Ray Dalio, Founder of Bridgewater, the world's largest hedge fund, has been quoted as saying that, “So many students who succeed in school fail in life.” He goes on to say that, “Mistake-phobia is crippling our society. It is a problem that begins in most elementary schools, where children often learn to learn what they are taught, rather than to form their own goals and then figure out how to achieve them. They are fed with facts then tested, and those who make the fewest mistakes are considered the 'smart ones.' From this, children learn that it is embarrassing not to know something and to make mistakes.” 

Like Dalio, Montessori educators are also deeply concerned that the current conventional education system is not on track to prepare young people for real life. It values the right answer, not the process, neglecting to recognize the value of trial-and-error—an essential component to nurture critical thinking and true learning. 

Today's children, particularly with their exposure to unfiltered information and messaging, will need to be able to think critically—not only to know how to care for themselves, but to know how to care for and contribute to the balance of the world around them. As evidenced by the recent documentaries Race to Nowhere and Waiting for Superman, we are observing the concern educators and parents have about this disconnect between what students are being prepared for and what will be required of them in life. 

Montessori education can help inform this conversation, and there is much that can be learned from its approach. After all, it has been practiced and observed in classrooms for over 100 years and is tried, true and proven. Dr. Montessori wrote, 

“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment.” 

In Montessori education, the process of trial-and-error reigns! It is a well-established and accepted truth that trial-and-error is our most effective learning tool, and it has served us well through our process of evolution. Through observation, Dr. Montessori recognized that in order to learn, students had to interact with the environment spontaneously and use feedback, i.e. consequences of their actions, to adjust and improve. In this way, the lessons become a part of the student, forever owned and internalized. 

To achieve this, 3 elements are essential. Authentic Montessori has these elements, among others, at its core: 

A Prepared Environment (a.k.a. the set-up of the room, everything in it, the guidelines for how it is run, the training of the teachers supporting it, and each and every rhythm of the child's day). The prepared environment incorporates natural and inherent controls of error to provide feedback for the child. This can be everything from tiled floors, where things will break easily if dropped; thus, helping the child learn to handle things more carefully, to an activity that cannot be completed fully if there is an error. As the child grows, this prepared environment changes to adapt to the mode of that developmental stage. 

Freedom with Responsibility This concept provides the child with opportunities to explore interests spontaneously, while also providing the guidance of boundaries. An example of this can be seen when children enjoy the freedom of movement and inquisition that comes with their indoor/outdoor classrooms. They may enjoy the freedom to go and work outside if they have demonstrated responsibility and self-discipline in keeping with the guidelines of the classroom community. 

Uninterrupted Time This is translated most often through the three-hour work cycle, which allows the child to make many choices and spend as long as he or she requires to master a task. In young children, this is illustrated when they repeat something over and over, day after day. Their understanding is built through direct interaction—through trial-and-error. 

Take any one of these elements: A Prepared Environment, Freedom with Responsibility or Uninterrupted Time, out of the mix, and the student‟s opportunity to experience learning naturally, fully and joyfully is compromised. 

I intentionally use the word "joyfully,‟ because for the child and anyone else who values the child's spirit, joyful learning is the most wonderful by-product of the Montessori approach. It allows the learning process to unfold naturally; after all, it is our job as educators and parents to nurture joyful children. 

To all of you reading this who are watching our nation struggle with our system of education, encourage those who are looking to our children as the hope for the future, to learn about authentic (Association MontessoriInternationale) Montessori education. Commit to learn more about it yourself so you can explain it clearly and answer questions. Observe our classrooms and then observe others. Appreciate the differences and honor the weight they carry for how significantly conditions affect learning. AMI education has been time tested for over 100 years, and it is true education for life. 

In the meantime, feel good about the choice you have made to offer your child the gift of a Montessori education. As alumni parent, Catherine Bayer, attests in this issue's Alumni Feature, it truly is a gift for life.