Aster Montessori is part of Wildflower Schools, a decentralized network of independent schools that follow a shared approach to learning and organization. Wildflower is an open-source approach to Montessori learning developed at the MIT Media Lab. Its aim is to be an experiment in a new learning environment, blurring the boundaries between home-schooling and institutional schooling, between scientists and teachers, between schools and the neighborhoods around them. At the core of Wildflower are the following 9 principles that define the approach, and that inform our philoshopy and decisions at Aster Montessori School.
An Authentic Montessori Environment
Providing a peaceful, mixed-age, child-directed environment
In identifying Montessori as our guide for Wildflower schools, we were drawn to the unique combination of a few factors. The Montessori Method emphasizes the potential of the child, if served well, to change the world. We value its intrinsic respect for that potential, its promotion of peaceful communities, and its specific pedagogical structures. As a model which prioritizes the development of the individual child, we value the balance of Montessori’s scientific approach to children’s development and its assertion that childhood is a unique period of growth to be protected at its own pace.
A Shopfront, Neighborhood-nested Design
Committed to remaining small, integrated in the community, and responsive to the needs of children
Inspired by the work of Christopher Alexander, Wildflower schools are shopfront schools that consist of a single classroom, with the faculty both teaching in the classroom and administrating the needs of the school. By preserving a small scale, teachers are able to make decisions in their day-to-day teaching that respond to the intellectual needs of the children, and are able to make decisions on a school-wide basis that respond to their own vision and the contextual needs of the families. The shopfront model also allows these communities to seamlessly integrate into neighborhoods. Children are visible in the community as they walk to and from school, to their local playground or garden, and to civic spaces that would otherwise be on-site in a larger institution.
A Lab School
A research setting dedicated to advancing the Montessori Method in the context of the modern world
Each of the Wildflower schools serves as a lab school to help us better understand and advance the Montessori Method, and to help us propose empirically-supported design for new materials. We seek to integrate modern technologies in observation and documentation without changing the concrete, didactic nature of the classroom itself. We further seek to refine the development of Montessori-consistent apparatuses that prepare children for the cognitive patterns of modern fluencies.
A Seamless Learning Community
Blurring the boundaries of home-schooling and institutional schooling
Wildflower schools look for ways in which children’s home, school, and community environments can offer more seamless experiences, reflecting consistent perspectives on children’s development and engaging them as authentic contributors in each setting. We believe that parents and families offer a knowledge about children which is equally important to the professional preparation of teachers, and seek opportunities for parent-knowledge to inform classroom practice and teacher-knowledge to inform the home.
Giving the children opportunities to observe and interact with adults doing day-to-day creative work
Because we believe that children learn best in environments that model lifelong learning and creativity, we engage artists-in-residence in each of our schools. We offer the artists studio space within the schools in a place that is accessible to the children, who can see them doing the work of their lives. In exchange, artists offer their work back to the classroom weekly, teaching children about their craft and helping children to develop their own skills. Through the artist-in-residence program, we seek to increase the awareness of the inner lives of children available to artists of all kinds and to protect children’s understanding that learning and creating can happen throughout their lives and beyond their formal school experiences.
A Spirit of Generosity
Setting aside a substantial part of the tuition base towards financial aid and being an involved member of the community
High-quality educational models all too often are limited to those families that can afford high tuition. This dynamic, coupled with the true costs of a high-quality education, lead to an increasing discrepancy in educational outcomes between families with and without resources. Wildflower seeks to address this discrepancy by limiting the financial demands of the schools by maintaining small programs, and identifying creative economic models that meet those demands, including early experiments with gift and sharing economies. In decision-making, we assess whether new structures will increase or restrict access to the programs for children across socioeconomic and other demographics.
An Attention to Nature
Emphasizing the non-separation between nature and human nature through a unique living-classroom design and extensive time in nature
It is both a contemporary imperative and an essential quality of our design that we think proactively about the impact of our work on the environment around us. By limiting the footprint of each school to a storefront, we necessarily limit the availability of private, outdoor space. Instead, we design the interior of the school to allow children to learn to care for their living environment and to surround them with abundant plant life. We site schools near to public play spaces and work with city partners to design sustainable urban gardens for which the school and neighborhood community can care. We carefully consider the materials used in the classroom and choose sustainable, nontoxic and earth-friendly options. Finally, we maintain nutritional standards that are earth-conscious and protect natural, healthful diets for children.
