Measuring What Matters in Montessori—And Beyond
The Developmental Environment Rating Scale, or DERS, is an important new tool developed by the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS) for measuring what matters in Montessori and other developmentally responsive environments for children. The instrument measures child and adult behaviors, as well as classroom environment characteristics, proven to support development in three areas: executive function, linguistic and cultural fluency, and social fluency and emotional flexibility. The DERS is the first research-backed tool for quantifying the things Montessori classrooms do well, and which have been shown to support children’s development across a wide range of domains and with lasting effects.
So what is it, and where did it come from?
The DERS was developed by a team of researchers (like all NCMPS tools) in response to requests from a variety of public Montessori programs looking for meaningful ways to observe in the prepared environment. NCMPS Director of Research Jackie Cossentino explains: “Lots of elements factored into the development of the DERS – from detailed analyses of existing teacher evaluation tools and environmental rating scales, to reviews of the literature on executive functions, to ongoing consultation with practitioners and trainers both in and outside of Montessori.”
The process began in 2013 with an existing tool developed by NCMPS Lead Coach Elizabeth Slade for use in Montessori charter school audits. You can see elements of that original check-list in the fully developed DERS. Attributes such as clean, uncluttered environments; soft, conversational teacher talk; and child behavior characterized by voluntary movement, deep engagement, and persistence, indicate high-functioning Montessori environments. It turns out that these attributes also characterize learning environments which nurture outcomes such as focus, inhibition, working memory, linguistic fluency, and social-emotional learning.
“The big breakthrough with the DERS came when we tied these items to meaningful outcomes,” explains Cossentino. “As we analyzed existing tools, such as the ECERS and the CLASS, we discovered two amazing things. First, these tools were never designed with clear outcomes in mind. The second, which should come as no surprise, is that they don’t predict student performance in any but the most general ways. Because Montessori pedagogy is so detailed and so specific, and because researchers such as Angeline Lillard had already demonstrated a link between high fidelity Montessori implementation and high scores on measures of executive functions, we shifted our focus to aligning each and every item to one of five desired outcomes.”
Those outcomes — concentration, focus, and self-control, among others — are part of a well-defined suite of cognitive processes known as “executive functions”, which include attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem solving, and planning. They have been the subject of increasing study in recent years, and have been shown to correlate with success in school, health, income potential, and general life satisfaction. Over subsequent rounds of iteration, and with input from a wide range of researchers and practitioners, including the AMI Global Research Committee, the DERS team built up an inventory of observable items, divided among child behavior, adult behavior, and environmental attributes. Each item was vetted by Montessori teacher trainers and supported by citations from cognitive science literature. The full inventory comprises 60 items, each of which has been shown to support development in one or more of five domains:
- Initiation and concentration
- Inhibitory control
- Working memory
- Linguistic and cultural fluency
- Social fluency and emotional flexibility
A few examples of DERS items, with some of the domains they map to, can give a sense of how well this new tool validates developmentally appropriate practice:
- Navigating the Room with Care (walking around peers’ work, moving through the room without bumping into tables or shelves) — inhibitory control, social fluency
- Engaging with Purpose (focusing intently on one piece of work for an extended period of time, engaging sequentially with purpose rather than “flitting” from on activity to another) — working memory, inhibitory control, initiation and concentration
- Social Graces (adults model appropriate social graces — please, thank you, excuse me) — social fluency, linguistic and cultural fluency
- Offering Options (adults offer children choices of activities and solutions) — emotional flexibility, inhibitory control, initiation and concentration
- Activities Requiring Turn-taking (materials are limited in number, waiting for snack or lunch is necessary) — working memory, inhibitory control
- Access and Choice (children have access to the entire environment, children choose their work freely from a wide variety of options) — initiation and concentration
And so on.
The tool began as a pencil-and-paper observation rubric, but it became clear that development as an app for an electronic tablet would have advantages: ease of use (managing the 60 items), as well as data storage and analysis. The DERS app is now being distributed in a series of one-day training sessions around the country, and schools can begin using it as soon as their staff are trained. The DERS is structured to give immediate feedback to schools and teachers, and can be used in staff development as a tool of continuous improvement.
A Bonus: The MEFS and the DERS-MEFS Network
It’s important to note that the DERS doesn’t directly measure the development of executive functions in children — it only measures the presence of behaviors and attributes known to support the five domains. However, decades of research in the field has produced some extremely highly regarded and well-validated tools for that assessment. One commonly widely used tool has been the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS), which has also been developed into an app called the Minnesota Executive Function Scale (MEFS) by University of Minnesota researchers at Reflection Sciences. Paired with the DERS, the MEFS can tell schools and researchers about the correlation between environment and executive functions.
NCMPS has launched a collaborative project, the DERS-MEFS Network, in which schools can join a community of practice to share data across the network and build a better understanding of the impact of fully implemented Montessori (and other developmental approaches).
I spoke with one school leader who has taken the training about her take on the tool and how she plans to use it. Pam Lynn, founding head of Bergamo Montessori Schools in Sacramento, California, is a 42-year Montessori veteran with three trainings (St. Nicholas in 1973, AMS at Notre Dame in 1975, and AMI at Montessori Northwest in 2009). She remember hearing Dr. Stephen Hughes speak in 2009 about the importance of getting Montessori invited to the educational research table, and finding a way to talk about Montessori that is reliable and understood — and thinking, “Good luck with that.” Seven years later, she sees the DERS as meeting that challenge, measuring what matters in a way that has nothing to do with dogma or institutional politics.
Lynn is most excited about helping teachers in her school to “see the forest for the trees.” Even though we all have the goal of the independent, socially and emotionally fluent, linguistically competent child in mind from our training, “somehow these goals can get lost in the details of the presentations and sequences of lessons.” This tool will help her work collaboratively with her staff to focus on what matters most: to create the right conditions to support the development of the child’s powers to optimally learn and to self regulate. Once that is done, the academics will follow. As Dr. Montessori said: “Normalization is the point of arrival and it then becomes the point of departure.”
DERS Training is organized at the school level. The cost is $1,000 per school, with a required minimum of 3 participants per school (there is no maximum). This cost includes the training session and a one-year DERS subscription, and membership in the DERS-MEFS workshop. MEFS annual licenses cost $5 per child. Breakfast, lunch, and light snacks are typically provided at the trainings. After the initial subscription included with the training, DERS annual costs are as follows:
- 1-5 classrooms: $500
- 6-10 classrooms: $750
- 11-15 classrooms: $1000
- 16-20 classrooms: $1250