Creative Learning - Allowing individuals to flourish

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Creative thinking is hugely undervalued in our society - but we must learn to think beyond the status quo, says Philip Bujak, recently retired chief executive of the Montessori St Nicholas Charity.

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Perhaps the founding precept of the Montessori philosophy is the notion that the prepared environment is key to all learning in the very young. For well over a hundred years, Montessori philosophy and the teacher training have centred on the ways and means in which a prepared space works in tandem with the teacher to enable the child to learn both independently and at their own speed, interacting with what they have around them.

Montessori philosophy teaches us that this interaction will be different for every child, and in this sense is a creative process. The prepared environment of a Montessori classroom is by and large quite formal, but within that formality individuality is able to flourish, as long as - and this is the nub of the issue - that the teacher is intellectually and emotionally gifted enough to encourage and exploit what the child has locked within them, and to relate this to what the environment can provide to encourage individual creativity. Sadly, in my experience, the majority of Montessori teachers do not display this gift.

I speak purely with the knowledge that I have acquired from 11 years creating the Montessori movement in the UK as it stands today. With 700-plus schools, more than 30,000 children and about 5,000 staff, it is a fairly good-sized research base for me to comment on.

This is not to say that there are not plenty of good schools and many talented teachers, but by and large I have witnessed many well-prepared environments yet not witnessed as much intellectual creativity from the teacher as I have done from many children.

Thus, just as Montessori saw that the prepared environment was key - something I wholeheartedly now believe in - I also see the prepared teacher as critical if the environment is to make any impact on the creative development of the child.

They must also be allowed to do their job rather than answer to the overpowering weight of unnecessary bureaucracy and intimidation about league tables. Who would volunteer for a job that you are not allowed to do?

Of course, I have to clarify what I mean by creativity. For the purposes of this article, I see creativity as the individuality of the learning process: every child has the potential to learn the same material, but in their unique and often divergent way.

One of the strengths of Montessori is that children have to learn independently. They have to learn to succeed and get the right answer through a process of controlled failure, which allows them to experiment, understand why they fail and then construct the correct answer creatively.

INEVITABLE CHAOS

This process of individual thinking is now almost totally at variance with current Government thinking on education. Divergent thinking for this and all other administrations purely equates to a lack of control and, therefore, inevitable chaos.

I recall leaving the office of former schools minister Nick Gibb MP feeling horrified at his attitude to Montessori in particular, and his view on the value of creative thinking more generally. In his view, it seemed, children could be bullied into rote learning by chanting and dogmatic teaching.

These are values for the pre-industrial age and industrial England where a new educated working class was needed for economic reasons - but only to the extent that they could still be controlled. And here is another dichotomy: the prepared environment and the prepared teacher can really only make a difference if the world around allows them the freedom to think.

Sadly, one of the main reasons why Montessori has not flourished in the UK and extended into the state sector is that the UK is a highly conservative society when it comes to education.

We have gifted civil servants, who are unable to think. We have well-educated politicians, unable or not allowed to think, and we have a mainstream education system that is frightened of allowing children to think.

This fear is based on the knowledge that ignorance is bliss - a bad hangover from the Victorian period where, as Lady Bracknell so aptly put it in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, 'I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit. Touch it, and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did it would prove a serious threat to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.'

TALENTED TEACHERS

In my 30-plus years' experience in education, as opposed to teaching, the profession has singularly failed to recruit enough intellectually gifted and emotionally balanced graduates. Even when a talented individual begins their career, it is very likely they will not finish it in the teaching profession - Ofsted will intimidate them with a process designed only to point out failure.

Recruitment and retention of talented teachers has been a failure of all administrations in this country since the 1960s. This helps to sustain Lady Bracknell's position; schools where the teachers' intellectual capacity is lower than that of their pupils can only lead to frustration, under-performance and the extermination of creative thinking among talented children from the earliest age.

Where Montessori gives a good start to the young child to think independently, the state primary and secondary systems eradicate the knowledge, skills and indeed desire of children to teach themselves. Montessori believed that the teacher was an overseer, a helping hand, allowing the child to develop their own powers of observation and critical thinking. But this, of course, exposes the fragile weakness of teachers - many of whom achieve grades far lower than those now in their charge. It is a concept of a teacher that cannot flourish in a system of league tables and rote learning.

Where schools are able to recruit free-thinking, gifted teachers - and sadly this is largely in the private sector - then you have schools where children are allowed considerable freedom of expression to learn and question, and to create their own pathway to understanding.

The fact that Montessori in the UK, apart from three schools which I helped to create, is restricted to the private sector, illustrates two things. Firstly, the desire of the Montessori teaching profession to restrict what they know to themselves in order to earn a living from the philosophy - and who can blame them, when they know it has great value? And secondly, a resistance from those in the state sector, intimated by what they know to be true: that children should be given the freedom to determine their own learning rather than restrictive social control to just get them through school.

I can hear Michael Gove now, in his private moments ridiculing such a notion as a recipe for school anarchy up and down the country. Interesting then, isn't it, that he sent his own children to Montessori schools?

FREE THINKING

One of my last projects before taking early retirement from Montessori in the UK was to try to create a working relationship with Montessori in Poland. It seems to me that the Polish Montessori schools suffer a similar fate to that of those in England before I began working for Montessori in 2003 - they are individual, lack central standardisation or a strong accreditation system, and struggle for funds to create any sort of national association. However, they also enjoy some very distinct advantages.

Montessori principles are not seen as a threat to the status quo, as they are in the UK; indeed, much of Montessori philosophy is embedded in the Polish early years curriculum. Also, because the Polish education system is not divided by a large independent sector and because the profession is respected, Montessori, though small, is able to attract good-quality practitioners.

My efforts to build this bridge did not mature in the time that I had available, but had it done so I saw Montessori as a growing force in Poland, not restricted to the private sector, and a fundamental part of the divergent thinking platform that the very young benefit from and is not extinguished at primary and secondary levels. It is a platform that the emerging nations of Europe will benefit from in the longer term and will see the value of a British education decrease.

It is no accident, in my view, that many of the most creative thinkers of our generation are both American and received a Montessori education, not just at the start of their lives but through to 16. In the US, free thinking is not frightening to teachers and education is a place where children can learn independently.

bujakIt is no surprise, then, that Montessori is so successful, so much in demand, or that the founders of Google or Amazon or Wikipedia mention their Montessori education as one of the root causes of their success, as it enabled them to be different, to think freely and be creative. Sadly, with Montessori strangled at the age of five, the UK will never be able to compete.