The Montessori method is legendary for childhood development. Many engineers are familiar with the system and often enroll their children within the preschool system due to a reputation for developing science and mathematical skills. What many do not know is that Maria Montessori classified and wrote about the development of 18-24 year olds in the University. I recently completed a search and could not find ANY articles linking the Montessori Method to engineering education. So where did the disconnect emerge and how can we re-envision an engineering education to infuse the magic of the Montessori Method?

I’ll first review the Montessori Method, connect this to modern Lean Manufacturing philosophies (the Toyota Way), and finish with benchmarking provided by our Empathy/Spiral vMemes knowledge aggregation theory. This will result in evolved pedagogical scaffolding techniques for design classes and research laboratories.

The Montessori Method

“My vision of the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that certification from the secondary school to the university, but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher, by means of their own activity, through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual.” Preface to From Childhood to Adolescence by Maria Montessori, 1948.

The Montessori method, pioneered by Maria Montessori from 1897 through the 1950’s in Italy, is one of the most extensively studied educational systems in human history. The system “had the largest positive effects on achievement of all programs evaluated” in a review of pedagogical methods and especially outperformed other programs in the areas of mathematics and science. If the study data is not enough, how about a personal anecdote: I attended a Montessori preschool, so did Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos — just sayin’.

Many are familiar with the system. But here’s a quick review of the basics from the Wiki:

  • Mixed age classrooms, with classrooms for children ages 2½ or 3 to 6 years old are by far the most common
  • Student choice of activity from within a prescribed range of options
  • Uninterrupted blocks of work time, ideally three hours
  • A discovery model, where students learn concepts from working with materials, rather than by direct instruction
  • Specialized educational materials developed by Montessori and her collaborators
  • Freedom of movement within the classroom

Other characteristics include a high degree of order, children work on mats to keep themselves contained, everything in the classroom has a place, and all of the children actively clean up after themselves to maintain the classroom. Maria believed that the children would naturally play with whatever was most interesting to them at the time. This immediately empowers the child to decide if something is over their head or not, and allows them to self optimize to the classroom environment. This of course requires a highly developed system of scaffolded learning exercises. Here’s an image of the infamous “Golden Beads” exercise for developing counting and spatial understanding:

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“The successive levels of education must correspond to the successive personalities of the child.” Opening sentence of From Childhood to Adolescence by Maria Montessori.

Montessori had a continuous vision of human development along a spectrum from age 0-24. She divided this spectrum into ‘planes’ ages 0-6, 6-12, 12-18, and 18-24. Each of these planes corresponds to a phase of human development. Of these planes, she wrote the least about the 18-24 plane. She envisioned that children were fully developed by this point and ready to begin building families and contributing to their communities. But this is also the phase most relevant to us as this is where most students begin studying engineering within a university. From Childhood to Adolescence contains an appendix titled, “The Function of the University” that is highly critical:

“The desire to work as little as possible, to pass the exams at all costs, and to obtain the diploma that will serve each person’s individual interests has become the essential motive common to the students. Thus academic institutions have become decadent as the progress of culture has transformed man’s existence. True centers of progress have been established in the laboratories of the scientific researchers. They are closed places, foreign to the common culture. The general decadence of the schools noted in our day does not come from a lessening of the instruction given to the students but from a lack of concordance between the organization of the schools and today’s needs. The material bases of civilization have changed to the point where they announce the beginning of a new civilization. In this critical period of human history, the very life of men needs to adapt afresh. And it is here that the problem of education is to be found.”

