Ideal Instructional Models: Successful Examples of Complete Human Education

This article is from our series, Education Reform: A Simple Blueprint for Human-Friendly Education. For a directory of all articles in this series, click here. To get the full series in one downloadable PDF, sign-up for the free report in the black box on the right. 

Ideal Instructional ModelsEducation Reform – Part II:
Practical Implementations of Complete Human Education

In previous articles, we focused on: the core problems of education in the United States, a simple model for effective learning, and how that model helps us resolve our top problems. We also explored how this model relates to special education.

From this point forward, we will look at successful examples of Complete Human Education. Eventually, we will conclude with a simple matrix of how to construct an ideal school system. The rationale behind all recommendations in this matrix will be supported in the previous articles of this report. 

Ideal Instructional Models

So far in this series, I’ve focused on “solutions” that any one teacher –in theory— could slowly incorporate into an individual classroom. However, as a former classroom teacher, I fully realize there is a vast difference between the “theoretical” and the “practical” capacity of any one person. Clearly, these individual solutions would be much easier for teachers to implement –and have a much greater impact on students— when supported through the curriculum, by the administration, and by the culture of the school.

The following instructional models are just a few of many examples that provide effective, school-wide frameworks for supporting the solutions described in the first several articles in this Education Reform series.

Montessori Philosophy & Curriculum

Maria Montessori dedicated 50 years of her life to the observation and testing of her methods. She first sought to understand principles guiding effective learning –based on the natural development of children and young adults– then developed a comprehensive curriculum according to these principles.

Of all educational psychologists and specialists to ever live, Maria Montessori was the only one to develop a comprehensive framework for putting her theories into practice. For this reason, you will see that the “Ideal School System” matrix outlined at the conclusion of this report is built on the Montessori Model of Human Development and largely incorporates Montessori curriculum and materials.

The Montessori legacy has been proven over 100 years. It has transcended all socio-economic and cultural boundaries.

Why reinvent the wheel?

The scope of Montessori’s full curriculum is well beyond that of this report, but her work can be neatly summarized into four principles:

    • Provide Structure. Learners naturally need boundaries to keep from becoming overwhelmed, to ensure that the learning expectations are developmentally appropriate, and to assimilate with social expectations.
    • Celebrate Originality. Learners are empowered when they have an opportunity to make choices and explore personal interests.
    • Build on Aptitudes. The very process of “learning” means stretching into unknown or undeveloped areas. Learners will be most effective when that stretching starts from a place that respects their strengths, creating a foundation of confidence for reaching deeper into the “unknown” territory of authentic learning.
    • Make it Relevant. Students must know how the information they are learning connects to their life now, or in the future. They are always asking themselves, “Why do I need to know this?” This question is not coming from a “bad attitude,” it’s coming from their biology; their brain absolutely needs to understand these connections in order to properly organize new information in their brain.

Are Expectations Developmentally Appropriate?

As content standards have grown more stringent in the past decade, students are being held to higher and higher expectations. Sometimes, it’s good to hold students to high expectations. But only when our expectations are within the students’ intellectual, physical, and social/emotional development. In too many cases, our increased standards have placed an impossible burden on students; they are expected to perform beyond their capacity.

Dr. Montessori observed that children and young adults all go through the same general development cycles, but those cycles can vary by up to three years. For example, what one “normal” child is naturally able to do at age 6 may not come “naturally” to another child until age 9. However, that 9 year-old likely mastered some other skill three years ago that the 6 year-old won’t get for another three years.

For this reason, Montessori grouped her students in multi-age cohorts so they could learn –and teach—each other. Every child grows in a unique pattern, with their own unique timing. Maria Montessori developed an instructional model that naturally accommodates this ebb-and-flow of child development.

Montessori on Human Development

Dr. Montessori was uniquely qualified to understand human development, versus “cultural influence.” She was a medical doctor and a doctor of anthropology. She was exiled to foreign countries across across eastern and western cultures for more than half of her career.  Dr. Montessori concluded that human development is a 24-year process and established 4 distinct phases of the development process.

