportunities for students to work cooperatively in groups and/or individually
- A place where mistakes are opportunities for learning to take place and possibility thinking is encouraged
- Schedules that allow for large blocks of uninterrupted work time for students to concentrate on their work and to make choices
- Observation and attention that allows us to prepare the environments with student’s interests in mind
- Respect for individuals, their choices and their work and fostering intrinsic motivation
- A balance between skill development and challenges
- A belief that all students can be successful
- Support and encouragement for students from all social, ethnic, economic and emotional backgrounds
The Montessori method offers many ways to encourage creativity in our classrooms. During uninterrupted work periods many students experience what Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “flow”. This is the state or feeling of well being when things are going very well, almost automatic, effortless and in a highly focused state of consciousness (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 110). Maria Montessori definitely understood the need for this same “flow” to happen in our prepared classrooms.
* Marissa Mayer is now the current president and CEO of Yahoo. Previously she was a long-time executive, and key spokesperson for Google, the first female hired at Google, and one of the first 20 Google employees.
Alkhudhair, D. (2015). Early childhood teachers’ approaches to the development of young children’s creativity. A dissertation presented to the faculty of the school of education at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. Unpublished.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: HarperCollins
Levy, S. (2011). In the plex: how Google thinks, works, and shapes our lives. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Robinson, K. (2009). Divergent thinking. Talk presented at Royal Society of the Arts. You Tube online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U
Zhao, Y. (2011). Catching up or leading the way: American education in the age of globalization. Keynote address American Montessori Society Annual Conference, March 25, 2011.