New Designs for School
New Designs for School

We’ve all had the experience of truly purposeful, authentic learning and know how valuable it is. Educators are taking the best of what we know about learning, student support, effective instruction, and interpersonal skill-building to completely reimagine schools so that students experience that kind of purposeful learning all day, every day.

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In Montessori Self-Directed Field Studies, elementary-age students "go out" in small groups for research, gaining experiences outside the classroom.

Three 3rd graders were on their way back from PetSmart with their class’s new gerbil (later to be named “Captain” during a community circle). To raise money for the purchase of their pet, the class had hosted a snow cone sale. Mae, Caleb, and Chiara were the ones tasked with planning a Field Study to take the class’s money to PetSmart and purchase the gerbil.

Unfortunately, they hit a snag on the return trip when they tried to board the city bus with the gerbil in hand. They quickly learned that rodents (and all other pets) are prohibited on mass transit in the city of Austin. They did the only thing possible in the situation: they sweet-talked their way onto the city bus with the rodent in tow.

These days, news headlines read more like dystopian fiction than reality. Our world seems to barrel toward a future full of crises more each day. Now, more than ever, we need our public schools to cultivate diverse leaders of the future who can help us solve these seemingly inevitable major environmental, humanitarian, and political issues with innovative thinking, empathy, and urgency.

Yet, the majority of our schools are still stuck with the “factory model” of education where everyone does the same thing at the same time in the same way. The majority of our children spend most of their time learning how to follow directions, listen, take in information, be obedient, and memorize information for short periods of time. This is not going to build leaders with the skills to solve the big problems we see looming.

At Montessori For All, we are part of a national movement of next generation schools that seeks to reimagine public school so that we help children grow into their fullest potential. As Howard Fuller says, “Our job is not to prepare children for the 21st century; our job is to prepare children to transform the 21st century.”

So how do we redesign schools to do just that? What actions can we take to help children grow critical-thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and confidence?

One of the ways we do it at Montessori For All is through Self-Directed Field Studies.

What Is a Self-Directed Field Study?

Originally called “Going Out” by Maria Montessori, Self-Directed Field Studies are an essential aspect of the Montessori Elementary program. Students “go out” in small groups as an extension of their self-identified research topics and to gain experiences in the world outside the classroom. Students plan these trips when they need to find more information on a topic of interest. Students might plan to go to the library to find books on a specific topic; they might go to an art exhibit showcasing pieces by an artist they are studying; there may be a local specialist that they can interview to obtain more information on a topic.

How Are Field Studies Conducted?

The children are responsible for planning their entire trip, which includes (but is not limited to): contacting the destination of the Field Study, scheduling the time and date, collecting any money necessary for the Field Study, coordinating a chaperone, mapping the route from the school to the destination on the city bus, etc.

What Are Some Real-Life Examples from Montessori For All?

College Visit: When Annie was in second grade, she decided she wanted to learn more about the periodic table. She conducted as much research as possible in her classroom and then decided to seek out a chemist at the University of Texas. She researched potential contacts and identified a professor who was willing to host her. She then had to schedule a trip with a chaperone from the pre-approved chaperone list, and then she had to plan the route from the school to the university on the city bus.

Future Ophiologists: A group of three boys decided to study snakes. After learning everything they could from books, websites, and videos in their classroom, they planned their own Field Study to the Austin Animal Sanctuary to learn about snakes up close and in person.

Bake Sale for Good: A group decided to raise money for homelessness by hosting a bake sale. After getting a micro-loan for all the materials and ingredients, designing and posting advertisements, agreeing on all the prices, and raising a ton of money, they then planned their own trip to a local non-profit organization focused on homelessness so that they could deliver their check in person.

If children are able to accomplish such big, self-directed goals when they are eight and nine years-old, imagine what they are going to be doing when they are 20 and 30?

If you are interested in getting Self-Directed Field Studies up and running at your school to help develop independence, resourcefulness, critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration, here are some resources:

Sara Cotner headshot

Sara Cotner

Founder & CEO, Montessori for All

Sara Cotner has cultivated broad and deep insight into educational reform as a Teach For America national staff member, the founder of an independent consulting firm, an adjunct professor, and a teacher in various environments, including charter, traditional districts, and public Montessori. She started Montessori For All in 2011 to help children in diverse communities gain access to a high-performing, authentic Montessori school.