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.

Designing a Syllabus

It’s easy to underestimate how much time and thought a syllabus absorbs, but they demand a lot of attention, especially because they’re one of the most direct mechanisms to communicate with students. People sometimes dismiss that long syllabus, but I’m definitely on the other side of the divide: I try and make my syllabuses as comprehensive as I possibly can — in part to make sure that I have a place to point to when students have questions, but, more importantly, to head those questions off altogether. I also find that the more I teach a class, the more I refine and scaffold the syllabus, the closer it gets to inspiring new courses and scholarship.

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After I figure out what the class is topically concerned with, I tend to start by thinking about what kinds of assessments are being used, and that usually depends on the level of the course. If it’s a lower division course or an introductory course, I tend to use exams, and schedule one every 4-5 weeks in a term. If it’s an upper division course, I still use exams — but I space them out more and offer students other options for assessment. So, for my upper division students, I usually allow them — by petition — to write a research paper or write periodic precis of the course content. This allows more advanced, specialized students to focus their attention on a more meaningful project — but, like students taking the exams, they still have scheduled deadlines for various part of the project. You can see exams of an introductory syllabus here (Intro to Cultural Anthropology: ANTH 166 2016) and a more advanced syllabus here (Medical Anthropology: ANTH 134 2014). The one exception to this upper division structure is when it’s a required course, and in those cases I still stick with exams, which tend to be more essay oriented (like this upper division survey of anthropological theory, ANTH 152 2015). In any case, when I use exams, they tend to have short, take home essays (like 2-3 pages) as well as short answer portions — in my attempt to meet every students’ test-taking strengths and weaknesses.

I find that having the schedule of the assessments helps to provide an outline for the content of the course — so if an exam happens every 4 weeks, within the preceding 4 weeks, I’ll try and cover 2, 2-week units, or 4 1-week units. If we have a big conceptual unit, I work to consolidate it all on one side of an assessment. I work with the assumption that students can bomb an assessment (if they take a month off, say), but they should be able to get back on track with the next assessment if they get back in the saddle. So my assessments tend to be non-comprehensive — they only include the material since the last assessment, with the exception of the final exam. Generally speaking, these assessments make up about half of a student’s final grade, and I structure the grade so that even if the student scores only 50% on all of this material, he or she can still pass with a C — as long as they complete all of the other work in the class.

The rest of the grade in most of my classes is based on attendance (usually no more than 10%, and typically only for attending section, not lecture — unless it’s a seminar and I can take attendance), with the lion’s share being some form of reading comprehension assignment. In lower division classes, I tend to use a single reading question for each reading, which students answer through an online portal (like Blackboard or Sakai) — it tends to be a question to help the student focus on a key point in the reading, and to integrate it with things that we’ve discussed in class or that he or she has encountered in other readings. So, for example, it might ask a student to define a theory in the present reading and compare it to a concept from another reading; or the question might ask the student to define a concept from another reading and support it with evidence from the present reading. If it’s an upper division course, I tend to use reading guides, which ask the students to identify the author’s thesis, discuss the evidence used and how it relates to the thesis, attempt to identify the debates the author is engaging in and with whom, and, ultimately, to articulate whether they find the piece compelling. In both cases, I find that these kinds of assignments prepare students for coming to class ready to discuss the content at a level appropriate to the class, and they also serve to create an ongoing study guide for the class. By the end of the term, if the student has completed these reading assignments, she or he has a large body of notes they can draw from to prepare for any final exam or final project.

I’ve discussed elsewhere how I choose readings for a class, so I won’t go into that much here. Basically, at the lower division, I tend to choose an article or book chapter for each day (about 25-30 pages); less than that, and I find it hard to have much to lecture on or discuss with students. At the upper division, I tend to assign about 5 readings per week, with more of them being due early in the week. So, for example, if it’s a Tuesday and Thursday class, I’ll ask students to read 3 readings for Tuesday, with 2 for Thursday (assuming they have more time on the weekend to do schoolwork, which isn’t always true). If the reading is especially dense or theoretical, I tend to use about 20-25 pages worth, and have it be the sole reading for the day — or I might pair it with an illustrative example that’s easy to read and see the application of the theory in. One thing I try and avoid is reading a whole book with students over 2-3 weeks of the class.  I find that after a day or two talking about the book, they stop reading it, and only get back into it at the very end of the section. Instead, I use chapters from throughout a book over the course of the term — so selections from the books will be paired with other readings thereby — maybe — illuminating the relationships between the books and other existing scholarship. The exceptions to this are when we’re reading a whole book over 1 or 2 weeks in class, and the contents of the book are such that they give us a lot to discuss on a daily basis.

I usually fill 2 single-spaced pages with various policies for the class, from discussions of academic misconduct and learning services on campus, to proper citational practices, my work expectations for students, and rules about when and how students can contact me. The most important of these is the last: I have a window for answering emails, usually first thing in the morning, Monday through Friday. Emails received after the window are responded to the following day, and emails received on Friday are responded to on Monday. I also tell students that I don’t respond to student emails if the information they’re seeking is in the syllabus. Since implementing that policy, the amount of student email I’ve received has been reduced by 90%. Some students erroneously think I don’t want to communicate with them, but I try and make clear to them that I do — just only during certain times, since answering student email is a very small part of my overall professional responsibilities.

One policy I’ve tried in the past, and may very well revisit in the future, is a Good Faith grade. The idea is this: if a student turns in all of the assignments on time and minimally complete, she or he can receive no lower than a C in the course. The couple of times I’ve used this policy, no one who was failing the class had turned in all of the assignments on time, so they were ineligible for the Good Faith grade. But I did find that students seemed to like me more when there was a very straight forward policy on how to do a minimal amount of work and still pass the class.

Ultimately, I take a ‘no surprises’ approach to the syllabus: I try and get as much into it as possible so that students aren’t taken off guard by assignments, expectations, policies, or the schedule. Making the syllabus as clear as I can — which can sometimes mean 15 page syllabuses — helps save me time over the course of the term (and maybe does the same for students).

Other tips or questions? Post them in the comments below.