In this series of blogs, I’ll tackle how each of these facets of SDE compare to the Ontario Public Education System (which is similar to most other state-run educational systems), Montessori Philosophy and Waldorf Philosophy.
Self-Directed Education (SDE): The learner has unlimited freedom to play, explore, and pursue own interests.
For SDE to work effectively, children need ample time to discover the world and their interests within it. Although every SDE school is different, most offer large chunks of time for kids to explore, create, play, and think. Most SDE schools aim to provide three hour chunks for their learners to pursue their interests. Without a schedule to follow and the absence of pressure to perform, their motivation to take on a challenge is internal. Free time affords them the ability to think things through to completion, reach greater depth in their understanding of concepts or make-believe games, experiment and make mistakes, and, most importantly, feel the frustration of a self-imposed challenge and the exhilaration of learning, creating, or achieving. With this time and freedom, they can potentially achieve “flow”.
SDE looks to provide time to struggle with a concept, achieve the high of performing, and down time to reflect and regroup for the next round. This is the essence of self-directed learning. It is intrinsically motivated but it certainly isn’t easy. Perhaps this is why SDE’s place a high value on the ability of their facilitators to help kids process their feelings. We know they are challenging themselves to do difficult things and it feels uncomfortable. Non-judging, supportive adults can help kids reflect and find ways to work through the struggle if they need it. (See the comparison post on community and culture, link to be added at a later date.)
At the Barn School, we intend to start each day with a small community check-in. That way the group has a chance to connect, plan their activities, offer each other support or join in something that sounds interesting, and facilitators can see what kids want their support. Announcements are made about the group activities offered that day and kids have a choice whether or not they partake in what is being offered. Then everyone disbands to do their thing. Snacks and meals are eaten as kids get hungry. Outdoor time is anytime as long as there is an adult outside to supervise. At the end of the day, kids check in with their small groups to reflect on their day and the learning that took place. Finally, everyone joins together as a large group to share, reflect, let go, or express gratitude.
Ontario Public School: A system with schedules and structure
As I mentioned in my first blog, the schoolboard, school, and teacher all play a role in deciding what the class schedule for learning will be. The Ministry of Education is trying to educate a vast number of children in the most efficient way possible. Curriculum is designed to compartmentalize learning so that it can be delivered by the most qualified teachers to the greatest number of kids. It is a system and divided and structured as such.
The mission statement of the Ontario Ministry of Education states very clearly; “Learners in the province’s education system will develop the knowledge, skills and characteristics that will lead them to become personally successful, economically productive and actively engaged citizens.” It is a system of educating and the focus is on efficiency with an end product that serves the individual, the economy and the state. The system, in an effort to be more efficient and effective in its delivery, has some funny quirks such as class size caps that may result in a split grade with only 4 kids at one grade level or a homeroom teacher role that is split between two teachers. Some decisions are purely economic; small elementary community schools of 200 or less children are shut down in favour of mega-schools that can accommodate 1500 students. (This is related to my comparison blog post on community, link to be added at a later date). Although there are some exceptions, specialty programs are in place because of either consistent parent demand or because they have the ultimate goal of reintegrating students into the mainstream classroom.
The specifics of how schools run depend on the philosophy of the superintendent at the school board, the principal, and the teacher. Generally children start the day by listening to school announcements and some sort of routine activity. The time is scheduled according to subject with 50 minute periods for most subjects or a double period for math or literacy. The time spent actually learning is less than 50 minutes considering classroom management (teacher addressing needs of kids) and transition times (5 minutes to enter and settle, 5 minutes to tidy and gather materials for the next subject). 30-40 minutes of interrupted teaching and learning time is probably the ideal for a teacher in a given period. Eating time is scheduled, exercise time in scheduled, free time is scheduled, even toileting is scheduled to happen during nutrition and movement breaks to have fewer infringements on learning time. (I infer that the province sees the other activities as being less valuable learning opportunities.)
All this scheduling might sound a little stiff, but thank goodness for kind and creative teachers who make the system feel more human. Teachers in the Public system often look for ways to make learning as student centered as possible, such as giving kids choices within a particular unit but the choices are quite limited by the constraints of the curriculum and keeping the learners somewhat aligned and uniform so they can be accurately compared and assessed to other students. So for example, a teacher may allow during the last half hour of a subject period, students can choose which game they play from a pre-selected set of activities.
The exception to this is the play-based learning program for 4 and 5 year olds. This age group is given chunks of time to play interspersed with scheduled eating and outdoor play time and small and large group instruction. Every day, most kids ages 4-5years will have 1-2 50 minute chunks of time to play, often more than that depending on the teacher’s comfort level with play-based learning. This Kindergarten program is not mandatory, meaning that parents can choose not to send their children to school until Grade 1, without having to inform the school board of their choice to do so. (By grade 1, parents need to enroll their child in some sort of school or inform the school board of their intention to homeschool.)