A Role in Shaping the Neighborhood
Working with the community to improve local parks, streets, and establishments to create an urban environment that is healthier for children
Wildflower schools should change the way their immediate communities function and, as a part of a larger network, change the nature of their entire cities. The integration of children and families into the daily fabric of the neighborhood, we believe, will influence the lives of other neighbors, the questions asked in other educational settings, and the priorities of policymakers. We implement, then, structures that make our work transparent to their communities and expand who we define as “stakeholders” to include more than just the families we serve. From opportunities for passers-by to stop and observe the classrooms to the presence of children in local eateries, from the public gardens we create and tend, to the regular, open information sessions to inform our community about our work, we judge our approach not only by its influence on enrolled children and their families but also on the city beyond our rolls.
An Open-Source Design and Decentralized Network
Advancing an ecosystem of independent Wildflower schools that mutually support one another
Finally, we recognize that issues of scale — including increased centralized decision-making, larger administrative bureaucracies and operational overhead — decrease the autonomy available to individual classrooms. At the same time, we value the practical benefits of a community of learners and professionals working together, and the economic efficiencies that can arise from shared resources. To balance those concerns, each school sees itself as a node in a network, maintaining autonomy in school-level decision-making while able to access the resources of the network when those resources are useful and compelling to the school. Reciprocally, each school also sees itself not only as responsible for its own operations, but as responsible for helping other schools in the network, and for helping other interested family groups to start their own Wildflower schools.
What is Montessori?
Maria Montessori’s original observations of children, over one hundred years ago, stand true today: that children are naturally good, naturally peaceful, and naturally motivated to learn. The scientific principles of observation, analysis, reflection and action helped her to develop specific materials and methods for serving children. We believe these same principles can be used in Montessori classrooms today, to serve the children in the environment and to help translate Montessori’s original vision to the demands of our modern world.
Who Was Maria Montessori
Maria Montessori was an Italian physician and educational theorist in the early twentieth century whose observations of children revolutionized the field of early childhood education. One of the first female physicians in Italy, Montessori had few opportunities to practice medicine and found herself working in large institutions with individuals with intellectual impairments. Montessori applied the same principles of the scientific method to her practice with young children in the institution, experimenting with materials, language and learning structures until she identified a strategy through which the institutionalized children were able to pass and excel on state achievement tests. Her curiosity led her to apply these same strategies with typically developing children although she remained limited in the environments open to her work.
In 1906, Montessori convinced the owner of a tenement house in San Lorenzo, Rome, to give her the use of one of the apartments in the building in exchange for her promise to tend to the children of working families during the day. The first Montessori school was born.
What's Unique about Montessori
A physical environment designed to be accessible to the children: from the size of the chairs to the height of the ceilings, each component of a Montessori classroom is ideally designed to create a “children’s house,” complete with everything a child needs for his or her independence at a scale appropriate for the child.
Concrete, didactic, self-correcting materials: the Montessori materials are truly the shining stars of the Montessori classrooms. From simple materials that introduce pouring grains and spooning beans to advanced materials that expand on complex mathematical principles, the Montessori materials are designed to allow independent exploration of complicated concepts. Because the materials are so carefully designed to match what we understand about children’s development, the concepts included often surpass the content we typically expect of young children. High-quality, beautiful materials entice the child to explore challenging concepts in ways that reflect specific qualities of children’s growth.
A multiage environment within which children typically spend three years: the multiage classroom allows children to learn from each other, to explore a variety of social roles in authentic ways, and to cycle through periods of extraordinary growth and reassuring rest. Over the course of three years, children are learners and teachers, leaders and followers, sometimes engaged in independent work and sometimes engaged in work with other children. By the end of the three years, the child’s confidence, self-efficacy and ability to collaborate with others reflects these invaluable experiences as part of a reliable community.
Specially educated teachers: the Montessori teacher’s role differs from that of a traditional teacher. Montessori teachers are expected to act as scientists in the classroom, carefully observing each child’s development to prepare an environment which is specifically responsive to the needs of the children it serves. Montessori teachers facilitate children’s curiosity by matching individual lessons to individual children.
Child-centered and child-directed curriculum: In an carefully prepared environment rich in high quality materials and supported by expert teachers, the curriculum can closely follow the interests and rhythms of each child. Children choose the materials of interest to them and are introduced to new materials in the classroom when they are developmentally appropriate for the child. The teacher’s role is especially important to this model: teachers must be able to observe children carefully to determine the subtle cues that indicate a child’s readiness for differing work and must document each child’s development to assure steady and balanced development.