Updated: Sep 24, 2020
It is an open secret in public education that students who show the least academic progress in school are often those who are already high achievers or academically gifted. A respected and high-performing local school district actually shows the least growth in the test scores of their advanced students, including those who are in a separate program designed to meet their intellectual and academic needs.
Public schools are primarily graded by the percentage of students who are proficient in grade-level skills at the end of the year. The students who arrive at school already working above grade level will be proficient at the end of the year whether they actually learn anything or not, so they may receive the least attention to their needs.
Teachers are told to provide academically gifted students grade-level content in a “deeper, richer” way. Doing a more complex project may keep these students engaged longer, but that engagement doesn’t necessarily mean they are learning more. And some students choose to “hide” their abilities to avoid being given additional work. In most cases, these kids are not work-avoidant, they just hate busy work.
While young elementary students may not want to do work they find boring or frustrating, they almost universally love to acquire new knowledge. Unfortunately for them, the focus of most early grade learning is about skills, not content. Students want to learn to read, but they also crave new information. This desire for information over skills is especially true of students who can already read well. Building background knowledge will help their reading comprehension more than teaching them reading comprehension skills.
The importance of rich content is one of the biggest lessons I learned as a Montessori lower elementary teacher in a local public school. I didn’t talk about it openly, but I quietly ignored the NC Standard Course of Study and provided the instruction my students needed and desired. Offering my students content in geography, timelines, history, taxonomy, geometry, land and water forms and biomes of the world not only engaged them and motivated them to read, but paid off in their reading comprehension scores by third grade. Their store of background knowledge helped them make necessary connections to understand what they were reading. In the spring of their third grade year, I spent just a little time teaching them how to take a standardized test and every student in my very diverse class met or exceeded grade-level expectations on their end of grade tests.
The brilliance of Dr. Montessori’s organized early curriculum also provides a framework on which students can build more knowledge as they select topics to explore in depth. If children know that living things fall into certain kingdoms and classes, that deserts and wetlands and grasslands exist all over the world, and what a gulf and a peninsula are, they perceive the world differently. (Stay tuned for my upcoming blog post, “Your kindergartner is not the center of the universe--the misguided ‘all about me’ approach.”) A classroom that is set up to meet the needs of gifted and high achieving students will enrich all students in the class.
A Montessori environment is uniquely able to meet the needs of a diverse student population. I once taught two students who worked for months on a project called “Animals of the North American Temperate Forest.” They planned the project themselves and included 5 entries for each of the classes of vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals). The younger student was a good writer who was later identified as academically gifted. Her project companion was an excellent artist and illustrator with beautiful handwriting and a learning disability. He later received an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for reading. They made plans to include a table of contents and an alphabetical index. They were in first and second grade.
When the academic year ended, they still had not finished their research or published the book. I gathered their materials and put them in a folder in my file cabinet. The first day of the next school year, when they returned to my classroom, they approached me together. “Ms. Saylor, do you still have our work about ‘Animals of the North American Temperate Forest’?” I did. And they got right back to work.