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February 11, 2019 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Experimenting with Montessori in the College Classroom

When my first child enrolled in preschool, I started to get interested in Montessori approaches to education. As a pedagogical practice, Montessori approaches have largely focused on preschool and elementary education, but there’s a growing interest in finding ways to apply Montessori approaches to higher education — through middle and high school, as well as in the university classroom. In Fall 2018, I taught a small Social Studies of Science and Technology class where I decided to experiment with a more Montessori-like approach. At its heart, Montessori education seeks to instill in students the ability to ask their own questions of the course material, and to facilitate their finding answers to those questions. Rather than impose expectations of content from above through the lecturer-expert instructor, a Montessori approach seeks to create a more symmetrical relationship between the instructor and students. Overall, it seemed to work pretty well.

That would be Theseus following Ariadne’s thread straight into the Minotaur’s lair. A bit of a metaphor, maybe?

The course ended up only having five students (down from a peak of 13), and they were sophomores and juniors, only one of whom was an Anthropology major (which matters only because it was an Anthropology class, ostensibly). I declined to put General Education distributions on the class, which likely kept the enrollment low since students are Gen Ed hungry at my institution. I have a sneaking suspicion that the format of the class might have also turned off some students, especially since my recent experience is that many students just want to be lectured to (hence my experimenting with a format like this). As a result, I thought the class was a little too small, and that a larger class (more like 12-15 students) would have worked better. As it was, one student was really engaged, and most of the other students seemed to be along for the ride… (You can see a copy of the final version of the syllabus here, as well as a list of the guiding questions and threshold prompts.)

This is how I structured the class: We started by reading a book that I hoped would set the tone for the class, and also help the students generate a list of “guiding questions.” That book was James Jones’ Bad Blood, which is about the Tuskegee syphilis “experiment” and the long history of medical and scientific abuses of racialized bodies in the United States. It raises all sort of questions about race, objectivity, data, ethics, media, and methodology, and is written for a pretty general audience. We took a class period to watch Nova’s The Deadly Deception episode, which interviews Jones and brings the book’s project up to date (circa 1993). We then took a day in class to generate a list of guiding questions that would help frame the next section of class. This all took about a week and a half.

As we prepared for the next section of class, we read the Introductions (and sometimes first chapters) of several books — Helen Verran’s Science and an African Logic, Kim TallBear’s Native American DNA, Priscilla Song’s Biomedical Odysseys, Warwick Anderson’s Colonial Pathologies, and Mario Biagioli’s Science Studies Reader. My goals in doing so were to give the students a sense of the breadth of possible topics that might be covered, as well as the shared mission of science studies scholars. We spent a lot of time talking about methods and the citational practices of each of the authors. Who was being cited, how were they being cited, and what specific articles, chapters, or books were being discussed?

That led us to generate a list of author names and readings that we used our guiding questions to shape. As much as we could, we relied on the Science Studies Reader to provide us with readings, which was easy for a lot of the most canonical content (e.g. Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, etc.). It also led us to select readings from the Science Studies Reader that I normally wouldn’t have picked, but which made sense given our guiding questions. Toward the end of this section, we again took a day to generate a list of updated guiding questions, which revised the earlier list with some nuance and added several new questions.

At this point, the students had their first assessment, a written Threshold assignment. Each of the Thresholds — and there were two more throughout the semester — posed a big question and asked the students to pair guiding questions to it in the search of an answer. Students were free to use any of the course materials from the preceding section by way of providing their answer, and could pair the guiding questions in any way they wanted to. Over time, they had more and more guiding questions to draw from, and at only one point did I ask them not to use a specific guiding question (because they had all used it once already) in a Threshold paper.

Since I had demonstrated to them how to go about finding readings associated with the guiding questions (through our citation tracking), the next section of the class was curated by the students. They picked guiding questions they wanted to seek answers to, and I paired them together based on their shared interests. In a larger class, the groupings would have been larger, and this section of the class would have lasted longer. Each student was responsible for presenting a reading to the class, and they could draw on any of the books we had on hand, as well as articles and book chapters they located through library searches. The result was way more diverse than I would have ever planned — they picked scholars, topics, and readings that I had never encountered.

The presentations — like all student presentations — were a mixed bag. But when I needed to, I intervened to keep things on track and get students to think about the connections between the stuff they had picked and the other course content. And throughout the course, I sometimes stepped into the role of lecturer, especially when they were encountering difficult content for the first time. This didn’t stop during the presentations, but I tended to use my interventions sparingly and definitely let students feel the pressure of being underprepared.

Because the group was rather small, the time I had set aside in the syllabus for student presentations was too much. As we approached the end of the student presentations, I asked the students what they were curious about and we generated a list of topics. It ended up resolving into a section on bodies as epistemic objects, and we covered a wide variety of kinds of bodies, from the microbial to the human to the planetary.

Opening the class to student curiosities — and supporting their labor — definitely resulted in a different class than I would have planned on my own. That said, in many ways the kinds of questions and answers the students generated were along the lines I had hoped they would be, but the ways they chose to get there varied (especially in terms of the readings they chose). A larger version of the same class would have probably been much more dynamic. I doubt such an approach would work for a class larger than ~25 students, but maybe…? If you experiment with classroom approaches like this, let me know — I’m really curious about how it might be refined.

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