Palet School: Student-led teacher guided education

Montessori designed unique learning materials and placed them in an innovative classroom setting
Montessori designed unique learning materials and placed them in an innovative classroom setting

Education is a matter that is discussed and debated in every country. What system of education is best, should there be standardized testing or not...the questions never end. But the crux of the matter is what do we want our schools to achieve and how can we best educate our students

There are many different systems of education implemented throughout the world. The Turkish education system is based on rote learning - in general, children still sit in rows and have facts drilled into their heads. Despite the large number of changes that have been brought to education, in Turkey most changes have failed for one clear reason. The placement exams for both high school and university remain standardized multiple-choice exams. asking children multiple-choice questions forces them to memorize facts. Add to this the large number of questions asked over a relatively brief period of time, children are being driven to memorize even more facts. The quicker they can charge through each question the more answers they can give and the more points they will get.

There is a real desire to make real changes to the Turkish education system. Different schools are trying innovative systems. Some private and state schools are trying out different systems imported from Europe. There are certain advantages to these systems, but at the end of the day many systems have been developed in Europe for European children. The tragedy that befell the Turkish education system was that it was changed to fit in with the Western model with no regard to Turkish culture or society. It is questionable how suitable any European system is for Turkish culture and education.

One method developed abroad that is being tried out in some schools is the Montessori method. Maria Montessori, a physician who worked with children in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century who took time to observe children, developed the Montessori method. In particular, Montessori was interested in children from lower socio-economic families and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Montessori first started working with special education teachers. Observing children who had learning challenges, she saw that they were fascinated by simple objects, for example breadcrumbs. But when asked to participate in a traditional learning environment, these children would switch off.

Opening the Casa dei Bambini in 1907, Montessori focused on helping poor inner-city children. She found that the children, who found it difficult to settle in a traditional classroom, demonstrated great progress when given simple real tasks like cooking or cleaning, or using materials that encouraged mathematical skills. The children were teaching themselves via their environment.

Montessori designed unique learning materials and placed them in an innovative classroom setting. No desks, no rows. Rather she established corners for different activities, and created an environment that was geared towards a child's natural curiosity and desire to learn.

Today there are thousands of Montessori schools throughout the world. The Montessori system was not developed to teach a certain culture or mindset. It was developed to appeal to the natural curiosity to learn that all children have, no matter their nation, language or even intellectual ability. Palet School, in Ümraniye, is a Montessori preschool and primary school. Educating children up until the fourth grade, Palet has brought Maria Montessori's approach to the Turkish child.

The Montessori approach is: "[A] view of the child as one who is naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning in a supportive, thoughtfully prepared learning environment. It is an approach that values the human spirit and the development of the whole child - physical, social, emotional, cognitive." (

Education at Palet is child-led, but teacher guided. The classrooms are multiage, particularly those in the preschool, where children from 3-6 play and learn together. The older children can teach the younger children, while the younger children can inspire the older children.

One of the keystones of Montessori education is that a school is a community. The multiage classroom is a reflection of this. Children are not separated by their ages, but rather by their interests. The corners in the classroom can be mathematically based (measuring, blocks), focused on culture (geography, history), languages or sciences. The children decide what they want to work on. However, the teacher helps to guide the child to ensure that the child becomes fully rounded. Montessori teachers prefer to call themselves directors, because like a film director, they guide the actors, but let the actors play the role as they see fit.

The Montessori environment must be pleasing and attractive. The children should be drawn into it, and feel free to explore. It should be a warm, welcoming place where the child is free to explore within safe limits.

Last week, I visited Palet School. The classrooms are certainly attractive. The children were in the classroom, but there was a profound silence. It was a silence of concentration. The classroom was amazingly peaceful for a nursery school. Some children were doing a puzzle. Another was reading a book. Another was mixing up things in the measuring corner. In the second classroom the same profound concentrated silence was present. One boy was mopping the floor and wiping the table. Neither surface was dirty or in need of being wiped. He just wanted to wipe and mop. Another was eating breakfast. Another was sitting working intensely with the "director". On the floor, it was obvious that someone had been hard at work doing geography, as the words Pakistan and Chile were written on the floor, along with matching flags.My guide was a Montessori teacher, Wardah Tanweer. She told me a bit about the Montessori philosophy and more about what they were trying to do in Turkey. Wardah told me that Montessori teachers must be excellent observers. If they are not, the children will not develop properly. Wardah also told me that the environment had to be stimulating enough, otherwise the children would be disinterested and turned off.