Read it twice if needed. An incredibly insightful assessment of the problems we still face today! This is also the likely point of disconnect where Maria Montessori lost most University faculty. Remember that was said in 1948, flash forward 70 years, look around you, and realize these problems are artifacts of the system structure of universities and will not naturally work themselves away. Her point, “pass the exams at all costs,” emphasizes a philosophical shortfall of University systems that rely almost complete on examination based inspection for quality control. Momtessori realized nearly 50 years before the Lean Manufacturing movement that the other valid approach to improving quality control is error-proofing the production  process — then needs for inspection are dramatically reduced or eliminated entirely. When faculty are confronted with a highly critical opinion like this, a teaching method that is already somewhat alien to the status quo, and her assessment that most of the problems facing the university stem from failure of the 0-18 year education, it’s all too easy to check out and move on to someone with more accessible solutions. However if you kept reading, in her vision for a new University, Montessori states:

“Today it is not by philosophy, not by discussion of metaphysical concepts, that the morals of mankind can be raised. It is by activity, by experience, and by action… All the points noted put the finger on the impossibility of enclosing education within the limits of a room where the individual at work is inert, perpetually dependent on the teacher, separated from the rest of mankind. This is true even for small children… all facilities ought to be provided to create some form of work that may permit the students to get a start toward economic independence, so that they may be entirely free to study and able to find their true position according to their just value.”

You see that Montessori was already onto the experiential learning movement that has been popular over the last several decades in engineering education. Moreover, when you remember her empathy to autonomy and economic freedom of the students, coupled with empathy to the community constituents of the University, realize that she is onto an entirely new level of education than we’re use to.

To summarize, the core tenants of the Montessori preschool system remain valid for the University. Extending these principles, Maria Montessori envisioned a University with close connection to the needs of the current culture and community constituents. One where resources and facilities were immediately available to empower students with time to think and practice solving the problems that allow them to contribute to their society. She repeatedly emphasized that this is not possible within the traditional classroom, but likely within the scientific research lab, should they be better connected to community constituents.

Transferring Montessori’s Methods to Engineering Education

After reading Maria Montessori’s book. I’m looking back on several of my pieces on engineering education over the last few years:

I’m not far from the future University that Montessori envisioned, perhaps due to her system’s influence on my pre-K years. In reality, the educational environment created by Dr. Chuck in his capstone design class is the closest I’ve seen to this, barring changes to order and further systematization of workspaces. Regardless, we have the pieces to the puzzle, we just need to put them together and SHOW everyone how incredible it can be. The question I’ve been working on for years is how?

About a month ago my good friend and mentor P.K. Northcutt was debating with me over lunch about the key differences between an education in the performing arts and engineering. Over the years we have noticed a decisive difference in the caliber of confidence and professionalism between the engineering and performing arts disciplines. I presented a hypothesis that was new to him: the key difference between performing arts and engineering educations is the amount of resources (time, money, energy) it takes to perform. In the performing arts you can improvise a performance on the spot. You can design a dinner dish in the morning and test it by evening; in fact you have to eat. With engineering though the amount of money and time it takes to complete the Design-Build-Test cycle can be 4 months to a year or more and thousands of dollars in investment. How is it then possible, or reasonable to expect an engineer to perform at the level of personal confidence and mastery as those graduating from the performing arts? Because it is in completing this Design-Build-Test cycle that engineers gain the activity, experience, and action advocated by Montessori. The more actual engineering the students get that is relevant to the needs of themselves and our community, the better we will all be. Hence we arrive at our goal:

Create an engineering education system where students continuously improve performance with the design-build-test cycle.

We will achieve this through completing the following objectives:

