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Get students to learn without teaching a thing

Where’s the Teacher?

This past week I had the opportunity to visit an extremely innovative school situated in the scenic Stanley region of Hong Kong. The school, International Montessori School of HK adheres to the Montessori philosophy of self- directed learning, with students as young as kindergarten charting their own learning paths; from researching topics of interest, to solving complex math problems with colorful manipulatives and hands- on sensorial materials.

What impressed me most was the overall sense of calm in the building. Students didn't run around aimlessly, waiting for an adult to pull them in line, nor did teachers direct the whole class in one shared topic, afraid to relinquish control. Instead, there were students who moved purposefully and seamlessly from one activity to the next, in uninterrupted intervals of time called "learning cycles."

When I taught kindergarten (very briefly), I could barely get the kids focused for 5 minutes let alone 2 1/2 hours!

So what was their secret? Were they simply dealing with super- human kids? Did they only accept child prodigies who could master two languages before their sixth birthday?


Their secret had nothing to do with superhuman ability, and everything to do with pedagogy. What I witnessed was the result of hours and weeks of professional development, steeped in research and data about how students learned best.

Every Montessori teacher is required to go through a two- year training that includes some part philosophy, and other parts implementation, so that when they step foot in the classroom, they can be strategic with every successive move.

And while there was neither the time nor ability to learn all of their secrets, I did learn a few. I hope that by sharing a few with you, it helps you create a classroom environment or develop your teachers (if you are an instructional coach) in a way that honors your most important contributors- your students.

Strategy #1: Make your classroom the “third teacher”

This philosophy has its deepest roots in the Reggio Emlia inspired schools of Italy. The idea is best defined best by one of its founders Lella Gandini: “In order to act as an educator for the child, the environment has to be flexible; (undergoing) frequent modification by the children and the teachers in order to remainup- to- date and responsive to their needs to be protagonists in constructing their knowledge.”

I love this idea.

The teacher, rather than being the disseminator of content, becomes a facilitator of learning experiences; organizing materials and space strategically to allow for students to construct their own meaning.

Like Reggio learning spaces, Montesorri classrooms are also very learner centered.

Upon stepping foot in the Montessori classrooms, I was struck by the diversity of activities students were engaged in. Some were working in partners to visualize square roots using colored pegs and a board; others were researching topics of interest through their choice of books; and even more were on computers, constructing presentations on the advancement of technology in the 21st century.

All materials were laid out purposefully to progress students from one activity or level to the next, with colored covers to indicate their level of difficulty.

Students were also responsible for finding their own space to work. Some students laid across the floor while others sat upright in small chairs, working methodically on their notes.

Strategy #2: Make kids responsible for their own self- reflection and growth

While I only spent a short day at the Montessori school, I observed a noticeable difference in the way Montessori instructors question their children. Their questioning leads students to discover answers for themselves and dive deeper into learning and self- growth.

A practical way to achieve this in your own context is to provide several opportunities for self- reflection and inquiry. Put students in charge of tracking their own data. Every time you administer a test or assessment, provide the opportunity for the student to also self- assess. Lead them in setting goals for improvement.

If you teach across multiple subject areas, ask students to pick an area of focus and set specific goals for development. This will ensure they are self- directed when it comes to open and extended learning time.

Finally, work with them to develop student managed portfolios while providing time for reflection to add samples of work, or upload documents to their online blog.

Strategy #3: Utilize Self- Paced Online Curriculum

While each Montessori classroom contained only six computers, of the six, four saw students engaged in online learning. Some students worked through online English curriculum while others improved computational abilities through online math.

Unlike a teacher who has limitations in how quickly they can provide feedback, online curriculum is able to offer feedback right away. If a student answers a question incorrectly, the program is able to isolate the error and identify exactly where the student probably went wrong. This feedback allows the student to self- correct and develop accordingly.

The role of the teacher is to manage and monitor growth with real time analytics that report back in a simplified portal. They can then use this data as a focal point for individualized conferences with students to set goals for improvement.

As teachers, we no longer have to do the hard work of developing differentiated content across a multitude of learning. Instead, we can focus on the more important work of helping students chart and monitor their own progress!

If you are interested in getting started with online learning, I suggest the following sites:

Khan Academy: Online math curriculum aligned to common core standards

IXL: Online language arts and math curriculum aligned to standards

Strategy #4: Trade in Manila Folders and The Teaching Planning Book for an LMS

Where do you manage the multitude of papers, curriculum and assignments you administer to students on a daily basis?

The days of manila folders, cumbersome filing cabinets and ’turn in boxes’ are over. With extremely dynamic and comprehensive LMS’s, management of a classroom can all take place in one central place.

For those unfamiliar with LMS’s, they are defined as “a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting and delivery of educational courses or training programs.” (Wikipedia)

They allow teachers the ability to assign work, create learning videos, make announcements, fill in calendars, provide feedback and grade work while allowing students to submit assignments, collaborate and communicate on tasks, and access resources.

Most importantly, they allow students to work through tasks at their own pace rather than wait for the teacher in the class to generate additional differentiated tasks or ‘extension assignments.'

I have dabbled with several systems and have found these two to be best:

Canvas: A customizable architecture and design that allows students to learn the way they want to.

Google Classroom: A great collaboration tool. Allows users to collaborate student to student or student to teacher. It’s a bit clunky as an LMS but extremely useful for feedback and collaboration in and out of the classroom.

Strategy #5: Small Group Instruction/ Pull out

In nearly every Montessori classroom I observed, the teacher was hard to find. This was by design. Rather than lecture or lead the class from the front of the room, the teacher’s purpose was to act as the ‘guide on the side;’ helping students with their most pressing needs.

In one classroom, the teacher sat on a small chair in front of small whiteboard, guiding students through a mini-lesson on sentence structure and parts of speech.

In another classroom, the teacher sat cross- legged with students on the floor, using a children’s book to introduce characterization and character development.

In small groups like these, the teacher is able to be more responsive to student needs, utilizing quick informal assessments to determine their level of understanding, and altering course if necessary.

By developing your students as self- directed learners through strategies #1 and #2, you can slowly remove yourself as the disseminator of content and assume this position of empathetic coach. You can also maximize the use of your time. Now, instead of taking a thousand papers home to grade, you can offer students feedback through individual conferences held during class.

In Closing:

It’s the end of the year: A time that most of us are running on fumes and counting down the days until the end of the year. Some of us barely have a spare minute let alone a thousand hours to devote to our own professional development. I get it. But I guarantee you that by adopting even just one of the strategies listed above, you will discover newfound inspiration and passion when many are just trying to survive.

Most importantly, it will put your students at the center of their own learning.

It doesn’t require knowing the entire path to take that important first step. Create a task list and conference with small group of students. Lay out some materials in the room with a directive/ objetive written on the front board. Pass back assessments and ask students to self- assess and reflect on next steps.

You can do it! You are incredible. Thanks for your commitment to the most important profession on the planet!

To your success!

Find out More:

To find out more about the International Montessori School of Hong Kong and philosophy for learning please follow the link below:

About the Author:

Kyle Wagner is a school improvement and innovation coach who empowers school leaders to lead change and deepen student learning through innovative strategies and teaming structures.

Find out more about how he can help your school innovate at or by sending him an e-mail at Or by purchasing his book "The Power of Simple" from Amazon.

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Kyle Wagner
School Transformation and Project- Based Learning Coach

I coach school leaders on how to lead change and improve student learning through simple, innovative srategies and teaming structures.

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