Montessori observed particular trends in children's development, which she called, "Planes of Development," and which guide our practice, from what we expect of children in particular age groups to how we organize classrooms. While her influence on Early Childhood classrooms is the most commonly lauded, Montessori's observations about the nature of adolescence was equally profound. Indeed, Montessori was far ahead of her time in understanding the unique motivations and needs of adolescents.
If we think of the first six years of life as that window when children are building their cognitive filing cabinets and the second six years of life as when children are filling those files with tons of content, the third six years are when all that content gets put to use. The third Plane of Development, from twelve to eighteen, is an explosion of social influence, when learners understand the world and their place within it and are able to see the ways in which they can use their own influence for good. This has immediate impact on the design of the classroom, with a new focus on engagement outside of the walls of the classroom and a new interest from learners in creating change in their communities.
This blossoming civic awareness appears concurrent with extraordinary physical changes, far more difficult to predict and more erratic between learners than at any other time in our formal schooling. Classrooms might include students of the same chronological age but widely different physical development: one child still proportioned like an Elementary student and another a full six feet tall. The rapid and irregular physical growth, particularly in early adolescence, seems to take the full focus of the child. Instead of the thoughtful, focused learners of Upper Elementary that teachers could challenge with long-term, text-based research projects, the classroom is filled with emotionally unpredictable, socially motivated learners who are trying literally to remain upright in bodies that may have grown while they were sleeping.
Montessori's original recommendation for this stage of development was the "Erdkinder." In the proposed Erdkinder, early adolescents would direct the rapid physical changes in their bodies into productive, farm-based work, learning about the land and challenging themselves with the physical labors it demanded. Montessori suggested that learners could run their own communities, even recommending that they be put in charge of their own residences, which their parents could come to visit and be hosted by their adolescent children. In this model, the intrinsic motivation to separate from one's parents, to become an adult in one's own right, would be supported in productive ways. Then, once they'd worked through this period of rapid emotional, social and physical growth (generally, between 12 and 15 years old,) adolescents could return to the stability of a classroom with the maturity and self-regulation advanced study requires.
Most Montessori adolescent programs today don't take Montessori's original model quite that far, but you will are unlikely to see learners sitting at desks or filling out bubbles on standardized test papers. Instead, contemporary Montessori programs for the Third Plane engage the learners' social interest, developing extended, project-based civics experiences that might range from internships in local businesses to, yes, even physical work on the land. You're likely to see students deciding together, with an adult's guidance and facilitation, what problems they want to address in their communities. It falls to the creative teacher, then to identify the ways in which these engaged, authentic learning experiences can also meet the range of content we hope learner will master at this age. Imagine, though, the practical skills in math, science and literacy that can be developed when a group of teenagers is charged with building a new fence around their campus. Imagine how challenging the social interactions in an extended, applied project like that may be, and how much diplomacy, negotiation and problem solving students must develop to pull it off.
Montessori Third Plane programs counter many of the norms traditional educators carry about Middle School. This is not a time for old-fashioned book learning. Instead, these environments foster independence, inter reliance, civic engagement and agency. We know that adolescents want to be heard, to have real influence, to identify themselves as separate and important contributors unique from their parents, to have ownership over their actions and their communities. Indeed, while these spaces may not look academic in a traditional sense, there are abundant opportunities for real, meaningful and relevant learning to take place even in the seeming chaos of adolescence.