Review: The Pink Tower Meets the Ivory Tower: Adapting Montessori Teaching Methods for Law School

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By Andrea Boyack from Washburn University School of Law

Great teaching is timeless. History gives us dramatic examples of individual teachers – Annie Sullivan and Jaime Escalante, for example – who shocked the world by helping students to achieve unimagined potential. History also gave us Socrates – Ancient Greece’s most famous critical thinker and inspiration behind Christopher Langdell’s Socratic Method approach to law school, introduced in 1870. In 2014, perhaps, it is time once again for legal education to look at history’s teaching greats to provide some outside-the-box sources of inspiration and insight.

Maria Montessori is one of history’s most innovative and influential teachers, but the value of her methods is typically heralded in the context of early childhood education, not – at the other end of the development chronology – as an appropriate model for law school. Professor Emily Grant, however, draws from Montessori’s “Pink Tower” methodology to suggest ways to re-energize and re-focus law school goals, methods, and outcomes.

Grant heralds the Montessori Method as a way to increase law student engagement and foster learning independence. These ends are difficult to achieve in law schools today, where faculty often decry lack of student focus and motivation as the unfortunate but unavoidable byproducts of teaching “Millennials.” But perhaps Maria Montessori can succeed to inspire 21st Century law students and teachers much the same way as she inspired her students in Casa dei Bambini a century ago. That suggestion in itself is thought provoking, but Grant goes further in explaining how certain aspects of Montessori’s method could and should translate into the law school context.

The Students. Montessori’s three elements of education are the learner, the trained adult, and the physical environment. Grant points out that Montessori theorized that students developed in three-year phases, and law school is (of course) another three-year development phase. Montessori’s goal for each three-year development phase is to help children become “normalized” and “harmonious” – essentially to ignite in the children the desire to learn and to help the children develop the ability to learn independently. Montessori pointed out that self-motivated learners find satisfaction in their work rather than merely from external assessments of their efforts. Grant asserts that the “primary way Montessori principles can improve the law school experience” for students is “by forcing professors to acknowledge that learning in law school must be self-driven.” Indeed, we are training adult learners in law school who – by the very nature of law practice – will continue to educate themselves throughout their careers. The critical importance of independent learning therefore seems self evident, and yet current methodologies fall short of achieving this metric.

The Professors. Montessori teachers are trained, scientific observers. Their role is not so much to impart information as to examine the students and provide them with resources to guide their independent efforts. Reimagining a law professor in the role of passive observer would require a fundamental shift in approach and philosophy. Professors are perceived as experts in doctrine and reasoning, and their classroom role is based on enlightening and pushing their students, not merely passively observing student efforts at self-teaching. At first blush, therefore, the Montessori model of instruction seems to be a poor match for law faculty. But reactive resistance to a more passive instruction model may say more about faculty egos than current teaching effectiveness. It may be more productive to explain less, lecture not at all, and merely provide students with well-designed opportunities to engage with legal analysis on their own. This model would use insightful professorial feedback in place of insightful professorial elucidation. Such an approach may not provide as many pre-digested answers to student legal questions, but possibly may better empower students to seek out solutions to their own queries.

The School. Montessori classrooms are specifically designed to enhance student freedom and self-assessment. Classroom environments highlight structure and order, reality and nature, beauty and atmosphere, and connections with the community. Grant believes that these same principles can improve teaching environments in law school – not only informing the design of class content, but the design of learning spaces as well. Grant posits that self-grading materials and student involvement in content choices can increase buy-in among the students. Greater ownership will lead to more motivated learners, and that will improve learning outcomes in law school, just as outcomes are improved for young children given a level of control over a structured environment in a Montessori preschool. Genuine linkages with community concerns can help students develop responsibility. Social development can be fostered through group work and other collaborations. Finally, the physical space of a law school can assist student-driven learning through flexible classrooms that can be easily reconfigured, multiple workstations for hands-on projects, and facility design, with improved light and attractive décor, inviting contemplative and productive thought.

Montessori’s Pink Tower at first blush seems far removed from the lofty halls of legal learning. Applying Montessori principles to law school flips the paternalistic teaching model on its head, empowering students and redirecting professorial efforts to a completely new role. It may be too much to expect that law schools would ever wholly incorporate Montessori methods. But even incremental changes that increase student engagement through thoughtful learning environment and reimagined teacher roles could pay huge dividends. It is hard to overestimate the positive effects that Montessori Method’s purported outcomes – training creative thinkers and enthusiastic self-learners – could have on our law schools and on the legal community if these ends can be achieved.

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