The Expectation Effect, Montessori and Batman

Children are as independent as you expect them to be. Dr. Maria Montessori

Shortly after my daughter started at Villa di Maria at three years old, I found myself explaining why we chose Montessori to a family member who was plainly critical of our choice. I started by telling him all the reasons that jumped to my mind as relatable, reasons that would, frankly, move us through the conversation and onto other topics—I went to a Montessori school myself, the beautiful campus and classrooms, the hands-on learning, the outdoor time… and my favorite, Montessori does not underestimate what children can do and encourages them to learn and grow and do independently. In that conversation I gave the example of vegetable cutting—a favorite task of many a child in a Montessori Children’s House.

And that’s when I was reminded that the notion that a child can do things independently—or even should do things independently—is not universal. The family member was upset by the idea that a three-year old would use a knife. “Why in the world,” he asked (and I am paraphrasing from memory), “would it matter if a little kid used a knife? Why would you waste time teaching that? It will take forever, and she’s just going to cut herself. No three-year old needs to use a knife.”

“It’s not about the knife!” and “Don’t underestimate my child!” was what I wanted to say (shout). But I didn’t, because while I knew intuitively the importance of a child’s ability to complete tasks like vegetable cutting independently, I could not, right then, articulate the answers.

Which brings me to what might seem like a hard left turn: a 2015 episode of the podcast Invisibilia called “How to Become Batman.” The episode is about a behavioral/psychological phenomenon called the Expectation Effect, also known as the Pygmalion Effect, which shows that our expectations of others can shape their behaviors.

There are quite a few resources out there about the Expectation Effect from the realms sociology and psychology and Montessori pedagogy. I’ve listed some in the reference and resource list below. But I want to focus on “How to Become Batman” because it contains what I think is a perfect example of how the expectations we set for our children can shape what they are actually able to achieve, for better or worse.

When you lighten someone’s load, you don’t allow them to expand. Dan Norris, Vermont Association for the Blind 

In the episode we meet two men, both blind since a very young age, who grew up with very different expectations set for them. One, Adam, grew up being told he needed to be protected and assisted in the world, that there was very little he could do on his own because he was blind. The other, Daniel, grew up understanding that he could do anything that a sighted child could do. Each boy met the expectations set for him. By the time he was 11 or 12, Adam required assistance to do just about everything. At that same age, Daniel was getting to and from school, climbing trees, running, playing with other kids and riding a bike completely independently, using self-taught echolocation.

Adam and Daniel’s lives, their experiences, were very different because the expectations set for them were very different. It isn’t that Daniel had special training or therapies that taught him to do the things he could do, things that were pretty typical for a sighted child. It’s that he was never told he couldn’t do them. The adults in his life set the expectations high enough so that he could expand to meet them.

The adults in Adam’s life, while their intentions were only good, limited their expectations for Adam. Out of fear for him, an impulse to protect him, they limited what he was allowed to do by himself. They taught him, albeit inadvertently, that he was not capable of doing anything. And since he believed he was incapable, he was incapable.

Which brings me back to the significance of independence-building tasks like vegetable cutting in a Montessori classroom. When young children are allowed to practice and eventually master tasks independently, they are learning that they are capable. They are becoming competent. And each time they master a task on their own, they gain confidence and are motivated to keep trying at new things, to keep learning. Their competence grows and feeds their confidence. Their confidence grows and keeps them motivated. It’s a virtuous cycle.

So, it’s not about the knife… or at least, not only about the knife. There are fine motor skills and spatial senses at work when a child learns vegetable cutting. In fact, all of the independence-building tasks and activities in a Montessori environment come with added benefits like the development of a writing grasp and hand-eye coordination or the opportunities to concentrate and practice grace and courtesy. But the real gift of Montessori is that children are allowed to complete these tasks themselves—they are told that they can do it.

The value of independence is introduced in the Young Children’s Community and Children’s House with Practical Life activities but it doesn’t stop there. It is encouraged and fostered throughout the Montessori curricula. Each and every lesson, at every level, is given with the goal that the child will ultimately be able to master the work on their own. From zipping a jacket to mastering long division, our guides teach our children how to do the work themselves. It is part of their certification as AMI guides to study the developmental stages of children, to know what children are truly capable of and how to help get them there.

So does this mean that the adults in a Montessori environment are never helping children? Not at all. Guides and assistants are in the environments modeling and teaching not only academic lessons, but also social behaviors and even table manners. But they are also doing something that a lot of folks forget to do. They are watching and waiting.

Daniel, from “How to Become Batman,” talks about this. As an adult he teaches blind children and their families how to raise their expectations of what’s possible. The biggest obstacle, he says, is that people who mean well “will jump in half a second too soon, and they rob the [child] from that learning moment.” That half-second is exactly what Montessori allows to play out—the opportunity to learn.

What is so great about Montessori is that it does not underestimate what children can do. Of course there are limits based on age, size, verbal readiness and other developmental factors. But the adults in Montessori environments recognize those limits as well as what is truly possible within those limits. And we consciously raise our expectations to meet those possibilities.

Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed. Dr. Maria Montessori

Because our children are never told that they cannot dress themselves, do Egyptian multiplication, make their own lunches, work out problems with friends, use big words, fold laundry, write reports, take care of pets, read novels, dissect squid, carry their own belongings, keep their workspaces clean, write in cursive, identify types of leaves and animals, know the order of operations, write a play, compose a song… because our children are never told they cannot do these things, they continue to try, practice and to learn. And they build confidence. Montessori teaches them that they are capable people, that they can do anything.

References and Resources

The Absorbent Mind by Dr. Maria Montessori

Expect the Best: On the Power of Expectation

How to Become Batman on Invisibilia

Independence: the Birthplace of Self-Esteem

Pygmalion Effect: How Expectation Shape Behaviour For Better or Worse

Research every teacher should know: setting expectations

Thank you to Melinda Smith, Carrie Tallon, Jessie Braud and Heather Steinman for the photos.


A Peek into Our Elementary Distance Learning Program

When the pandemic led us to close our campus back in March, right at the start of Spring Break, our incredible and dedicated guides worked at lightening speed to create distance-learning plans for each of our levels. I am not exaggerating when I write that the guides worked straight through Spring Break—around the clock—to convert their homes into distance learning studios. They prepared videos, materials, lesson plans and schedules to keep our student communities connected and learning.

At the time, the distance learning plans were meant to be very temporary, to hold us over for a couple of weeks until we would back on campus. Then those weeks turned into more weeks and then months—and we closed out our school year online. Being apart, away from campus, was not what any of us wanted but our guides, assistants, students and parents took on the challenge, dedicated to keeping our children learning and our community strong, and jumped whole-heartedly into daily online class meetings, lessons, book club gatherings, social hours, sing-alongs and read-alouds. The last months of school were a whirlwind, but we did it and we did it well!

And it’s a good thing we did because we are here, a few weeks into the 2020-2021 school year, and the pandemic is still going strong. Thanks to the hard work our people put in last spring—not to mention the planning, preparing, discussing and tweaking put in by our elementary guides over the summer—we were able to start this school year with a distance-learning option for our elementary students.

As we showed you last week, we were lucky (and resourceful!) enough to be able to reopen our campus for all of our Children’s House families and any of our Elementary families who chose to return in-person. Around 20% of our Elementary families were more comfortable starting the year in the distance learning program, and we are very proud that we have been able to serve them along with their on-campus peers.

This year’s elementary program is led by Guide Rebecca Callander, who is online with Lower and Upper Elementary students every day. Distance learning students follow daily and weekly schedules of class meetings, lessons, smaller group meetings and conferences.

Our elementary distance learners are engaged daily in their online classroom with Ms. Rebecca and their community of online peers. But that’s not all! Distance learners also spend time with Ms. Carrie and Ms. Hannah, of the administrative team, for additional academic and social support throughout the week. Upper Elementary book club groups gather over Zoom on Fridays to discuss their books-of-the-month. And distance learners and on-campus learners are kept connected through our on-campus guides and assistants with cross-over group lessons and activities.

Last, but absolutely not least, our parents strengthen our distance learning program by encouraging and supporting their children to participate, stay motivated and engage in projects on- and offline. We know this is not always easy, but our parents are doing it! We are all in it together and we are making it happen.

One day we will all be on campus again. But until then, we are pretty happy and pretty proud to have a community of guides, assistants, admin staff and parents who are keeping us—all of us—together.

Many thanks to Rebecca Callander, Winston Liddy, Sophie Andre and Laura Wheeler for the photos.




We are Back on Campus!

photo credit: Carrie Tallon

This morning when we were headed out the door for drop off he said the good thing about leaving school is that you get to go back the next day. I believe it’s safe to say he’s already loving it!a Children’s House Parent

After 24 weeks of being apart, we reopened our campus last week! Those 24 weeks were difficult for our staff, our parents, and especially for our children. And while we here at Villa di Maria did plenty of grieving and worrying about the pandemic, we also poured our hearts, minds and labor into planning and preparing for a safe and responsible reopening. And we did it!

Well, technically speaking, we are still doing it. The pandemic is not over, and we are fully committed to remaining vigilant in the modified processes and daily routines we put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. Our plan starts with stable groups, expanded classroom spaces and a face mask requirement (when physical distancing is not possible) in the admin, Children’s House and Elementary environments (yes, even the 3-, 4- and 5 year-olds are wearing their masks!). You can read about our full plan here.

We are also offering a tandem distance learning program for our Elementary families who are more comfortable postponing their return to campus. We will take a peek (show off!) that plan on next week’s blog.

photo credit: Melissa LeBeau
photo credit: Carrie Tallon
photo credit: Melissa LeBeau

Our reopening would not have been possible without these three things: our campus, our staff and our community of parents and grandparents.