These phases of development are not linear, as we tend to assume. In reality, students experience “peaks and valleys” throughout their development. At some points, they are learning and developing very rapidly; they seem to absorb everything. Other times are much slower and may even appear to include some regression. This is a normal pattern of human development.

Montessori Model of Human Development

Montessori on Physical Education

“One of the greatest mistakes of our day is to think of movement by itself, as something apart from the higher functions…Mental development must be connected with movement and be dependent on it.  It is vital that educational theory and practice should become informed by this idea.”                                                    – Maria Montessori   

Brain research over the last decade confirms what Montessori always knew; movement and activity are essential to the process of learning. Scientists have confirmed that physical activity develops the intellect; aerobic movement actually manufactures new brain chemicals that provide power to the brain. And, the coordination of fine and gross motor skills build channels for new neuron connections that are vital for learning.1

Above all, Montessori believed that physical development was integrated with the complete learning process and core to the development of independent living. She also believed that movement and physical activity help to create peaceful children.

She encouraged freedom to move in the classroom, to work on the floor, or outdoors rather than being restricted to sitting for long periods of time at a desk. She developed materials to help children develop large and fine motor skills. She encouraged free play as a critical way for children to build muscle, coordination, and spatial/body awareness at their own pace.

As children get older, she encouraged the participation in team games for the development of physical and social skills. She also emphasized the need for children to learn and practice the principles of self-care with: an active lifestyle, healthy nutrition, and proper sleep. These skills may seem “obvious” now, but this was long before it was fashionable to teach them.

Montessori always viewed physical development and self-care as a critical –not optional— element of education.

 Montessori on the the Power of Gardening

“Gardening” may seem somewhat random. However, gardening is like a “super activity” that provides students with many benefits.

Dr. Montessori believed gardening provided students with an appreciation for “where all things come from” and expanded their sense of the world in a tangible and relevant way. She felt it was important for students to connect with the Earth as the source of all life and that gardening gives students an appreciation for the development of life.

Gardening activities were incorporated in her curriculum for students of all ages. Over the last several decades, studies continue to confirm there are countless benefits to gardening. It promotes a sense of ownership, develops responsibility skills, and has been proven to be healing for people who have suffered trauma. There are also neurological benefits to working with soil.

Gardening also correlates with all three layers of the Success Pyramid:

Level 1: Confidence – Students take a lot of pride and ownership in caring for their plants and crops, which boosts their confidence.

Level 2: Self-Management – The consistent care and maintenance of a garden builds helps students better understand their own needs for self-care and self-management. The process of caring for a garden also builds important organization skills. Working with others in the class to care for their garden promotes the development of communication and interaction skills.

Level 3: Learning – Witnessing the life cycle of plants provides many opportunities for students to make connections of relevance across other areas of study, particularly in science and social studies. Caring for a garden presents many real-world math problems to solve and opportunities for relevant reading and writing activities. Many schools sell their produce to the community, which then becomes a real world lesson in math and economics.

Even if “gardening” does not directly match specific content standards, the pride, ownership, collaboration, and learning connections students make has a profound impact on students. It is a powerful activity to help build a positive learning culture.

Green Pastures School

Green Pastures is a small, independent school tucked in a rural pocket of suburban Detroit. The school is home to 70 students from ages 4-14 (pre-K to grade 8).

Green Pastures Philosophy: Above all, the philosophy of the school is built on strengths. “Every child is a genius; our job is to nurture the child to let the genius shine through.” Students are grouped in multi-age cohorts according to social/emotional and intellectual development, just as Montessori promotes. Teachers embrace social/emotional coaching as a comprehensive part of the learning environment.

Green Pastures Structure: Every cohort has a lead teacher, known as the “Morning Meeting” teacher. In Morning Meeting, students have their daily language lessons, thematically connected with a science/social studies theme. (Language lessons and expectations are adjusted according to each students’ ability.) Following Morning Meeting, students have a 15-minute “fresh air” break before returning to math class; math groups are also assigned according to students’ level.

The morning schedule is highly differentiated according to students’ individual development. These placement decisions are made based on careful observation, assessment, and collaboration of the teacher and parents. “Differentiation” has become an important value in education, but the effective execution of differentiation is still lacking across the USA.  For Green Pastures, differentiated instruction has always been core to their morning instruction of math and language.

