I've had a tab with this article open in my browser all week. It's been a busy week, and I haven't had a moment of downtime to get around to reading it.

In "Promoting Online Learners’ Social-Emotional Growth: A Montessori Perspective", Catherine Barber explores how principles of Montessori education, developed for children, can be applied in for adult online learning. She writes:

Although Montessori (2014) is widely known for her work with young children, her principles for creating learning environments are highly relevant to online course creation for adult learners in higher education. The Montessori learning environment has the following characteristics: structure and order, intellectual stimulation, freedom, beauty, real experiences, and sense of community (Lillard, 1972).

The short article is really worth a read. Barber explores how each of those characteristics (structure and order, intellectual stimulation, freedom, beauty, real experiences, and sense of community) produce meaningful education and how they can be applied in a context often imagined to be dull, uninspired, low-quality, and perfunctory. (Of course: I don't believe online education is or should be any of those things)

What would change if we decided that freedom and beauty should be central in course design?

I have a sort of unique perspective on this question. Though I now work as an instructional designer - where expectations often are to prepare, plan, and anticipate what students will learn - I've been trained as a feminist teacher and most of my educational experiences have been entirely unplanned. I went to traditional public schools for K-12, but for my undergraduate education, I attended Hampshire College - a place where I was pushed to design my own educational path. For grad school, the situation was similar. A syllabus in my graduate courses was often little more than a reading list: under-designed to allow for our own exploration. Freedom was a central principle - but often without much structure and order.

Sure: there were norms about what happens in a seminar and what a seminar paper looked like - but our education was not prescriptive much beyond these requirements. This normalized "structure and order" maybe was too constricting in limiting the ways we thought about scholarship in the end.

In the past, I would have had a knee-jerk negative reaction to "structure and order," but I love the idea of building in enough structure to allow students to feel freedom. From Barber again:

An online course that is well-organized, with clear and predictable navigation, builds learners’ confidence in their ability to succeed. Furthermore, when materials and activities are presented in a logical and coherent order, learners are better able to make connections among topics and integrate their knowledge. Such connections contribute to learners’ ability to think critically and to apply their knowledge to new situations.

Put this way, "structure and order" is really the support that students need in order to have the mental space to think. It's making sure that the infrastructure holds them up and maybe even becomes invisible to them - to give space to explore, apply, and create.

Anyway - I just requested The Montessori Method from the library. I'm looking forward to reading it. Also on my bookshelf right now:

more from the blog

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