We are lucky enough to sit on 6 acres of land, which has allowed us to spread out and increase our students’ work and play spaces while still allowing them to remain in their stable groups.

photo credit: Carrie Tallon
photo credit: Carrie Tallon
photo credit: Carrie Tallon
photo credit: Carrie Tallon
photo credit: Carrie Tallon

We are proud to say we have a staff of dedicated and hard working people who put in hours upon hours of discussion, research, planning, preparation, brain power, muscle power and truly thoughtful care to get our campus and classroom environments reconfigured and ready to reopen.

photo credit: Robyn Milos
photo credit: Robyn Milos
photo credit: Robyn Milos

And we are grateful, if that word were enough, for our community of parents and grandparents who have contributed their time, skill and dollars to support our reopening. Parent and grandparent volunteers came to our campus in the heat of August to clear shrubbery, expand patios, trim trees, pull weeds and do any other thing we asked of them to modify and beautify our outdoor spaces. Our parents and grandparents have also contributed to our much needed COVID-19 Fund, so that we were able to purchase shade structures, cleaning and disinfecting materials, equipment for the additional play spaces, picnic tables to use for lunch and work, air purifiers and so much more. In just a few short weeks, the fund grew to a little over $20,000 and allowed us to cover these necessary but unexpected costs. There is truly no way we could have reopened without our community’s incredible generosity and support.

photo credit: Carrie Tallon

So now we are back on campus. And we are so happy (thrilled! elated!) to be back together! No one more so than our children…

photo credit: Melissa LeBeau
photo credit: Carrie Tallon
photo credit: Carrie Tallon
photo credit: Carrie Tallon
photo credit: Carrie Tallon

VdM Class of 2020 – Oliver

At the end of a typical school year, we honor and celebrate our sixth-year graduates and their families on campus with a graduation ceremony and after party—lovely speeches, delicious food, laughter, tears and lots and lots of Fitz’s root beer. This year the pandemic forced us to change our plans and get creative. Graduating families came in their cars to watch a parade put on by our community and a screening of their prerecorded speeches, all the while maintaining a safe distance (and yes, there was root beer!).

While we did put on a pretty magnificent social-distanced ceremony (if we do say so ourselves), we think the graduates deserve to be celebrated just a little bit more. This summer we’ll highlight each of our sixth-year graduates on the blog. You’ll meet some of the best people we know, children we love and have watched grow and develop into thoughtful, funny, curious, exciting and vibrant young people. And you’ll get to watch their graduation speeches! Today, we’ll meet Oliver.

Oliver is kind, passionate and never afraid to speak their mind. The classroom won’t be the same without them. Upper Elementary fourth-year student

Villa di Maria: Introduce yourself! Tell us something you think everyone should know about you.

Oliver: My name is Oliver and I am a 6th-year graduate of Villa di Maria. I have been going to this school for 9 years and I am sad to be leaving.

VdM: What are your hobbies and interests? What do you like to do for fun?

Oliver: I really like to read, cook, and roller skate.

VdM: Do you have a favorite book or movie (or both)? What is it and why?

Oliver: Right now my favorite book is Fablehaven because I really like adventure and plot twists and that 5-book series is full of them! My favorite movie right now would have to be the 2 Maleficent movies. I really like them because it shows how misunderstood and not evil she really is! (I really suggest that you watch it!)

VdM: Tell us something about yourself that you are proud of.

Oliver: I am proud to have been elected to the UN closing bureau on the topic of the Advancement of Women.

VdM: How old were you when you started at Villa di Maria?

Oliver: I was three years old when I first started at Villa. One of my favorite memories is when my best friend and I would race each other to the playground every day after lunch.

VdM: Let’s talk about this school year… how do you feel about closing out your last year at Villa di Maria with distance learning?

Oliver:I feel like distance learning has really cut off a bond between me and my teachers that would have flourished towards the end of the year and I am heartbroken that it had to happen like this.

VdM: What do you miss most about being on campus?

Oliver: I really just miss the feel of the environment that all of the other students and teachers make and I think that’s what I miss most.

VdM: What’s next for you? Where will you be going to middle school?

Oliver: The path to the future is really uncertain but I have gotten into a school in Milwaukee called Maryland Avenue Montessori and I am excited to start there!

VdM: What is something you’re most excited about going into your new school? Is there anything you’re not excited about?

Oliver: I am really excited to move on to new Math works especially more Algebra. Something I am not excited about would be the possibility of starting the school year off online.

VdM: Last but not least, you graduated from Villa di Maria!! How are you going to celebrate this summer?

Oliver: There isn’t much celebrating that I can do this summer because we are all quarantined but I will try my best to be happy.

Thank you, Oliver! It is truly bittersweet to say good bye. Villa di Maria will never be the same without you, but we know you are headed into a fantastic future. We are so proud to call you a VdM alum and we will miss you.

And now… Oliver’s graduation speech:

Photos courtesy of Oliver’s family and Melinda Smith.