Risk Taking and Innovation in a Montessori Classroom

by Lars Kuelling, Head of School

A recent article in the Detroit Metro Parent entitled Raising a Business Savvy Kid: Advice for Parents gave some sound advice for how parents can help foster innovation in their children. In the article, the author noted that “Children who learn to take risks and accept that sometimes their ideas turn out–and sometimes they fail miserably–are the ones that go on to become innovators.”

The seven tips for fostering risk taking?

1. Encourage kids to set goals
2. Let kids do it their way
3. Allow kids to reach their own conclusions
4. Set an example
5. Maximize diversity
6. Help kids learn to communicate
7. Celebrate risk taking

An activity in Mrs. Varty’s Early School classroom helps to illustrate many of the points made in the article.

On the day of the activity, Mrs. Varty created a project for her kindergartners that was primarily focused on building team work skills. It was their first time working in groups, and Mrs. Varty introduced the project as an art project. She didn’t give them a lot of direction as to what the project needed to look like. The instructions had just a few parameters: “They could build whatever they wanted but it had to be a decision by their entire group. They could use all of the materials I put on their table or just what they wanted in their pile of stuff to create their project. There was one heavy brown board that I said had to be the base. I also told them to use Elmer’s glue because it would hold better, and I gave them all a bottle. Those were their only specific directions. They had approximately 1 1/2 hours to work on their project.”

Mrs. Varty had deliberately selected the groups, maximizing diversity of skills in an attempt to find a blend of creative types who would offer ideas and objective oriented types who would “make sure the project actually got done.” As they worked, she observed their interactions, but did not interfere. Later she reported that “The true leaders were the children who let their group be creative and did not squash the individual ideas. The leaders were also tactful and energized their group to get the project done. That strategy enabled those groups to actually get along the entire time while continuously working.”

Her project worked wonderfully at encouraging team work skills–skills critical to creativity, innovation, and problem-solving–and you can see from the pictures in this post just how well the students did. And, in a bit of serendipity, the seven tips provided in the “Raising a Business Savvy Kid” article fit Mrs. Varty’s project perfectly.

Then again, review the seven tips and consider how each one could have been pulled directly from Maria Montessori’s philosophy on education. There’s a reason that some of the most innovative entrepreneurs, such as Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia) and Julia Child (chef and author), came out of Montessori schools. See for yourselves at Andrew McAfee’s blog on the Harvard Business Review: “Montessori Builds Innovators.”

In one final lesson taken from the project, Mrs. Varty recounted that “I didn’t realize until Monday that one group used no glue at all, so when they picked their project up to explain their idea it all fell apart. They were the first group done on Friday and that explained why. When I asked them why they didn’t use glue, they said that they didn’t feel like it. (I think it was more work.) They were frustrated on Monday, however, when their project fell apart and their peers’ projects did not.”

This is a beautiful example of how our Montessori environment encourages students to do it their way and to reach their own conclusions in the process. I’m sure they won’t ever forget the importance of glue on future projects, and I’m equally as sure they’ll be innovators later on in life!

For information about how your child can get more out of preschool, contact Jennifer Kendall, Assistant Head of School for Early School Education and Admissions, at 313.886.1221 or jkendall@gpacademy.org.