Montessori at The Element High School

An important tenet of the Montessori method of education is Maria Montessori’s recognition of the developmental stages that students go through. Montessori also believed that education is meant to be a preparation for life. The combination of these two factors in programming is what makes for an authentic Montessori experience. At The Element High School, our programming begins with a recognition of the developmental characteristics of adolescents. Typically, adolescents are in a sensitive period for justice and social dignity.

Socially, they identify strongly with their peer group and they question rules and beliefs they often previously just accepted. Peer relationships and a sense of belonging are of utmost importance.

Physically, the adolescent body is changing and their brain is undergoing some of the most significant restructuring in a person’s life. For this reason, adolescents have boundless energy and an astonishing capacity for work, but are also prone to periods of lethargy. Executive Functions such as planning, strategizing, organizing, and initiating attention are all governed by the frontal lobe of the brain that is busy restructuring itself at this time.

Emotionally, there is a vulnerability to the adolescent. This is an age of strong emotions, and adolescents are very critical of themselves and of others. They constantly feel they are being judged about everything they say and do. They are vulnerable to hurt and humiliation.

Intellectually, adolescents are capable of very mature thought if it is framed within a social context that speaks to their emotional and social tendencies. In these circumstances, they have the capacity to think in abstract and complex ways and to analyze and discuss. The adolescent is preparing to enter a society of adults. This is a period of intense physical, emotional, cognitive and social development, with all the insecurities and excitement that go along with this change.

What then makes The Element High School an authentic Montessori experience, or how does our programming meet the developmental needs of our students and engage them in preparation for life?

Instead of the 3-hour work cycles that students experience in an Upper Elementary Montessori classroom, our students experience a more traditional weekly schedule that has them doing focussed lessons for shorter periods of time at specific times each week in recognition of their changing attention spans and their changing need for accountability and time management skills. Coming to class on time and prepared and meeting deadlines are important life skills.

Socially, adolescents relate strongly to their peers. Seminars, group work, discussions and debates enable our students to cover content while taking advantage of their social needs. Lessons often turn into healthy debates as our students’ critical thinking skills are encouraged and they begin to see themselves in the context of a larger group or society. They are able to think more abstractly about topics. Lessons are brief with key concepts presented and follow-up work that encourages student creativity and independent explorations.

Independent work periods are built into each day which enable students to experience focussed freedom. Students are free to choose what they work on, but there is a clear expectation that the students are working. Faculty are available to students during independent work periods, which provides the opportunity for teachers to meet with students individually or in small groups, and also the opportunity for our students to develop self-advocacy skills as they seek support themselves.

The role of the adult is an important aspect of the prepared environment for the adolescent. The adult is responsible for covering the curriculum content and supporting the students in the development of their independence, fostering initiative and encouraging creativity and providing feedback. Lessons are planned with student engagement as a focus. Current events serve as a useful tool for engagement as adolescents interact with the greater community and seek to understand the world they are entering.

In addition to programing academic content, the adult serves as a mentor and advisor, helping the students to develop the skills they need to cover the curriculum content and access it more deeply. Assessment and evaluation are done continually, both informally through student conferencing and formally through rubrics, tests and assignments, which provide the students and parents with feedback on their progress. The adult is there to support the student in making self-reflections, developing individual strategies and setting personal goals with the ultimate goals, of helping our students to know themselves as learners, have confidence in their skills, have strategies to help them mitigate any challenges and become independent, curious and confident learners.

Choice is built into our programs through the students’ independent work and follow-up work. The faculty are looking for students to demonstrate mastery of concepts, but creativity is fostered and encouraged in the way that each student demonstrates mastery.

As an adolescent’s executive functioning skills are a work in progress, our program incorporates direct instruction in skill development. Skills such as how to use an agenda, how to chunk work into manageable pieces, how to write an outline, how to validate sources, and how to write a science lab all become useful tools and life skills. Each student is also assigned a faculty advisor who is responsible for overseeing the student’s big picture and for helping to develop the skills and strategies that are most effective for the student personally.

As adolescents are preparing to enter a society of adults, our community becomes an important part of our campus. Experts, guest speakers, field trips and AWOL trips (Authentic World of Learning – e2) immerse our students in our local community and foster learning in a very meaningful and applied way as students learn from experts who often bring an infectious passion and expertise. Our Lansdowne location facilitates our community involvement by being located in a vibrant community, close to both of Ottawa’s universities and along a public transportation artery.

The Element’s programs and support mechanisms find the intersection of youth’s developmental characteristics and the requirements of the adult world, thus creating the focused engagement that naturally leads to personal excellence.