Science in a Montessori Middle School Classroom
by Megan Knight, Middle School Team Lead and STEM Teacher
In the world of science education, there is much discussion about “hands-on” learning and a focus on the scientific method. However, the standards that drive so much of the science learning across the nation don’t allow any time for a real scientific process. Science standards are generally centered on factual knowledge. An example from the Virginia Standards of Learning for Physical Science reads: “The student will investigate and understand states and forms of energy and how energy is transferred and transformed.” This is all well and good; except that the way students are tested on mastery of the standard is typically a series of multiple-choice questions that focus on minute details of overarching topics (such as energy transfer). As a result, even though we love the idea of teaching the scientific process, most science classrooms become a survey course of a particular area of science, and very little real science ever happens. Classes are filled with lectures, textbook readings, practice questions and the like. Any hands-on science ends up consisting of prescribed labs in which students simply follow a recipe-like procedure for which there is a “correct” result.
Science Fairs are common at most secondary schools, and ideally, they would provide an outlet for students to participate in a real scientific process. But if students are not learning that process in the classroom, it is a challenge for them to figure it out on their own through an extra project. My first year at RMS, I decided that I would absorb the Science Fair project for middle school into the curriculum and classroom. Because we are an independent Montessori school, I had the freedom and flexibility to do so without negatively impacting students’ preparation for a state exam.
That first year was eye-opening for me. One particular student decided she was interested in studying Snell’s Law, which describes how light bends when it moves from one medium to another (think of a pencil looking “broken” because it is sitting in a cup of water). I watched her research the topic and create an experimental design. I watched her as things went unexpectedly wrong and she had to figure out why. And finally, many packets of Jell-O mix and a couple of laser pointers later, I watched her analyze results that were in agreement with the research she had done. At the end of the process, that student knew Snell’s law inside and out, and she will likely remember many of the details for years to come. But beyond that, she also gained a sense of herself and what she is capable of.
That year I decided I would work toward creating a science curriculum that more fully focused on this process. As I went through my training to become a credentialed secondary Montessori teacher, I realized that teaching science in this way supports Valorization of the Personality. Valorization is the term Maria Montessori used to describe “the adolescent’s process of becoming a strong and worthy person.” (Donahoe) Adolescents are on the precipice of adulthood. They want to know that they are capable and that they have something of value to bring to the world. In childhood, pure curiosity can motivate learning. Adolescents have a need to make a “direct contribution to society and have it recognized.” (Montessori) This desire, if properly nurtured, ultimately leads them into a vocation that will provide meaning and purpose in their adult lives.
The true work of scientists is contribution, whether it is working toward finding a cure for a disease, designing new technologies, or simply adding to our overall understanding of the universe. And the science classroom for the adolescent should be a place where students can practice participating in this work. The National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA) actually states that for students the middle years (which they define as 5th to 9th grade) is “a pivotal time in their understanding of and enthusiasm for science.” They go on to say that “research has shown that if educators don’t capture students’ interest and enthusiasm in science by grade 7, students may never find their way back to science.” (NSTA Position Statement)
Going into my fourth year at RMS, we now have in place a fully investigative and hands-on process for learning science. This process is also in line with the NSTA’s recommendation that the science classroom should “engage students in laboratory investigations a minimum of 80 percent of the science instruction time.” (NSTA Position Statement) We still do several units of study that are more traditional for learning common content, but the focus is now shifted toward the scientific process. Students have a science folder that includes packets of checklists and descriptive handouts for each step of the scientific method. These handouts help to guide students as they work, independently or in pairs, to complete investigations from the initial conception all the way to a formal lab report and presentation of their findings. Throughout the year they are expected to complete at least six investigations and to cover particular topics as outlined by the teacher. For example, this year students will need to do at least one investigation related to force and motion.
Science at a Private School in Richmond, VA
The ultimate goal is that our students leave RMS with a deep understanding of the scientific process, including all of the struggles and mishaps that inevitably arise. However, beyond that, our hope is that learning science in this way leaves them with a profound sense of their capacity to contribute to the world around them, whether they ultimately become scientists or not.
Not all private schools in Richmond, VA take this unique approach to teaching middle school science in this way. Contact Us to learn more about how Richmond Montessori’s teaching strategy differs from other private schools in Richmond.
Donahoe, Marta. “Valorization of the Personality.” Liberty and Hope for the Adolescent: Valorization of the Personality (n.d.): n. pag. Cmstep.org. Web.
Montessori, Maria. “The Four Planes of Education | AMI USAAMI USA.” The Four Planes of Education | AMI USAAMI USA. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
“NSTA Position Statement.” : Science Education for Middle School Level Students. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.