Wildflowers Bloom in Montessori
Wildflower Montessori is the inspiration of Sep Kamvar, professor of Media Arts and Sciences and director of Social Computing at the MIT Media Lab, as well as an artist, author, entrepreneur, and former engineering lead at Google.
Kamvar’s journey to Wildflower has been a bit of a garden path, but as often happens, it has Montessori at one end and young children at the other. He mentions in passing that he went to a Children’s House in Torrance, California, for a few years before his family moved to New Jersey, but that he doesn’t remember much about it. (And yet, he went on to become an independent, innovative thinker who worked at Google…) After he graduated from Princeton in chemistry and went on to Stanford for computer science, he wrote a seminal paper in 2003 on managing trust in peer-to-peer networks. The same year, he launched a “stealth startup” personalized search engine which was acquired by Google a few months later. Kamvar went to work for Google that year as the head of personalized search, a now-universal Google feature which shapes search results with information associated with a user’s location, search and browser history, and social networks. (Users can turn this off by using private browsing or the methods described here.)
Kamvar earned his PhD from Stanford in 2004 and stayed with Google through 2007, and in California through 2011, as a consulting professor for Stanford, as well as launching a venture capital firm and a line of men’s clothing, mounting an installation at the Museum of Modern Art, publishing two books, getting married, and continuing his explorations of social connectedness and data aggregation, In 2012 Kamvar returned to the east coast, joining MIT’s media lab as the LG Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and head of the Social Computing research group, where, among other projects, he wrote a programming language and developed You Are Here, an data visualization project that maps data sets such as transit efficiency, street greenery, or food deserts onto city maps, to “help people to make their city a better place”.
Throughout his career, Kamvar has explored how technology, data, and social interactions can come together to drive behavior. His 2003 paper used individual social interactions to build up a trust system in file-sharing networks. His work with Google used data from individual choices and social networks to deliver better search results. His art projects have gathered and visualized emotional and relationship data from thousands of blog posts and dating profiles to offer new and unexpected insights. The mapping project uses personal experiences and broad data sets to give people new information they can use to improve their environments. In 2013, Kamvar turned this interest, along with his research and analytical skills, towards choosing a school for his two-year-old son. The result, not surprisingly, was a data-driven, non-hierarchical, action-empowering network
Kamvar started out doing a lot of reading and looking at a lot of schools, and he came to two conclusions. First, he knew he wanted Montessori. As a scientist, he appreciated its observation-based, developmentally grounded, constructivist approach, and he was captivated by the peacefulness and independence of the children in Montessori classrooms. As he read more of Montessori’s work and joined a parent-child classroom, his respect for the approach grew. Second, Kamvar had some ideas about teacher autonomy, observation, and scale, among others, that weren’t expressed in the programs he saw. The school that matched his emerging vision didn’t yet exist.
So Kamvar decided to start one, and the first Wildflower school, Wildflower Montessori in Cambridge, was born. Before long, interest in the school overran capacity, and Kamvar and his team launched the a project to put the principles and organizational materials online, where anyone could access them and start a school along the same lines. Several more schools opened last year, growing to six in Cambridge, one in nearby Haverhill, and three in Puerto Rico.
Wildflower schools are intentionally one-classroom operations, staffed by two “teacher-leaders” who share teaching and administrative responsibilities. The Wildflower project offers financial and consulting support for teachers to start schools and makes resources such as school handbooks and sample budgets available under an open source model on its website. Schools in a city or region join together in a loose network, or “hub”, to provide mutual support and feedback.
Wildflower schools are organized around nine principles, articulated on the website:
An Authentic Montessori Environment: providing a peaceful, mixed-age, child-directed learning environment.
Wildflower steps carefully around the delicate subject of Montessori authenticity, but seeks out Montessori practiced according to consistent high standards.
A Shopfront, Neighborhood-nested Design: committed to remaining small, integrated in the community, and responsive to the needs of the children.
The model envisions one-classroom schoolhouses in storefront retail locations.
A Lab School: serving as a research setting dedicated to advancing the Montessori Method in the context of the modern world.
This principle doesn’t really spell it out, but a key element of the Wildflower model is augmenting traditional pencil-and-paper observation with ceiling-mounted cameras, wearable sensors, and software analytics, inspired by Kamvar’s interest and expertise in technology and data visualization. Kamvar feels strongly that Montessori, as a scientist, would have welcomed such innovations.
