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Echoes of Montessori in the Common Core

by Gillian Porcella


I took my very first test when I transitioned from Montessori to the local middle school when I was eleven years old. Despite having studied for multiple weeks with flashcards…I got a 47.

I remember every detail about my sixth-grade teacher walking down the aisle between our cramped desks and depositing my exam with a huge 47 in red marker and a note saying “SEE ME after class.”

The room started to spin, so I got up without permission to head to the restroom, promptly passing out and hitting my head on a neighboring desk with a HUGE crack.

I woke up in what I remember as a dramatically large pool of blood with everyone staring at me, jaws dropped. Not only was I already the awkward new kid who kept taking off my shoes under my desk because I had never worn shoes in school (only ballet slippers in my montessori classrooms). I was now covered in blood and tears, feet up, lying on the floor of my sixth-grade math classroom because I freaked out about what I had quickly convinced myself to be my college-less future.

One of the many reasons the transition from Montessori to traditional district school was traumatic was that I was accustomed to a constructivist, or “discovery,” mode of learning. We learned concepts from working with materials across subjects, rather than through very focused direct instruction.

I was used to working uninterrupted for two to three hours on a project or activity of my choosing, from a range of options discussed with me by my teacher earlier in the week. This cross-disciplinary and exploratory approach to learning fueled my creativity and I was consistently excited and invested in what I was learning about. I thrived in the Montessori environment.

My new classroom had replaced carpets with tile, math manipulatives with white worksheets, and projects with tests. One of the hardest things for me was learning that I couldn’t casually ask my classmates for support when I didn’t understand something. It seemed that I had gone from learning from my entire classroom of peers and the world around me to being told I could only learn from the adult standing in front of me and the textbook on my desk.

I remember sobbing to my mom in the nurse's office that, because I would never get into college with this 47 on my transcript, it probably wasn’t worth going back to school the next day. I know how incredibly lucky I am to have a mother who simply said that a 47 would never define me unless I allowed that to happen. She said she wasn’t sure, but she didn’t think that I was the type of person to do that—then simply gave my hand a squeeze, trusting that I would make the choice to leave that 47 behind.

What is conceptual understanding in math?

I did take my mom’s advice; and during my next seven years in public school I learned to be a slightly better test taker, which required that I often attend after-school with my teachers (especially in math) to make sure I understood the concepts behind the procedural strategies that were taught during the day.

But I never quite adjusted.

Fast forward through Hampshire College, 2 years working and living in Kigali, Rwanda, working as a kindergarten teacher with TFA in Jacksonville, FL, grad school at Brown, and a summer with Education Pioneers in Dallas, and I landed at ANet.

As a member of the Common Core Resources team, I was charged with curating resources to help teachers wrap their minds around these new, more universal learning standards.

Having only taught the Florida Sunshine State standards before joining ANet, one of my first projects was to learn what the Common Core State Standards were all about and what they meant for student learning.

While there are many concrete ways in which Common Core and Montessori do not align perfectly, I was excited to discover that, in some ways, I was helping classrooms return to an orientation that valued conceptual understanding of mathematical concepts and cross-disciplinary approaches to learning that truly increase college and career readiness.

The places where I’ve seen the biggest overlap between Montessori and Common Core are the following:

The standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach. As a student, I knew what I was supposed to be working towards, but it was up to me how I was going to get there—a truly empowering experience as both a student and a teacher.

Both value an integrated approach and shared responsibility (across reading, writing, speaking, listening and language) to literacy. As a student, I used math, science, reading, writing, and speaking when I set out to learn about ancient Egypt; and I walked away with a comprehensive understanding of that period, including how the ancient Egyptian number system composed of 7 symbols was different from our base-ten system.

The Standards for Mathematical Practice basically outline the ways I engaged with mathematical content to a T; specifically MP1 (make sense of problems and persevere in solving them), MP2 (reason abstractly and quantitatively), and MP3 (construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others). I learned how to subtract using an abacus and the ideas of my classmates before EVER solving a problem written on a piece of paper like 36–12=___. 

So while there are many things I love about my job here at ANet, one of the most important to me is that I’m helping bridge the gap between some of the core principles of Montessori and the type of learning that I know is already happening in public, charter, and turnaround schools throughout the country.

In addition to the positive impact I know this will have on student achievement and opportunity, it gives me personal comfort that the meeting of these two worlds, however gradual, may save another awkward middle schooler from a difficult transition and a moment when they almost let a 47 define them.

Gillian is ANet’s director of product.

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