Written by former Upper Elementary Teacher Andrew Maryniuk, originally printed in Kingsley's Annual Report 2016-2017
Teaching and learning are often presented as if one leads naturally to the other. If learning is like filling up with knowledge, the old conventional wisdom goes, then teaching must be the act of pouring. While even the most traditional educators these days shy away from this image of "student as empty vessel," our society still holds that teaching is the necessary antecedent to learning.
Learning is a purely individual and internal experience. Collaboration, even intervention, can catalyze it, but the explosive reactions must come from within; no one can inject you with a synthetic version. That's why "intrinsic motivation" is such a popular buzz-phrase and yet it is rarely a focus of mainstream education. When it does crop up, it looks less like motivation and more like coercion–which is like the difference between a fishing rod and a coupon to Red Lobster.
"The secret of good teaching is to regard the child's intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown, to grow under the heat of flaming imagination." -Dr. Maria Montessori
Kingsley encourages intrinsic motivation with work that matters. The lessons and materials pioneered by Dr. Maria Montessori are designed not so much to teach, but to invite children to learn. The tasks that Montessori students undertake are inherently interesting and often framed within a captivating story that motivates them. In Upper Elementary, the students move into abstract realms of thought and many of the materials that engaged them as younger learners fall away. How, then, do we continue to ensure that students feel intrinsically motivated?
We know that nine to twelve-year-olds become increasingly interested in the world around them and how they impact it. School work that is obviously and immediately relevant to the wider world motivates student interest far better than the shiniest prize or most rigid classroom manager ever could. At Kingsley, student choice drives learning, as teachers connect and deepen the learning, often beyond the school walls. In Fourth Grade, this means a three-day trip out to Ashfield, MA to live and work as farmers.
Last year, for the first time, we partnered with the extraordinary farmer-educators at Red Gate Farm. We knew this would be an incredible culmination to the Fourth Grade study of botany, food, and farming, letting the students live the ideas they had been reading and talking about. None of us could have predicted, though, just how ardently the students would commit themselves. In small work teams, they cleared invasive bramble from an acre of pasture, planted seedlings, herded sheep, and mucked out the goat stalls, often voluntarily working well into their allotted free-time. By the end of our stay, our students–many of whom had theatrically balked at the thought of dirt and dung and chores–emerged looking and sounding like seasoned field hands.
One of Dr. Montessori's key insights, over one-hundred years ago, was that, given the right environment and supports, children cannot fail to lean (and that teachers who ignore the child's agency cannot hope to succeed). At Kingsley, we always strive to keep this at the core of our pedagogy. Our inaugural Farm School experience is a wonderful example of this done well.