Wardah explained that there are certain periods in a child's life when one or another skill comes to the fore. These are known as sensitive periods, or windows of opportunity. It is the director's job to provide the appropriate lesson and material for the child's particular sensitive period. This period could be one of a number of different orientations, including language, mathematics or movement.

The Montessori philosophy is that the more the child's sensual perception is developed the better they will understand the world. The Montessori approach divides child development into four phases, each phase covering 6 years. Up until 6 is an age of individual learning, 6 to 12 is the peer age, where children work together and research while 12 to 18 is when children need to understand why they are learning what they are learning. At this age, a young person feels the need to understand the connection between the information provided and the real world. This is a time when a child's feelings start to develop into ideas of equity and justice.

Perhaps one of the most striking features of the Montessori approach is the idea of the school as a community. This is not a novel idea, but the Montessori approach underlines this and supports the community. Many schools have "community" meetings rather than school assemblies. The students are allowed to bring up matters that concern them, that worry them, or that please them. They have an actual say in what happens in the school.

Palet Schools are working to open a middle school. When one takes into consideration the high school entry exams, the challenge of such a move becomes clear. But such a school is novel and refreshing in Turkey. And it is absolutely necessary.

Adolescents do not make ideal students. They start to form friendships that are intense and which can drive their behavior. But talking to Christopher Ackerman, who is advising Palet on setting up the middle school, the Montessori answer is clear. When children are confronted by adults who are fair, who can freely own up to making a mistake, the children buy into what is being offered. Adolescents are driven by the idea of justice. Most adolescents do not have very high opinions of adults; they are convinced that the majority of adults cannot possible understand them and that this same majority is rather dim. With technology moving in leaps and bounds, this conviction is just being underlined. Adults don't even know how to use the latest apps, they don't understand the latest games, they are technologically illiterate, or at least very poor performers.

If we are to convince this age group that school has something to offer it is necessary to change the approach. Montessori offers one possible option. In a Montessori middle school, classroom settings can exist; however, what goes on in this classroom is closer to a seminar or tutorial. Smaller groups of children are being taught and they are being encouraged to discuss what they are learning. Projects are offered to children; the children have options to choose from when doing the projects, and this helps their motivation. There is more cooperative learning and there is an emphasis on the community, all things that adolescents do respond to.

As we are faced by an ever-changing world, the one thing that is not changing in Turkey is education. This is dangerous. Forcing children to sit in rows, to listen to teachers providing them with answers, to hinder their free expression of ideas or opinions - this is a fatal error. Many schools are taking steps towards finding a solution. Cooperative learning offers one part of the solution. Changing the classrooms so that the students are free to move is another part of the solution. Giving the students choices and allowing them to express their ideas freely is another part. Montessori offers many important things for Turkish education; in the Montessori system children are encouraged to explore and think and contemplate. This is not a Western idea that is being imposed on Turkish society. Rather this freedom to explore, to ask questions, to find the right person to answer the question is something that existed in the Muslim world for centuries. Students would walk hundreds, thousands of miles to get information from a scholar. The freedom to ask questions, to explore, to think, to understand is actually neither Western nor Muslim. It is part of human nature. Human beings are infinitely curious and naturally seek information.

The young people of Turkey need a system in which children are encouraged to ask questions, a system where they are not criticized if they do not ask questions, a system where the wrong answer is simply the starting point to finding the right answer, where curiosity is encouraged. Students should be free to seek information where and how they need it.

Montessori offers a lot to attain this end. However, it is not necessarily the sole solution. What needs to be done for education in Turkey is that systems like Montessori, IB and Kagan Cooperative learning should all be examined. Educators need to take what works and develop it into a system designed specifically for Turkish children. Turkish education has suffered a great deal for more than a century. Efforts to update and modernize have eliminated what is the Turkish element in education. In an effort to improve education, the baby was thrown out with the bath water. It is important that as many different systems that actually work be examined and a unique approach to education that fits in with Turkish parents, Turkish children and Turkish society be developed.

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