As you can imagine, with this kind of scheduling and class sizes, teaching a diverse group can be a challenge. Differentiated instruction and learning through self-discovery is encouraged (and more meaningful to the learner!) but much of the instruction is still direct instruction. The teacher teaches and the children are meant to absorb the material, then the kids show what they have learned by applying the concept individually or in small groups. This evidence of learning is used for teacher feedback and evaluations. It’s a system of inputs and outputs, accountability, efficiency, and economies of scale. The teacher is leading the learning and, given the constraints, teacher directed learning often makes the most sense in terms of efficiency and economies of scale. Choice and individuation take time and cost more money.
Montessori: Freedom to choose from pre-selected, independent learning activities
In a Montessori classroom, learners arrive and immediately begin their learning activities. There is no group check in or teacher check in other than a polite hello conversation. The intention is that children arrive ready to learn and they should not be held back from the tasks they are excited to begin. So for example, a child may arrive at school and feel excited to do a math activity. The philosophy is that they should be able to pursue that interest while they are feeling passionate and excited for the challenge, not forced to be take part in a group activity that may dilute their enthusiasm.
There are large blocks for work, usually 3 hours in length. The activities are considered work, not play, as the children are not playing or using the materials in ways other than what they have been shown by the Montessori directress. The directress slowly and deliberately shows the child each new activity from thematerials prepared by the directress in advance. Children are welcome to repeat activities as often as they wish since repetition helps to solidify the skills. Once the directress has seen the child complete the activity perfectly, she will invite the child to observe her complete a slightly more challenging version of the activity. Children do their work independently usually but may invite a friend to share in a specific task. Children do not play together as they would in a play-based public school Kindergarten program for example. Older children do engage in group lessons and work as introduced by the directress.
Children eat meals together and have outdoor time together but those are often the only scheduled activities in the day, particularly in the early years. The schedule of a Montessori day is very much reflective of the mission of Montessori schools; emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical, and social development.
Although not all Montessori Schools in Ontario are official Montessori Schools, meaning they can use the name without necessarily being affiliated with a Montessori governing body, official Montessori schools ensure the student has a range of activity choices from within a prescribed range of options, three hours of uninterrupted work time and freedom to move within the classroom (all the materials are at the appropriate height and grasp for the age group of the children). So there is freedom of choice, for large chunks of time, but the choices are from a defined set.
Waldorf: Structured within natural rhythms and cycles
A day at a Waldorf school is highly structured but it’s based on rhythms and cycles rather than an outside structure that must be strictly adhered to like in a public school. Children spend time outdoors together, eat together, and learn together in their age co-hort.
Until age 7, kids are given large blocks of time to play freely with approved Waldorf toys and books that are reflective of Steiner’s philosophy but also the era in which his educational philosophy emerged. Children play with objects and toys that are made of natural materials without a culturally prescribed meaning so children can apply their own story lines and imagination to the toys. In the Waldorf philosophy, activities and toys reflect tasks and items used most often in the home. Although children are encouraged to play freely with the toys and use their imaginations, the toys and books in classrooms are approved Waldorf materials, much like Montessori approves materials in sanctioned Montessori classrooms. (See my blog post on comparisons of using tools of the culture in learning, link to be added at later date.) Changes in activities are signaled by the teacher singing a song or playing a song. Waldorf has weekly routines that do not vary, at least for younger children, because the philosophy believes that young children thrive in that predictability. Seasonally, there are more celebrations and routines that match the natural world and changes in seasons.
Older children have traditional classroom style settings with chairs and desks and learning schedules that adhere to clearly defined curriculum but their learning often involves group songs, movement, or the arts. They are not given time to pursue their interests or make choices of what they learn, but they may have more choice in how they can creatively express their learning. There is still a sense that adults need to play a big role in providing structure and guidance to children until they reach maturity of adulthood. Choice and freedom is a gradual process in Waldorf philosophy, aligned with Steiner’s understanding of psychological development.
Waldorf is a philosophy that believes in nurturing the child through each stage in biological and psychological development. As the child matures and enters a new developmental stage, routines and structures change. It is a philosophy that sees children growing within a pattern that reflects the natural world and universe; changes in days, seasons, years, and 7-year cycles. Steiner’s experience with schools was one of rote memorization and teacher directed lessons, not to mention physical and psychologically abusive discipline measures, so his development of a program that included songs, painting, and nurturing young people and showing sensitivity to them as learners was quite revolutionary at the time.
I found this comparison to be kind of difficult to compare in broad terms because each classroom is so dependent on the people who run it. Hopefully this gives you an overall sense of the daily routines and how those structures reflect the overall philosophy of each style of education. In my next blog, I’ll compare how each style approaches culture and addresses cultural tools. But first, did you have a strong reaction to any of the education styles? What style would you feel most comfortable with as a parent? What style makes you feel the least comfortable?