"I feel like I'm in jail"


I recently heard something pretty shocking from a mom of a 7-year-old.

I was in a prospective parent meeting with a thoughtful couple when someone asked them why they were seeking to switch schools, from a relatively traditional program to Montessori.

A little choked up, the mother said the impetus actually came from their daughter, who had broken down crying after school one day. As Mom put it, “The flood gates just opened.”

These parents learned that their daughter, we’ll call her Lily, had been holding back her feelings about school for quite some time, and they definitely didn't include fondness: “I feel like I’m in jail there!"

Turns out Lily was horribly bored at school, so much so that she felt trapped and could no longer take it.

I later learned that Lily is advanced in English — she loves to read — but since she’s in a classroom with only children of her own age (2nd graders) she has to be taught the same level books as her peers.

For anyone who’s ever had to sit through a boring lecture or a mind-numbing presentation, you know the drain it can have. And imagine not just 30 minutes or an hour of this, but a full school year of such “lessons”! No wonder this young girl felt like she was behind bars.

Happily, Lily will soon be in an effective Montessori school, where there is no ceiling or limits to what children can learn in literature — or in math or in science or in grammar, or in any other subject.

And further, in good Montessori programs (all Montessori schools are not created equal) there’s also no pressure on children to perform beyond their actual capabilities. For instance, if a child can’t grasp a particular book — or a problem in math, or a topic in science, or a concept in grammar — he’s not prodded ahead with same-grade peers who can. Instead, a teacher revisits the material with him at a later time, when he actually has the ability to learn and master it.

But this is not how things work in the majority of schools today, where the same content is taught to children of different abilities, despite it being impossible to do that successfully. Pitifully, a teacher placed in such a situation is left with only one (seemingly) practical option: teach to the average. And it's not hard to imagine what comes out the other end of a system of years and years of such a teach-to-the-average education ... average young adults.

Of course no parent aspires for their child to be average, and no child wants to be an average human being. Yet this is the sad reality of what we get from most schools today. And it’d probably continue this way, if not for those few boys and girls like Lily who wake us up to just how backwards things really are.

(For those adults who were educated in traditional schooling themselves and think, "It’s not that bad!" — are you sure? have you sat in and observed a classroom recently? and have you thought about the possibility of how much further along you could be today if you had been engaged and challenged to your full potential? It's worth taking these questions seriously.)

Ultimately, if we want our children to develop the knowledge and skills to thrive as happy adults — in a way that doesn’t stifle their natural love of learning along the way — then education as we traditionally know it must change. We need to break the bars that so many children feel stuck behind, release them from the senseless frustration of not being allowed to learn more than their peers or of being herded along to "learn" what they literally can’t.

If you’re curious what an alternative to “jail” looks like, watch the video below.

Jesse McCarthy is the Founder and Head Guide of Montessori Education, an organization dedicated to helping parents and teachers raise independent, flourishing children — while enjoying themselves along the way.