Educational Philosophies: A Primer

This article originally appeared in Metro Parent Magazine, Portland, Oregon.

Parents today are fortunate to have an array of educational models to choose from — but so many options can be a bit baffling. For the uninitiated, we present this primer. It’s a way to dip your toe in the pool of educational philosophies and look for some places where you may want to take a deep dive. Keep in mind that the best educational approach for your child is one that also engages you.

Montessori

In a Nutshell

Montessori is an experiential model of education that engages all five senses. The core of Montessori is “Casa Dei Bambini” or “The Children’s House” for ages 3–6. Michael Winning, Development Director at the Franciscan Montessori Earth School, explains that Montessori provides a child sized “prepared environment that allows children to manipulate their world.” Children develop academic and life skills by cooking, cleaning, painting and exploring manipulatives such as blocks, beads and cylinders without relying on a teacher to lead the activity.

History

Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman physician in Italy, began working with the children of the poor in the 1800s. By observing the way children naturally learned, she developed an educational model to meet what she called a child’s “absorbent mind.” Today, there are about 4,000 certified Montessori schools in the United States.

What’s Unique

Children self-select from an array of activities in the mixed age classroom. “Follow the child” is a primary tenet of Montessori. Winning explains that teachers act as guides, “Rather than directing education you should be taking your cues from the students themselves to determine where they are, what needs to be repeated…or taken to the next level.”

What People Love

Mary Greenslade’s children, ages 7 and 11, attend the Franciscan Montessori Earth School. She says her kids “come home excited about their learning and grow in their self reliance each year.” According to Winning, surveyed alumni “tend to point to their experience in Montessori as key to their success as adults.”

Waldorf

In a Nutshell

Waldorf classrooms feature soft colors and handmade toys from natural materials such as wood and wool. Stories, movement, songs and even knitting act as a gateway to academics. “As adults we think with our heads and then try to put our thoughts into practice. Children work the other way round, they do things and feel things before they think about them,” says John Miles, Director of Micha-el Institute, the non-profit that runs Micha-el School. “Teachers in Waldorf Schools endeavor to educate the whole human being through engaging the hearts and hands of children as well as their heads,” says Miles.

History

Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner invented an educational model that changes with the developmental stage of the child, and values a child’s emotional well-being as much as academic learning. The first school opened in Germany in 1919 for the children of the workers of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Factory. Today, there are about 200 certified Waldorf schools in the U.S., and many more that are “Waldorf inspired.”

What’s Unique

Waldorf schools are run by the faculty, who receive specialized Waldorf training. Reading instruction is delayed in favor of developing listening and writing skills. Many schools have no-media policies, asking parents to fore go screen time in order to stimulate a child’s natural imagination.

What People Love

Audrey Marie of Portland has two daughters, Roxanne, 8, and Yvette, 4, at Micha-el School. She loves watching her children “unfold, watching them bloom,” in a Waldorf environment. She appreciates “the attention the teachers give to each child…There’s always this inquiry from the teacher looking at the child, wondering about them instead of trying to mold them into some idea they have about who they are,” says Marie.

Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

In a Nutshell

This approach is designed to encourage students based on their personal strengths and acknowledges that different children have different ways of learning. “We help students understand their strengths and challenges using multiple intelligence as a tool,” says Mark McGough, Head of Gardner School in Vancouver, “Students learn to use strengths to acquire new information and work on more fully developing their knowledge in areas that are a challenge for them.”

Tricia George, Principal of Sojourner School, a charter school in the Clackamas school district believes this approach makes a big difference in how kids feel about themselves.

“There is a positive and productive change in the way that children understand themselves as learners and members of a community when they view themselves and others as intelligent in multiple ways,” says George.

History

Psychologist Howard Gardner identified seven different types of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-Kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist. Many educators saw the application of this theory as a way to reach students who struggle in traditional schools.

What’s Unique

Most mainstream education is built around a model of linguistic and logical mathematic intelligence. The Gardner model actively seeks ways to engage other types of intelligence and help students identify their particular strengths.

What People Love

Milwaukie resident Leslie Robinette has been a parent at Sojourner School for eleven years. “I was drawn to Sojourner’s Multiple Intelligence curriculum because it is a whole-child approach that helps each student see that each person has unique strengths, but also personal challenges,” she says. “The hands-on, constructivist approach makes learning relevant, engaging and memorable as each student discovers their own ‘Ah-ha!’ moments.”

