As at any other age level in Montessori, the emphasis is on cultivating the student’s capacity and motivation to be independent and lifelong learners. Our experience is that passion is what fuels the pursuit of knowledge. Since each student is unique, and passionate about different things at different times, the emphasis in the Montessori approach is to create an environment in which students have freedom to pursue their interests, under the mentorship of a Guide who ensures they are growing in intelligence, skills and knowledge.
There is an atmosphere of delight in discovery; that knowledge isn’t a burden but a privilege, and that learning is fun. Faculty (called “Guides”) offer lessons to individuals or small groups, based on their interests, needs and capacities. These lessons are typically (though not always) related to work for which the adolescent is showing strong interest and engagement and allows them to go further and deeper.
Motivation for learning
The lived experience of working on the land provides adolescents with an endless series of motivations for academic study focused on both nature and civilisation.
For instance, we needed to have a system in place to process food waste from the kitchen. We wanted to be sure that any food waste we generated would be treated in the most environmentally-friendly way possible. Our simultaneous need to purchase compost for the walled garden led to an obvious solution: to make our own compost. An exploration of composting techniques led us to a Japanese technique called Bokashi. Very quickly the young people became conversant with aerobic and anaerobic digestion, the kinds of bacteria in organic matter, the composting cycle, questions of acidity, the composition of soil, local geology and so on. The practical dimension made the whole business more interesting, and all the more because it met a real need.
There is something very powerful about experiencing for oneself that study has purpose, that what is being learned has meaning. And when adolescents feel their work has meaning, they are prepared to work very hard.
Ownership of learning
The Guide meets with each student regularly, initially weekly and then as often as the student needs. The purpose of these one-to-one meetings is for the student to take increased ownership of their learning and be increasingly responsible for deciding how to use their time. The Guide facilitates this process, providing greater or lesser structure and direction for the fortnight and months ahead, depending on the individual student, in light of their longer-term goals. The Guide’s objective is to help the student manage their time well, keeping the educational objective in mind.
The meetings are an opportunity for the student to discuss where they are in their work, what they would ideally like to continue working on over the next couple of weeks, and what additional support they need from the Guide and other faculty during that period. They are also an opportunity for the Guide to suggest areas for further study, and to schedule in lessons or practice time that the faculty think necessary or beneficial for the student’s progress.
These one-to-one meetings between student and Guide form the backbone of the bespoke education offered in the Young People’s Community.
Independent and collaborative study
A large open-plan study area is the focal point for this work, prepared with relevant educational materials for the different subjects: probeware for Science, artefacts for History, or manipulative materials for Maths. The study area includes a library in a beautiful conservatory, an art and craft studio, a workshop and an integrated science laboratory. Within this study area subject specialists deliver one-to-one and small group lessons, and facilitate seminars that add diversity and depth to the students’ fields of interest.
In the Montessori approach, the day is structured around uninterrupted time called “work cycles”. These are blocks of time that are open-ended. All classroom learning takes place within the structure of the work cycle. There are no bells that ring after 45 minutes, and there is no fixed weekly schedule for what happens within those work cycles. Each individual works at their own pace, each spending time learning what they need to learn, under the mentorship of their Guide and with the support of the faculty.
The (non-resident) young people’s community has two work cycles: two sets of 3 hours (in the morning and afternoon). These open ended blocks of time are fundamental to the Montessori approach. Lessons are given to individual or small groups during the work cycle. These are mainly spontaneous with the young children, partly scheduled with the older children, and mainly scheduled with the adolescents. For adolescents, these schedules are determined in the one-to-one meetings with their Guide, as described earlier.
Students have all the time they need to work independently or collaboratively within and across work cycles. Freedom from fixed schedules means that students are able to work for lengths of time on projects that interest them. Their work becomes very individual, based on their personalities, their interests, their motivations, and their life experiences. They take pride in their work because they feel a sense of ownership over it, and this is reflected in the quality & attention to detail they bring to their work.
Preparation for the next stage
Students are prepared to sit their GCSEs at age 16. Throughout their time in the Young People’s Community the course content of different GCSE subjects is made available. We draw upon the National Extension College (NEC) iGCSE course materials, making adaptations where appropriate to draw on the benefit of the experience of other Montessori secondary school programmes, on the particular features of the woodland and walled garden itself, and on the local community more generally.
By 15 or 16 they have typically developed a clearer sense of the contribution they wish to make as an adult and have been given an understanding of the qualifications that are required to enter a particular field. We require students to sit their English Language (Edexcel), English Literature (Edexcel), and Mathematics (CIE) iGCSEs, and optionally Combined Science (CIE) iGCSE. Other GCSEs are offered upon request, provided that suitable staff with the appropriate qualifications and experience can be found.
We will be registering as an examination centre to ensure that our students can sit their GCSEs on our premises, where they will feel most at ease. From age 15 students will be practising with past examination questions, gaining experience in answering questions under examination conditions. Throughout this experience the emphasis is on challenging students to constantly stretch themselves and be the best they can be, going beyond the ‘limits’ of the set iGCSE curriculum. We hold as fundamental the vital importance of meeting each student first and foremost as a whole and unique human being with many different facets, including the spiritual.
Subject specialists continue to offer lessons: these are now more explicitly tied to progression through the course syllabus. Each student works with their Guide to prepare a personalised study plan that tracks their progress through the syllabus. The Guide discusses each student’s progress with the teaching faculty, and then meets with the student to help them plan their schedule including scheduling in lessons that they need to progress in their work.
The student’s experience up to this point has often taken them beyond the required standard. Most importantly their capacity to be self-motivated and self-directed in their studies allows them to master the course content with relative speed and ease.
Students regularly leave the Young People’s Community on day visits to meet with experts in different fields to extend and test out their ideas. Towards the latter part of their time here, these experiences may take the form of internships. Sometimes these are with the view to explore a particular career, but more often the purpose of the placements is to touch and experience the lives of ordinary people and so to come into contact with the adult society they are about to enter.