Don’t Interrupt the Concentrated Child: Talking with Dr. Steven Hughes about Neuroscience and Montessori

Don’t Interrupt the Concentrated Child: Talking with Dr. Steven Hughes about Neuroscience and Montessori

Valid and reliable scientific research and brain development theory should be the driving force behind any school system.

Sadly, in our country, that is too often not the reality. Too many of our nation’s schools are based on an industrial-era, conveyor-belt, “information-in, information-out” style. Missing in this antiquated approach is the child as an agent and the child as an engaged, responsible, and confident citizen and leader.

We are incredibly fortunate that this is not missing at Greensboro Montessori School. We are fortunate that our pedagogy, our methodology, and our very way of learning, thinking, and being are based in sound scientific theory and research. Dr. Maria Montessori saw to that.

Maria Montessori was a scientist. She was a physician, educator, feminist, barrier-breaker, and innovator who utilized scientific observation and experience working with young children to design learning materials and a classroom environment which foster a child’s natural desire to learn. Dr. Montessori opened her first school (Casa dei Bambini) in 1907, and today there are close to 4,000 certified Montessori schools in the United States and about 7,000 worldwide. She developed a school movement that is perfectly in-line with what modern science and today’s neuroscience research confirm our children need.

Even though the field of modern neuroscience and brain research did not exist during her time, her theories and methodologies have withstood the test of time, and today neuroscience and brain research fully support the Montessori methodology. Our recent professional development visit with Dr. Steven Hughes brought together the worlds of Montessori schooling, brain development, and research. Dr. Hughes is a board-certified pediatric neuropsychologist and past president of The American Academy of Pediatric Neuropsychology. His research interests are on what promotes the growth of executive functions, social-emotional skills, and moral reasoning. Additionally, he and his wife have had a longstanding relationship with Montessori: she is an Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) trainer throughout Europe, and Steve is the founding chair of the Association Montessori International Global Research Committee. Adding Steve’s voice to our ongoing dialogue about how we can provide the best Montessori experience possible was exceptionally valuable to us. Over two full days, we had affirmations of what we do, challenging conversations, new inspirations, and reinvigorated aspirations.

Steve framed many of his remarks around what research has shown students really need for success in life. Yes, good grades on tests are helpful as they create access to future opportunities, but good grades on tests alone are not the most important thing. Research shows they are not correlated with success in life, and they are not what companies like Google, IBM, and Ernst & Young look for in new hires. These companies want individuals who can analytically solve difficult problems, who can work collaboratively within a group, and who can leverage complexity. They want people who can look around, figure out what needs to be done, and do it. They want original thinking ... conventional schooling is not aimed at helping students develop original thoughts. Montessori schools, on the other hand, are absolutely set up to elicit and generate original thinking.

What students do need to succeed are the underlying neuro-structures of their brain to be fully developed and finely tuned. Dr. Hughes talked to us about how this all happens in the neocortex, the skin of the brain: the neocortex has the area of a linen napkin unfolded and is just a few millimeters thick. In there are at least 6 layers of interconnecting neurons that are extraordinarily complex. And while you may think our neocortex is for “thinking,” really it’s to build a sensory-motor map of the world and to manage sensory inputs, sequences, and patterns. For example, when we sit on a chair or drive a car, we don’t actively “think” about it, as we have a sensory-motor map of those processes and have built within our neocortex perceived expectations of how something like a chair or car works. When we learn how to respond to existing patterns and how to manage anomalies - that’s how we get good at things. It takes practice. As Jeff Hawkins writes: “Patterns are the fundamental currency of intelligence.”

This model of a cortical homunculus illustrates how our brain perceives our hands as the body's primary receptor of sensory motor input.

The way we build those sensory motor sequences which are stored in the neocortex and are the foundations of all that we do when we’re reflexively thinking (or non-thinking) is by doing things. This is the neuroscientific explanation and defense of experiential education. Dr. Montessori knew this, and it makes sense that she is known by many to be the “mother of experiential education.” As Dr. Hughes puts it, “We are human doings, not human beings.” This picture is of a cortical homunculus in The Natural History Museum of London. In layman's terms, it is a model of how our brain perceives our own bodies -- the hands are the mechanisms for receiving sensory input so they are the single most valuable body part to the neocortex. We survive in the world by manipulating the environments around us - it is our skillful interaction with the world that defines us and allows us to be successful. To find this success, we have to build the neocortex. And to build the neocortex, we have to practice doing things; and we have to develop the mechanics and apparatus so the brain knows how to do new things. Practice is how our brains build themselves. That is what Montessori does. All our lessons in motor skills, self regulation, language, math, and sensorial input are presented in individual, sequential ways which build upon previous knowledge and previous sensory motor patterns. This is how we develop the brain, and how our students find success in both school, and more importantly, throughout their lives.

Dr. Hughes reminded us that Montessori education is based on children having “effortful, motivated, repeated, trial-and-error, experimental interactions with the environment.” That’s what happens in our school every day. It’s what empowers our students to find tremendous success in their school settings at Greensboro Montessori School, in high school, and college. While the focus of Dr. Hughes’ talk was not how the Montessori methodology promotes traditional academic success success, it is part of the story because helping children optimally develop their brains helps succeed in life, which includes school.

Dr. Hughes told us, “when we are talking about a well-constructed constructor, we’re also really talking about IQ.” One pretty good definition of intelligence quotient (IQ) is the ability to construct new sensory-motor couplings. Children who are able to fully develop their neocortex have well-developed sensory-motor maps and are able to best make sense of anomalies and new patterns, and thus solve difficult problems.

