Unlocking Montessori Key #6: Learning with Meaningful Context

Usually, I frame my posts through stories of my children or other students, but when I sat down to draft today’s article, I had a vivid memory from my own past – I wasn’t quite a child (or I certainly didn’t think I was!) but it was certainly a learning experience for me.

I remember studying for my driver’s permit – reading what seemed like endless lists of road etiquette and street sign meanings in a paperback copy of the TX state driver’s manual. It all seemed so abstract, studying the little diagrams, paths drawn on the illustrated roads of right-of-way and lanes. But I studied to pass the written test and happily joined my fellow teenagers on the road. Not long into my newfound freedom, I had to cross multiple lanes of traffic, pausing in the median space before making my left turn. Cars coming from my right and going left were also using that space, and as I stared at the space I had to pull into I realized there was definitely a right and wrong side and I definitely didn’t remember which was which. Well I made it through (luckily with patient drivers around me) and that was the day my boring diagrams studied only for the test suddenly had context. 

image from TXHighwayman Study guide website

Learning without context is nigh on meaningless. Sure you can use rote memorization or learn “to the test” but learning within a meaningful framework that you can experience, understand, and grow, creates a memorable education that lasts much longer than the studying done simply for the grade.

Dr. Montessori understood this and her educational method bears tribute to the principle. Montessori education provides meaningful context for learning. Within contextual learning, children have tactile experiences with even abstract concepts like math (using, for example, beaded counting mats for multiplication and division). This applies especially to topics like science and nature – why read about the lifecycle of a caterpillar when you can see it at work in real life? 

Our sixth key to unlocking the mysteries of Montessori is contextual learning. Within Montessori – and any meaningful educational experience, Montessori or not – learning within an understandable context is crucial to lasting engagement. Much like my experience with turning in the median space, studying the diagrams didn’t help until I had context. Once I had driving experience to build on, the intricacies of the road suddenly held much more meaning. Now, I see that little diagram every time I pull into a median turn space….whether the other drivers know the proper lane is always the tricky part! 

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