How Seinfeld and Maria Montessori influence me as an educator #twistedpair

I really like the way Terry Elliott started his #twistedpair post and so I’m going to re-use his opening:

In the spirit of infinite play I am following a recent prompt from Steve Wheeler.

Thanks to Steve Wheeler’s blogging challenge I not only have a reason to write but also something different to contribute to our professional exchange at school (more about that later). Steve’s post paired Socrates and Julie Andrews as influences on his teaching. Terry Elliott paired Epictetus and Mojo Nixon.

Are there any other strange (twisted) pairs that would inspire people to write thoughtful blog posts on education and learning? Well, if anyone is up for this challenge, here are a few very strange pairings to get you going. I bet you can think of loads more.

Batman and John Dewey
Michaelangelo and you
Paulo Freire and the Hunchback of Notre Dame
Eddie Izzard and Pavlov’s dogs
Jack Sparrow and Nelson Mandela
Pablo Picasso and Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Micky Mouse and Adolf Hitler
Han Solo and Queen Elizabeth I
William Shakespeare and Buzz Lightyear
Marshall MacLuhan and Madonna
Tarzan and Jean Piaget
Paddington Bear and Barack Obama
Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Easter Bunny
Walt Disney and the Grim Reaper
Sir Winston Churchill and the entire cast of Frozen
Doctor Who and Snoopy
Jack Bauer and the Teletubbies
Mr Spock and Margaret Thatcher

So, challenge accepted albeit quite late (which doesn’t matter in the hashtag world). I’ve been reading some of the responses and enjoying the twisted pairings.

I’ll be talking about my #twistedpair in terms of myself as an educator. The teacher librarian role is different to the classroom teacher; I learn to locate and mine the best networks to glean and curate what is needed by teachers and students, so what I do every day to support teaching and learning depends a lot on my own learning and learning behaviours.

In a twisted way Seinfeld (the TV series) and Maria Montessori have influenced my thinking and development as an educator.

When my sons were very young (and I was also younger) I was switched onto (as all parents are) how my boys were awakened to the awareness of new things and how they responded to these things, how they were engaged and wanted to understand things and to develop knowledge of things. My boys were not alike in any way so I was able to observe two very different examples.

I was fascinated by the focus and determination to grasp, understand and expand knowledge, by the passion. Since I had been teaching in secondary school before that time (English, French and German) I could see the enormous difference between the desire to learn in children of preschool and early primary school age and the common disengagement with school and learning manifested in the secondary students.

I was determined to do everything I could to keep that desire for learning going in my boys for as long as I could. In my research I came across Montessori preschools/schools and the founder, Maria Montessori. Her description of Sensitive Periods in children interested me.

We have already seen that for Montessori, growth from conception to adulthood is not a vague “progressive accumulation of material”; nor an “inherent hereditary necessity”, shaped by our genes towards a limited set of pre-determined characteristics. Rather, she saw growth as “… a process meticulously guided by transient instincts which give an acute sensibility and an impulse towards specific forms of activity …”. Furthermore, these acute sensibilities and specific forms of activity “often differ very plainly from the activities of the individual in the adult state”.

Richard Restak offered a description of what could be happening at the cellular level during these “critical periods” or “windows of opportunity”: “… the brain literally creates itself during our earliest development. At various times in the developmental process from fetus to newborn to infant, nerve cells migrate, many die off, and many others stick to one another and send out processes whereby neuronal connections are formed and re-formed. ( in Brainscapes: An Introduction to What Neuroscience Has Learned about the Structure, Function, and Abilities of the Brain. New York: Hyperion, 1995, pp. 93-94. )

Origins of the Term The Dutch biologist and geneticist, Hugo DeVries (1848-1935), first identified and named Sensitive Periods in 1902, through his study of insects. In The Secret Of Childhood, Montessori cites DeVries’ example of a Sensitive Period in the caterpillar of the Porthesia butterfly. Here is Montessori’s description: (The caterpillar) must feed on very tender leaves, and yet the butterfly lays its eggs in the most hidden fork of the branch, near the trunk of the tree. Who will show the little caterpillars hidden there, the moment they leave the egg, that the tender leaves they need are to be found at the extreme tip of the branch, in the light? Now the caterpillar is strongly sensible to light; light attracts it, summons it as by an irresistible voice, fascinates it, and the caterpillar goes wriggling towards where the light is brightest, till it reaches the tip of the branch, and thus finds itself, famished for food, among the budding leaves that can give it nourishment. It is a strange fact that when the caterpillar has passed through its first stage and is full grown, it can eat other food, and then loses its sensibility to light. This has been proved in scientific laboratories where there are neither trees nor leaves but only the caterpillar and the light. 4

Montessori’s use of DeVries’ example of a Sensitive Period in the caterpillar made an impression on me, and I started to think about trusting the child’s innate, instinctive desire to learn. I appreciated the way that the Montessori classroom welcomed one child at a time to give the teacher time to guide the new child until he/she was familiar with the routines of the class. I liked the quiet order of the classroom which seemed to run itself while children appeared to be largely deciding their own order of activities and selecting whether they wanted to work on their own, in pairs or in small groups. The teacher would rarely address the whole class but instead chose which individual child or group to work with or guide. I saw children develop skills, knowledge and confidence through activities which embedded the discovery of knowledge and skills. For example, for the very young children (aged 3) there was an activity for which the child would fill a bowl with water and then place different objects into it and then observe whether they floated or sank.