We see these benefits throughout Montessori, and they are documented in Angeline Lillard’s classic Montessori study which was published in 2006 in the journal Science. Through measuring IQ with the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities and studying randomized groups of students in and out of a Montessori program (with an experimental control group), Lillard found Montessori students performed better than non-Montessori peers by nearly a half standard deviation. The best standard deviation improvement from an educational intervention is about a quarter standard deviation; the change of nearly half a standard deviation is monumental.

Lillard's 2006 study found that Montessori students outperformed non-Montessori peers by nearly a half standard deviation in several areas.

It’s also important to remember that scoring well on tests and doing well in school is not necessarily what predicts success in life. We’re not saying school isn’t important, but we are saying success in school shouldn’t be seen as the end result. School success is important because it gives access to future experiences and opportunities. More important is that when your child goes to a school like Greensboro Montessori School, they learn the ability to look around, figure out what needs to be done, and do it -- this skill allows them to not only be successful at school, but most significantly, it allows them to be successful in life.

In addition to his fundamental point that experiential education and the Montessori methodology allow students to effectively develop their neocortex and to find success, there were several other key takeaways from our two days with Dr. Hughes. In the various discussions we had, many of the ideas applied to what we can do at home as parents and in the classrooms as educators.

Let the constructor construct.
By taking a neuroscience look at learning, we know that when our youngest children are engaged by doing physical things in their learning, their neocortex in their brains are actively being constructed -- this construction is hard work and requires uninterrupted, child-driven, large blocks of time. Let the constructor construct.

Do not overpraise the child.
Too many parents in our culture praise and overpraise children - sometimes for the simplest of accomplishments. Dr. Hughes reminded us that overpraising children can have negative effects. Research has shown that evaluative feedback (like grades and praise) can stop growth. Dr. Montessori reminds us, “Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him, or destroy the activity. It seems a strange thing to say, but this can happen even if the child merely becomes aware of being watched.” Dr. Steven Hughes jokes with us, “Parents need to really take a good, hard look at your bizzare, irrational, and unnatural desire to praise your children for breathing. Not only does this praise disrupt the child’s concentration, but this evaluative feedback does no good for the developing brain.” While coaching with specific feedback on how to do a task can be valuable, blind praise is not. Again, let the constructor construct.

Never do for the child what they can do for themselves.
Children can often be more capable than we let them be. In Montessori, we are careful to allow the child to do their own work, rather than us do it for them, be it complex math problems or putting on a jacket. We challenge parents to do the same. We do so, because we know from Dr. Hughes that doing and practicing their work allows them to appropriately develop their brains. Yes, it may take more time and patience from us as parents, but let the children do their work -- it’s one of the ways they build their brains.

Montessori does executive functioning very well.
Executive functioning is what we do with our IQ below the level of consciousness – how we organize, make sense of, and make discernments in order to execute and make decisions. From the neuroscience perspective, this is called cognitive flexibility and is an important part of executive functioning: when Plan A doesn’t happen, we have to have the flexibility and adaptability to create Plan B. Executive functioning is developed when the neocortex is allowed to develop those sensorial-motor maps through repeated practice and doing.

Concentration is fundamental to Montessori.
Classrooms at Greensboro Montessori School are based on giving children time to concentrate. Too many other school systems shuffle children from one idea or class to another every 34 minutes. From the neuroscience perspective, Dr. Hughes told us that concentrating is engaging the frontoparietal network in effortful cognitive tasks, where rules or information learn to be utilized and to guide behavior. Dr. Montessori knew that “Concentration is the key that opens up the child to the latent treasures within him.” Once again, her methods developed over one hundred years ago are today confirmed by modern neuroscience research. This concentration is how we develop capacity and capabilities to link together all our future skills and ultimately succeed in a complex world. It’s the foundation for us to learn how to look around, figure out what needs to be done, and do it.

Never interrupt the concentrated child.
Children innately want to explore, to touch, and to engage in certain types of work or projects. At various parts of their developmental journey, they are drawn to different things. And it is nature’s design that they want to do some work, or age-appropriate activities, again and again. Somehow, they know they need to practice them. And through modern neuroscience, we now know very well that this practice of building sensory-motor maps in the brain is one of the ways the neocortex develops within the brain. We know this is the foundational building block for future thinking. And through research and brain scans, we know that when the child is actively working and concentrating, they are literally building their brains.

When this is happening, this brain building, there is nothing we can or should do. We need to step back, let the child direct, and let the child be inspired. Never interrupt the concentrated child; it is then when they are constructing. In a Montessori classroom, we build time and systems to allow children to find real concentration and to focus on big work. While they aren’t able to work on one project or subject the entire day as there are other lessons and other parameters for the day, we do pride ourselves in having blocked times (sometimes as long as three hours), where the children can focus on their work and consequently develop their brains. As parents, we should work to not interrupt a focused and concentrated child; while a quick picture, a redirection, or new idea from us may be so tempting… try to resist that urge, knowing that concentrated work is very important, that our children are literally developing their brains.

For two full days, Dr. Steven Hughes toured out school, and engaged with our faculty, our students, our parents, and our administration. When he stepped away he wrote to us: “I can tell you are heading into one of those wonderful chapters in an organization with the right people are on the bus, and the bus is headed in the right direction. One can’t always force those conditions but when they are present amazing things can happen. I’ll look forward to hearing about the amazing things happening at Greensboro Montessori School in the future!’