A Seamless Learning Community: blurring the boundaries of home-schooling and institutional schooling by placing high priority on parent education and giving parents an integral role in the classroom.
Parent education is integral to the model as well. Kamvar observes that he spent nine years training to be a professor, but his preparation for being a father consisted of reading a few books, purely as a personal choice. His time in the parent-child class showed him how transformational Montessori could be in his parenting.
An Artist-in-residence: bringing richness to the learning environment by giving the children opportunities to observe and interact with adults doing day-to-day creative work.
This principle brings a working artist into the classroom, ideally making her less of a specialist teacher and more an element of the prepared environment.
An Attention to Nature: emphasizing the nonseparation between nature and human nature through a unique living-classroom design and extensive time in nature.
As one-room storefronts in retail neighborhoods, the schools have to proactively bring natural elements into the classroom and work to extend into available urban spaces such as parks and gardens.
A Role in Shaping the City: working with the community to improve local parks, streets, and establishments to create an urban environment that is healthier for children.
Consistent with Kamvar’s work using data to empower social activism, Wildflower schools, by integrating children and families into their neighborhoods, can drive urban environmental transformation.
A Spirit of Generosity: seeing school as a change agent for society, and reflecting a spirit of generosity to all stakeholders, to children, to parents, to those in need, and to the local community.
Most of the current Wildflower schools are private, tuition-based programs, and the “spirit of generosity” principle has not so far been very effective at creating programs accessible to lower-income families. An initial idealism about the willingness and ability of individual families to support a diverse population has not been as successful as was imagined. Wildflower’s organizers have a commitment to development in this area.
An Open-source Design: advancing an ecosystem of public and independent Wildflower schools that mutually support one another.
The two complementary sides of this principle — independent, and mutually supportive — are really the distinctive features of the model. Wildflower does not administer, organize, or oversee the schools – they are independent entities, with their own non-profit statuses and their own boards. This was a key motivation for Kamvar in his exploration of schools. He told me,
In a traditional (non-Montessori) school, there’s a board of directors, who’s the boss of the head of school, who’s the boss of a level director, who’s the boss of the teachers, who’s kind of the boss of the children. Montessori articulated beautifully that this doesn’t work very well. Why can’t we model Montessori non-hierarchical learning onto the school structure?
At the same time, the network of mutual support is critical, allowing schools to get economies of scale where they are available (in purchasing power, professional development, observation and support, for example) while keeping small the things that don’t scale as well (interactions between adults and children).
There’s something a little puzzling about Wildflower—even with the comprehensive website, it raises more questions than it answers. The names run together: there’s Wildflower Montessori, the school; a project called Wildflower which has offered financial and operational support and hosts wildflowerschools.org; and a newly formed Wildflower Foundation. The decentralized, one-room schoolhouse model raises some “How does that work?” responses. Where does the money come from to start a school? What about zoning, occupancy permits, ADA bathrooms, DHS approval, the fire marshal, and all that? Will classroom teachers really want to take on the admissions, marketing, regulations, hiring, facilities, etc., issues that administrators handle, in the hours after a day with children?
Kamvar had answers to many of these questions. Wildflower, the project, has offered some financial support for startup, but founding families also typically play a role, as well as taking responsibility for finding an appropriate site and getting regulatory approval. Acting as a “teacher-leader” for a one-classroom school is admittedly, “not for everybody” and “a lot of work”. Some of the administrative work can be shared with schools in the area network. And the model envisions two “teacher-leaders” for each school, filing between them the roles of guide, assistant, and administration, so the burden is shared.
But that brings it back to the money. Tuition for 20 or fewer pre-schoolers is not a lot to cover salaries for two people who can fill those roles, along with materials, furnishings, rent, and other overhead. And if tuition is set at a level that covers those costs, where does that leave the “school as a change agent for society”?
Yet the schools are there and thriving, and the model is growing. In fact, Wildflower is at an inflection point in its growth. There’s been an organizational change in the last few months, with Kamvar becoming Board President of a newly launched Wildflower Foundation, and a new and influential figure from the public education world coming on board as CEO, bringing with him organizational and fundraising expertise and an explicit mission for social justice. For that part of the story, look out for next week’s post on Wildflower’s next moves.
David worked in private Montessori for more than twenty years as a parent, three-to-six year-old and adolescent teacher, administrator, writer, speaker, and advocate. In 2016 he began working with the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. David lives in Portland, Oregon.