Patterns and Design
Contextual Inquiry is the observation/interview method I needed when I was a Montessori teacher-in-training, scribbling down everything that little Alfred Diaz did for hours at a time, with no idea how my notes would improve my work or his. Or when I was a systems analyst back in the eighties, writing up requirements based on interviews with clients that resulted in computer applications that were "exactly what they asked for, but not what they wanted".
I don't mean to imply that every Montessori teacher is as clueless as I was about observation. Maybe if I was trained elsewhere or stayed in the field longer than three years, I would have learned to observe in ways that would make me a better teacher. But I went into software development starting in 1983, and I can say with confidence that most systems analysts at that time knew very little about applying ethnography to their work. It wasn't until 1998 that I heard about Context Inquiry and Contextual Design.
Contextual Inquiry is a specific kind of ethnography aimed at gathering data you can use to improve work practice. It's typically used with a design method called Contextual Design (Holtzblatt and Beyer, 1998) to create new ways of doing work with computer applications, but it can be applied to any aspect of work that's designed. For Montessorians, this includes organizational standards, school policies, school architecture and landscaping, ground rules for a classroom, classroom layout, forms or other artifacts that support assessment, rotation of materials, materials themselves, demonstrations, extensions and variations of exercises.
Ultimately, of course, "to improve practice" in a Montessori classroom means to better support the work of the child. We want to create affordances that help the child to navigate the classroom, select or invent appropriate activities, access support from teachers, classmates or other resources, express emotions appropriately, negotiate the use of materials and the boundaries of appropriate behavior. Contextual Inquiry can also provide a picture of this work that can be used to come up with better kinds of support.
I am now engaged in a Contextual Inquiry into the work done in Montessori classrooms to inform my software designs. With Contextual Inquiry, the ethnographer captures data using five different models of work: the flow model, the sequence model, the artifact model, the cultural model, and the physical model (Beyer and Holtzblatt, 1998). The links in the left hand column will take you to pages with my latest notes on these models.
These models may not be sufficient to describe the work of the child and the teacher in a Montessori classroom. This will be determined in the course of my literature review and study.
Some terms may need to be changed or definitions modified in order to make them clear and applicable in the context of the Montessori classroom. For example, in Contextual Inquiry, the term breakdown is generally associated with hesitations and errors. However, in the classroom, hesitations and errors are important opportunities for learning that should occur by design. In the context of the Montessori classroom, a breakdown would involve things like an inappropriate match between a child and a material or difficulties in social interactions between children or between teacher and child. These breakdowns can occur for any number of reasons that can be addressed by designers.
The notes are based on recollections of my experiences as a teacher, classroom observations and interviews, and my ongoing literature review of standards and policies of Montessori organizations and schools, position papers, and writings by Montessori and others that can help me fill out the work models. I am also conducting a literature review of authenticity, ethnography, and technology as they apply to Montessori classrooms. These notes will be used to inform future classroom observations, interviews, and design experiments with software and related curriculum.
Most of the discussion is not at the level of detail needed to be useful for design purposes. Design Implications were only added where detail was sufficient. The Artifact Model is about at the right level of detail but terribly incomplete. A few details are suggested without evidence in one part of the Sequence Model (Intents). Evidence for the discussion in Intents and missing details still need to be supplied through field work.
There are certainly other approaches to conducting field work that support design work in Montessori classrooms and schools, and I look forward to learning more about them (in particular I want to learn more about the Montessori approach to classroom research and how it relates to design experiments as described by Alan Collins and others. I also want to learn more about the mining and representing of design patterns a la Christopher Alexander). In the meantime, I hope that the current work can help promote constructive dialog between Montessorians and educational software designers.