The Montessori School Bali Adolescent Programme began in the 2018-19 academic year and will expand over the next three years into a full class.
The Montessori educational method for adolescents differs from traditional schools in many ways. Its design is based on the scientific development of the brain. The most important period of brain development is in a child’s early years, when up to 95 percent of the brain is actually formed. The child’s brain however cannot function as an adult brain without going through the major renovation period called adolescence.
During this time, the whole brain is remodelled. Unused connections are pruned away, others are strengthened and new connections can be made. This is a chance for the child to remake themselves. What young people spend time, energy and focus on during this period of development often becomes hardwired into their adult brain.
This means that parents and teachers need to be thoughtful and aware of how they can ensure that what the adolescent is doing will lead to a healthy and positive lifestyle as an adult.
The pruning and remodelling starts at the back of the brain, or the amygdala. This is the emotional centre of the brain and it is why teenagers often seem more emotional than children in the six- to 12-year-old plane of development. The changes in the brain and the hormones flooding the body due to puberty taken together makes this potentially a very volatile time for a young person.
The adolescent wants to express themselves, and be heard; they have excess energy one minute and none the next; they look at the adults in their world with a critical eye, pointing out hypocritical behaviour; they need their parents to be close, even as they push them away; and they need a trusted adult who is not their parent to give them positive guidance. They need to be seen and recognised for who they are and what their potential is by people outside of the family and they need to take more risks—remember the thinking part of the brain is disengaged, so consequences are not something they tend to think about.
All this means that we are faced with a different being than the child we were used to. The schooling that worked as a child no longer works for the adolescent. Because of the tremendous changes going on throughout the brain and body, the adolescent has less energy for academic learning and needs experiences that both let them get used to their new selves, and allow them to test their limits in a safe environment. This doesn’t mean the Montessori approach forgets about academic learning, but rather it means Montessori educators come to it from a different direction.
Brains develop new connections and pathways through new experiences. The reformatting of the brain is a chance for a young person to increase their intelligence by having new experiences and learning from them. Practice that builds on the new experiences turn the pathways into superhighways that mean a particular skill or attitude is hardwired and automatic. Repetition for a teenager comes (voluntarily) only if they see the task is worth repeating—if it means something to them personally, and/or if they receive validation for doing it.
That means the curriculum in a Montessori classroom changes. The internal changes in the adolescent means external structure is once again very important. In the earlier years, external structure is given through the materials on the shelves. In the adolescent years there is far less reliance on the materials, so structure is given through the format and delivery of the curriculum. In previous years, children could come into the class and decide for themselves what they were going to do, when and for how long. Leaving this kind of unstructured time for an adolescent can lead to a morning spent talking or staring out of the window.
A Montessori education provides structure for the adolescent with each block of learning, while still giving them choice and autonomy. The term is structured into two different learning blocks of four weeks. The focus in the first block is Humanities: how civilisation got to where it is today, and where it’s going now. This helps the adolescent see that we have got to where we are today on the actions of others who went before us, so we can have an affect on what happens for those coming after us. This is a more cerebral part of the curriculum, but activity is brought in wherever possible, for example in having a go at making fire with early tools, or building shelter from natural and available resources. Humanities incorporates subjects including history, English, geography, philosophy and civics.
The second block has as its main focus something we call Occupations. This combines science, technology, mathematics and more. During this four weeks, students usually work on something that is going to add value to their programme. They could develop and work in a garden or orchard, the produce of which they will use to make goods. They might build a fish tank, or a chicken house for future chickens. Whatever they do, it’s in response to some need in their community, and is intensely practical in nature, but academic in preparation.
Also included in the curriculum is creating and running a small business, creative expression, such as photography, art and music, physical expression such as surfing and Frisbee golf, community service and chores.
Through being actively involved in their own curriculum, our adolescents have a great shot at growing their minds and bodies and becoming the adults we need for the future.