Why faster is not smarter

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Four weeks and thirteen $1 jobs.

That’s what it took for my 5 year old to cobble together the money he needed for a much-desired book from The Book Club magazine distributed through our school.

On top of his usual (unpaid) daily jobs – which include packing the dishwasher, making his own lunch for school and hanging out the washing – he’d asked for extra jobs so he could earn the money he needed for his coveted purchase.

So he vacuumed, mopped, took out the recycling and made us parents espresso coffees to get the loot.

And, finally, he got there.

Today, his order arrived in the mail.

child with books












He’s pretty pleased with himself.

Now, his beloved Lego books (not Montessori, I know, but he’s reading, so I’m happy) only cost $12.50, so of course it was tempting to put up the money ourselves, or at least tip in half.

But I really wanted to teach him something that I think is critically important – and lacking more and more in today’s modern world – delayed gratification.

And it was worth it.

The anticipation as he checked the letterbox after school each afternoon this past week (I missed the order deadline for school delivery) was only matched by his excitement when it arrived today.

“Am I dreaming? I hope I’m not dreaming!” he said as he ripped open the packaging.

We’re told that patience is a virtue, but I think it’s something we don’t value as much as we should.

Dr Montessori’s philosophy has, as its central theme, the ability of the child to exercise self-control. Their motivations, their actions are intrinsically set – not extrinsically ‘managed’ as is often the case in other settings.

Once this is developed, our children will learn to resist temptations, stick with challenging tasks (and not be dissuaded when they make a mistake) and be comfortable with asking for help if they need it.

What valuable life skills! Imagine how many adults would find them helpful today?

Hundreds of Montessori schools are opening across the world every year right now, in particular in places like China, Pakistan and Europe.

That will mean thousands upon thousands more Montessori alumni in the coming years. That has got to be a good thing.

So, how is delayed gratification fostered at a Montessori school?

The garden programs – where children plant seeds and cultivate their gardens until eventually they have fruits and vegetables to harvest and prepare for snacks.

Waiting their turn when another child has an activity they want. (We don’t force our children to ‘share’ since we’ve learned the Montessori philosophy, but I have to say my boys still have a ways to go with the ‘patient waiting’ aspect when a coveted toy is up for grabs. In fact, sometimes it’s our patience as parents that is tested, but we are – thankfully – gradually seeing the Montessori tenets bear fruit in our house.)

Three-hour work periods, the ability to concentrate for long periods uninterrupted, big work (choosing projects that can extend over days or weeks, or even months), planning ‘going out’ activities, completing an activity and packing it away properly when it’s finished, talking over disagreements at the peace table, leaving a multiplication board or Snake Game or bead chain out overnight until school resumes again the next day – all allow our children to complete the task in the time they need, without undue focus on the immediate, short-term result.

Some schools still don’t understand this, though, with an inordinate focus on how FAST a task can be completed, instead of how WELL or how much the child is learning along the way.

Just last week I was talking to a friend who told me that her six year old son keeps getting into trouble at his (traditional) school.

Surprised, I asked her what was happening.

“He’s not writing fast enough,” she said.

Not FAST enough?

Hang on.

It turns out his handwriting is excellent, as is his sentence structure, his spelling, his grammar. All tracking well and, until recently, he loved school.

But last week he was in tears, saying he didn’t want to go to school because he keeps getting into trouble for not writing fast enough.

He’s just turned six. Six! He’s in Year 1.

He’s engaged in school, engaged in his learning. Happy to be there. Focused. Trying hard. Not disrupting anyone else.

And he’s getting in trouble with his teacher.

Every. Single. Day.

Now, he doesn’t want to go to school.

Because he’s not writing fast enough.

What IS the preferred writing speed of a six year old exactly? And who has the short attention span here? Not the child. Given the right amount of time – he is able to focus, concentrate and get the job done, producing beautiful work every time.

He’s LEARNING! Surely, mastering a skill comes before speed? Is the traditional curriculum THAT jam packed that children have to be rushed to the point that engaged children are pushed into being disengaged?

There’s something wrong here. And it’s not with the child. The rest of the world has sped up – he hasn’t slowed down.

Neuroscientists generally agree that inhibitory control (the ability to not act on impulse) is a core skill and research has shown that early development is essential for ensuring positive life outcomes long term.

Dr Montessori recognised the importance of this capability in children and developed her methods with this core principle in mind.

A research study undertaken by Lillard (2006) found that Montessori children demonstrate better self-control and social behaviour during unsupervised time on the playground than children in a traditional education environment.

It is often said that Dr Montessori’s work was well before her time.

In this age of instant messaging, instant movie downloads, instant online purchasing and ‘try now, pay later’ consumer credit – her teachings are more important than ever.

Until next week,

Chris xx

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