Constructivist/Reggio Emilia

In a Nutshell

As with Montessori and Waldorf, an enriching physical environment plays a crucial role. The children work with teachers to develop curriculum and projects, then document the exploration process so the children can see and fully realize the work they’ve done. Parent involvement plays a key role in the philosophy. The Reggio approach is a flexible one; every school adapts the basic methodologies to complement the its unique community.

History

This model of preschool education began in the Italian town of Reggio Emilia shortly after World War II. The approach is founded on the belief that children should have a say in the direction of their education and have many outlets to explore their interests.

What’s Unique

Susan Harris MacKay, a Teacher Researcher at the Opal School says the Reggio approach puts “emphasis on collaboration, the role of environments to provoke and support learning, the use of the arts as tools for expression, and the role of the adults as partners, facilitators, co-researchers and documenters who work to make learning visible in a variety of ways.”

What People Love

Portland parents Scott and Alyssa Biniak send their daughter and son, ages 7 and 4, to the Reggio inspired Opal School, a charter school in the Portland public school district. “We love the community orientation of the school, we love the group learning approach and we really like their focus on developing creative and critical thinkers,” says Scott. “All of which we believe is going to empower our kids to have happier personal lives and give them really important tools for whatever they do in the future.”

Multiple Sensory

In a Nutshell

Some children need to touch everything. Some can hear a piece of information once and retain it forever. Others learn best through pictures and diagrams. The Multisensory approach incorporates kinesthetic, auditory and visual learning styles. Sheri Fitzsimmons, Director of the Multisensory Learning Academy, a public charter school in the Reynolds School District, says students at her school “have opportunities to touch, see, hear, say, sing, act out, partner with others and participate in movement and hands on projects throughout their school experience.”

History

Many multisensory techniques were developed to reach students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. The Slingerland Multisensory Approach teaches language one letter at a time, using sight, hearing and touch simultaneously. From this foundation, children build words and sentences. Many philosophies are now incorporating multisensory activities into the curriculum.

What’s Unique

All senses are engaged simultaneously, in the hope that the brain is able to better form connections between the strongest areas and the weakest.

What People Love

Southeast Portland mom Amy Bonaduce has a 9-year-old son at the Multisensory Learning Academy. “MLA provided the sensory aspect I was looking for,” says Bonaduce. “I like the hands on approach, individualized attention, and the multitude of sensory materials and approaches used to teach.” She was also happy to find a curriculum that included physical education, art and drama.

Making the Choice

The philosophy that’s right for your family may be more attainable than you think. Check your school district for charter school options and keep in mind that many private schools offer financial aid and payment plans. Some schools even include before and after school care as part of the tuition. School visits are a great tool, as different schools can have different interpretations of the same philosophy. Ultimately, taking time to find the right educational environment could reap big rewards in your child’s future.

Unique/Blended Philosophies (sidebar)

Some schools are blazing their own path. CLASS Academy in Portland was founded by educator Teresa Cantlon in 1995. This year round school features small, mixed age classes and emphasizes social and emotional health, as well as academic success. Teaches receive additional training unique to the academy.

“Each year the curriculum at CLASS Academy is catered to meet the learning needs of the children in each class,” says Executive Director Heidi Dodge. In addition to the core academic curriculum, CLASS also offers music, art and physical education.

Claire and Romel Hernandez find it a great fit for their children, Lucy, 11, and Martin, 8. “Every possible way of learning is promoted there,” says Claire. She particularly loves the small class sizes, “They really get to know your child individually and really appreciate their strengths.”

Project Based Learning

Many educational philosophies — Montessori, Waldorf and Reggio Emilia, to name a few — ask students to perform project work. Mary Greenslade has seen the project work at the Franciscan Montessori Earth School help her kids develop self confidence and leadership skills as well as an excitement about learning. “My youngest child just finished her research on North America and can’t wait to get started on her research on Africa,” says Greenslade.

Leslie Robinette says her sons’ projects at Sojourner School have run the gamut, “Topics have ranged from ‘How World War I Transformed Europe’ to ‘How Cats Communicate’ to the ‘Great Wall of China’ and ‘Korean Cooking.’” She has seen her sons have benefit from the journal and presentation elements required of projects.

School of Rocks, or Nature in the Curriculum

We often hear of school budget cuts impacting physical education. Today, many schools — private and public — are realizing that allowing children time in nature can have a positive impact in the classroom and in their lives. Children work in gardens, study plants, rocks and weather, even go on camp-outs and rafting trips. They have a chance to move their bodies, breathe fresh air and connect with the natural world, returning to the classroom refreshed and ready to learn.

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