  1. Design a continuous flow for the design-build-test progression– After completing practice tours of my lab with P.K. we realized the need to restructure our very concept and flow of tours. Lean manufacturing and the Toyota Way emphasize the need for continuous flow, pull through production processes, regardless of what is being produced. We will now start our tours in our TFRB 108 Design Space, where we will design the tour in real time that is customized to our specific client. We will then move through our evolving Build space that could be upgraded soon with basic machining equipment. We will then progress into our established hydrogen+cryogenic testing areas in ETRL 221 or on the Quanset hut pads next to TFRB. The flow process is designed to help everyone understand the proper place and progression for all things in the lab system. I’m also developing a smaller version of this system, in the form of quickly reconfigurable assembly lines, to teach in the EEME 154 Systems Design classroom.
  2. Build a standardized workspace system for the labs and classrooms– Over the last semester I’ve worked with ME students Ryan Pitzer, Austin Rapp, and Jake Enslow to develop the Cougar LEAN (CLEAN) workbench system. A presentation on their work is here: Cougar Lean Workbench System. The entire top of this workbench is a jigging surface for safely fixturing work for modifications. The CLEAN bench is directly analogous to Maria Montessori’s mat/tray system to keep a child’s workspace contained. Here’s an image of our first prototype bench, we’ll have about 4 in my lab space and 8 in the classroom:
  3. Test integrating the system into the lab and ME coursework: This spring we will have lab work sessions where teams quickly design, build, and test components for this system. Many of the early days will be spent simply building out our CLEAN bench systems so we have space and materials to build new products. In the 415 Systems Design class we are building 8 CLEAN bench systems and establishing the system there as well. We’ll learn considerable information in these tests. We have a new SDEX website to accompany the HYPER lab site to disseminate this information.
  4. Utilize our Design-Build-Test sequence to develop new learning materials and systems: The Montessori System took decades of community effort to develop and refine all of the scaffolded learning/work exercises. We have specific needs to develop materials that help improve our knowledge of a) cryogenic materials, b) high vacuum systems, c) flammable gas plumbing and safety, and many more. These will allow students in the lab the freedom to utilize the learning modules they need, at the optimal time, based on the needs of the projects they are working on for our community constituents. This rekindles the magic of individual empathy and autonomy within the Montessori Method.
Memes, and What this means for HYPER lab and WSU ME students

At first it will seem foreign, even alien, eventually it will become standard, expected, and a source of pride. The Montessori method looks totally different from traditional pedagogical approaches because IT IS and the majority of our students are not prepared. This is the core of the disconnect and misunderstanding of Dr. Chuck’s design method by both students and other faculty. All of the values, specifically empathy to students and clients, are highly performance-community-systemic on the Spiral vMeme taxonomy. This is 1-2 levels removed from our traditional authoritarian-legalistic classes and is a challenge for most to understand within the traditional system.

Even with the brilliant students I’ve had in my lab, I’ve been frustrated by how much I have to drive community, contribution to the lab system, and performance/drive to finish projects. It is simply a result of them coming from an authoritarian-legalistic system without the scaffolding in the lab for the performance/community/systemic memes.

Our adaptation of the Montessori Method into the University, along with completing the lab’s transition to a Lean production system, leads to a totally new scaffold of expectations for student development and achievement. No longer is a thesis/product the terminal end, or indicator of mastery of learning. Rather, we will have a layered system of mastery directly connected to the vMeme taxonomy. These levels leads to the following progression through the lab:

  1. Authority: A student is given authority and responsibility over a defined area contributing to an end client/community need.
  2. Legal: A student must thoroughly research and document the vocabulary, rules, and laws required to know where a new contribution could exist within the area of need (analogous to the introduction, literature review, and theory sections to a paper, report, or thesis).
  3. Performance: A student should show a level of understanding and ability to perform with the established techniques in their area. Then develop a heuristic/design/hypothesis to develop their new contribution. This is the typical advanced goal and terminal end to a students learning.
  4. Community: A student needs to be connected to the broader community that needs the contribution. This comes through many forms, including paper publication, outreach, and simply just communication with end-users. A connection/empathy to the end stakeholders and lab cohort is needed to ensure the transition into the workforce and sustain resource flows into the lab. The student needs to demonstrate performance within a lab cluster or team of 4-5 people.
  5. Systemic: Through repeated repetition of these levels enabled by our Design-Build-Test flow, the student now understands the complexity of personal development. They now take ownership by contributing to furthering/continuously improving the system by developing their own scaffolded learning materials and demos for others to follow.

All of my indicators say that the real product we produce here in the University is not the research, but rather the students and people with the ability to learn that continually contribute to our community over the course of their lives. This is doubling down on the long term investment. We’ll risk short term gains, and miss a few grant opportunities with short year-long timescales, but could win-out on the timescale of decades because we will have built a sustaining community and system around the quality of our people. Bezos, Brin, and Page were no accident. The irony is that they, through Amazon and Google, may be the only ones with enough resources remaining to take this long-term approach to research.