Sometimes the teacher observed from a distance to make sure that children spread themselves across all types of activities (eg spelling, counting, science, art, etc.) over a period of time, and sometimes she took a more active role when new things were taught. The child who desperately wanted to concentrate on a particular activity was permitted to concentrate on this activity for as long as he/she was absorbed. In the mainstream classroom there is counter-intuitive interruption of activities and separation of separate ‘subjects’ into preordained time-slots. There is no willingness to allow a student the opportunity for deep learning during the period of intense desire for this type of learning.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t have this vision for learning because it creates a dissonance with everything school stands for. I wonder how we can expect engagement and a desire for learning when we have created a system and routine which cuts everything up into separate chunks and hurries them through a study program in preparation for tests and exams.

And now, to Seinfeld. I keep saying that there is at least one PhD in the series (and there are probably theses in existence). It seems you either love or hate Seinfeld. My family and I adore Seinfeld and happily watch repeat programs. I think that the writers of the program have a wonderful grasp of human behaviour, usually the things we try to conceal. The series identifies human quirks and failings or weaknesses and unpacks these in a very funny way. Somehow the humour and absurdity enhance and even intensify the illumination of these human frailties.

I like to think that teaching and the creation of teaching resources/lessons can be enhanced by humour and a sense of fun. And I like to amuse myself if I’m teaching, otherwise I bore myself. You don’t have to be entirely serious in your demeanour when exploring serious issues. I love the way you can always think of a Seinfeld episode that corresponds with situations in life. Seinfeld lovers share this language and quote from Seinfeld prolifically in the same way as some people quote the literary greats.

Maybe this is a wide sweep, but Maria Montessori and the Seinfeld series both use play to instruct. The Montessori classroom sets up an environment in which students play to explore and to construct understanding. In Seinfeld insights into character studies and life situations are beautifully illustrated through comedy. The playful depiction reveals complexities in a seemingly simple way. At school, also, play is an ideal vehicle for learning, not just teaching, and allows students/audience to discover their own understandings and expand on these in concert with others.

So, that’s my #twistedpair story. I decided to do a similar thing in a professional exchange session at school. Originally I was going to show different ways to annotate text online but then I thought – when do teachers get a chance to do something which they may have enjoyed doing – like writing – instead of always learning discrete skills which are all about their TEACHING.  This is how I justified this session in the Google doc:

Outcomes (and incomes):

  • to have fun (we deserve to once in a while)
  • to exercise that writing muscle
  • writing as modeling (not just marking)
  • creativity – another muscle
  • possible ideas for your own class
  • remember when you loved writing and then you became a teacher?

The only thing is I have a feeling I won’t have any takers. Will they think it’s not helpful/relevant?  Will they be afraid of the challenge? Do they think I’m nuts? We will see.

4 thoughts on “How Seinfeld and Maria Montessori influence me as an educator #twistedpair”

  1. When I my kids were young and we gathered around for bedtime we played a game called “Three Stories”. The game had simple rules: choose three random words and then make a story around those words. I would tell a story then they would tell stories. If I left a cliffhanger, they could either take it up from there with three new words or they could start anew. I would be hard pressed to retell any of those stories. Matters not. It was the spirit of infinite play. Minimal rules, maximal messing about.

    I love how you improvised from skills training to play. No justifications needed.

    Here’s a song that sprang to mind as I read:

    I like seeing the same genius loci here. Keep on!

  2. The playful activity of storytelling – love it, always have. There is not enough space for stories in schooling – we have so much analytical writing. Why have we become so serious, so play-poor? As a teacher librarian who hasn’t read fiction for a long time (don’t know why – so loved literature and studied it in 4 languages at Uni) but who reads everything else, I resent the ‘virtue’ associated with reading. Oh, you’re a librarian and you don’t read! No, I do read, just don’t read fiction. I think it’s because I like to discuss what I read, so at school and Uni we got to unpack stuff together, just like you annotate a lot and then share it out. Why should reading be a solitary activity to earn brownie points? Storytelling, reading, writing – it’s fun and even more fun with others.

    Will your kids tell stories with their children, I wonder?

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