Green Pastures’ afternoon schedule is what really sets the school apart! The school operates on a trimester schedule. Every trimester, a wide variety of elective classes are offered. Each class meets for one hour, once a week.  The afternoon schedule accommodates two one-hour sessions, for a total of 10 sessions across the week. Students of all ages select the classes they want to take for each afternoon slot. Some sessions may even be selected as a “free hour.”

Some examples of afternoon elective classes include: eco-jewelry, foldable books, box-building, cardboard construction, gardening, farming (includes a weekly visit to a nearby farm), computer programming, art, music, poetry, drama, set design, even a class about tea!

One semester -for reasons no one understands- Tea Class was so popular that it filled to capacity quickly, leaving many students out. So, one teacher volunteered to cancel a different class she was planning to teach to open a second Tea Class. This is a beautiful example of the school accommodating the students, rather than stuffing the students into a predefined, inflexible mold.

The classes fall into seven categories: literature, humanities, mathematics, physical sciences, arts, technology, and physical education.  If students select two classes from each category throughout the year, they are recognized with a Renaissance Award at the end of the year. (In other words, they do not have to meet a quota, but are incentivized to sample a wide range of classes.)

The magic of Green Pastures’ afternoon program cannot be overstated! At minimum, in one school year, students of all ages are given the opportunity to make at least 30 significant choices about their education. (Ten electives X three trimesters.) That’s not even counting the “layers” within those decisions including whether or not to take a “free hour,” when to take it, and if they want to fulfill the category quota or not.

The students at Green Pastures are engaged and love to learn because:

      • The “whole” student is valued at Green Pastures; social/emotional development is valued just as much as academic development.
      • Students are met “where they are at,” particularly for language and math instruction.
      • The electives program provides many opportunities for: students’ strengths to be explored and celebrated, their voices to be heard through the wide variety of choices, and for students to explore a wide range of relevant and high-interest topics.

Oakland Schools Technical Campuses (OSTC)

OSTC combines academic knowledge and technical career training to prepare students for high-skill, high-wage, and high-demand careers. Enrolled students spend half of their day at their home school and the other half attending OSTC.

OSTC provides curriculum and training in nine nationally-recognized career “clusters” that are developed around broad occupational areas. Each cluster provides learning experiences through different, yet related, career options. The nine clusters include:

  • Engineering/Emerging Technologies
  • Information Technology, Entrepreneurship, and Advanced Marketing (iTEAM)
  • Health Sciences
  • Transportation Technology
  • Biotechnology and Environment Science
  • Construction Technology
  • Cosmetology/Human Services
  • Culinary Arts/Hospitality
  • Visual Imaging

Students typically attend OSTC for their last 2-3 years of high school. Each year, they can choose a different career cluster. This allows students to deeply explore at least two career clusters in depth. This exposure allows students to make informed decisions, based on practical experience, about post-secondary career training or education options. This experience prevents students from investing in an expensive, four-year college degree, only to get out in the “real world” and discover their chosen career is not what they expected.

The OSTC program naturally inspires motivation and engagement in students. First, the opportunity to choose a career cluster is a key element of motivation. In addition, the RELEVANCE of the real-world, work-based training programs is extremely engaging. And, of course, the hands-on nature of the program is extraordinarily brain-friendly.

At OSTC, students can find their career direction, fulfill high school graduation requirements, earn college credits, join student organizations, and make new friends with similar interests.


The three models described above (Montessori, Green Pastures, and Oakland Schools Technical Campuses) are just a FEW OF MANY instructional models that are putting the most effective educational solutions into practice at the school-wide level.

In the next article, we’ll explore a proven political model for making these changes possible at a national level.

To our students’ success,

Susan Kruger Signature



Susan Kruger, M.Ed.

Education Reform: A Simple Blueprint for Human-Friendly Education

Education Reform - From the Series


Ratey, John J.,Hagerman, Eric.Spark: The Revolutionary New Science Of Exercise And The Brain. New York : Little, Brown, 2008. Print.

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