Category Archives: Brain and cognitive development

CEF: Why K12 Schools Need To Embrace Creative Problem-Solving

The Creative Education Foundation on John Hunter, brainstorming techniques, and hope for future generations of creative thinkers and innovators.

The Creative Education Foundation (CEF), co-sponsors of Inly’s Omran ♦ Nelson Speaker Series event with John Hunter on April 9th, have trained thousands of people in creative problem-solving and brainstorming over the years. In fact, the founder of the foundation “invented” both brainstorming and creative problem-solving, techniques that have become the foundation of creative processes around the world. CEF clients include Visa, Stanley Black & Decker, HP, Microsoft, Hershey, Boeing, Staples and Ocean Spray. The group has a wide reach, having conducted Visioning Workshops at Disney World’s Epcot Center and CEF YouthWise programs in South Africa. Current projects include a brain science research study with Dartmouth College and consulting in Dubai to help educators use creativity in their work.

The Inly connection? Donna Milani Luther, Inly’s Head of School, has served as a designated leader and consultant for the CEF since 1984. She and John Hunter both presented talks at the CEF’s annual Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI) Conference in 2012 (sparking the idea to bring Hunter to speak at Inly). In 2013, the CEF moved its headquarters to the Inly School campus.

We recently had a chance to chat with both Stephen Brand and Kitty Heusner of the CEF about their work with school administrators and educators and their philosophy on the importance of creativity in K–12 education.

Stephen Brand, Director of Programming, CEF

You help adults in organizations tackle complex business problems. How does this work apply to K–12 education?
Over the years we’ve trained thousands of people in creative problem-solving and brainstorming, helping them uncover ideas and solutions to daily or long-term challenges. Whether you’re in a business or a nonprofit organization or running a K–12 school, many of the principles are the same.

For instance, we now offer a course called “Creativity in the 21st Century Classroom.”
We bring together teachers and principals, professional development staff and curriculum directors and we show them how to apply these proven methods in the classroom. We show them how to actively use creativity, brain-based learning research (i.e. multiple intelligence theory), and learning styles to accelerate learning and help them prepare for the Common Core State Standards with foundational skills that integrate creativity, collaboration, and action on ideas generated.

How does this tie into your overall mission?
Our mission is about “engaging and developing the next generation of creative thinkers and innovators.” Part of the CEF vision is enable educators to initiate change in their schools, revitalize communities and enhance methods and systems with new, yielding results that reflect the very problems identified to resolve. We’re most interested in helping administrators realize the power of using creativity in schools in developing a culture of innovation, creative approaches to student engagement and building the creative thinking skills of their students Independent, magnet and charter schools are initially investing much more in creativity in their schools. What we offer is fits more easily in independent, charter and magnet schools as they seek to differentiate their learning experiences from the typical public school. International schools seem to be quite intrigued with infusing creative thinking in their schools as well.

With the public schools, it’s going to take early adopters to jump on this. It really takes a forward-thinking superintendent or principal in a public school to embrace creativity as a core component in their efforts. Our hope is to get more and more schools, public, private, urban, suburban, to embrace this creative approach to education and find better ways of motivating students and allowing the ideas of students to drive their learning.

Does your research focus on adults or students?
Both. We’re currently working with Dartmouth College on a study to see whether learning creative thinking and creative problem-solving skills would change the actual brain structure of middle school students. This involves taking functional MRIs and analyzing both qualitative and quantitative data. In our academic journal, the Journal of Creative Behavior and at our annual conference we address creativity in education as well as creativity in business, organizations and even governments. Right now we see the K–12 education space as critical. Our world is becoming increasingly complex and we want to help schools and administrators focus on preparing future leaders to brainstorm creative solutions to complex problems in whatever fields they explore.

Katherine O. (Kitty) Heusner, Ph.D., Chair of the Board of Trustees, CEF

What do students need to succeed in this century? In the future?
They need critical thinking and problem-solving skills to navigate the changing world around them. One of our hopes is that CEF can reach out to schools that are often underserved to develop programs that promote creativity as a necessary skill for success. One of the ironies in education is that the ones who need help with creative problem-solving the most often receive the least.

Is this type of teaching and learning possible in traditional schools?
Yes, I think it is. When I hear people say, ‘We can’t do anything with creative thinking because we have to focus on the curriculum content,’ I think, ‘Wait a minute. It’s not about stopping to teach creativity as a new subject, it’s about infusing strategies into your teaching that foster creative thinking and present the content in creative ways.’

The reality is that most people have not experienced this type of learning themselves, and so it’s difficult to really see the possibilities. That’s why it’s important to work with the total school community—to work with administrators to help them model and support the change, to work with teachers to develop the skill set and mind set, and to involve parents to understand the importance.

What do you think is most important take-away from Hunter’s film and talks?
That one person in one classroom can truly make a significant difference in children, one at a time. John Hunter is an inspiring example of a teacher who did not in any way abandon what his students needed to learn—but rather saw a way to do it that would create enthusiasm and interest and, more importantly, develop critical in-depth learning and skill development that goes far beyond the content area that he may have originally been planning to teach. By allowing students to imagine themselves and play the roles Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State and even Arms Dealers, they became more engaged and motivated to understand the content as they lived the content.

How would you describe John Hunter’s approach to creative problem-solving?
What John has come up with is adaptable and adoptable for this changing population. It facilitates effective creative-thinking techniques—the key principle being that you do the divergent “open gathering” ideas separate from the “choosing among” ideas. We observe his students engaged in this type of learning in the film (World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements). They were encouraged not to jump early to conclusions but to jump thoughtfully to conclusions after they had gathered a variety of ideas and listened to each other in wonderful ways. It is creative thinking and problem-solving in action at its finest!

Further Reading:

John Hunter and His Montessori Message: An interview with Inly’s head of school

John Hunter Presents “World Peace Game” Film and Talk on Experiential Education

Culture of Creativity at Inly School


Inly 6th Grade Student Seeks Help Exploring How the Brain Reacts to Music

Olivia_DAllessandroEach year, Inly School 6th grade students are asked to take on a Capstone Project, a major research project that culminates their years in Upper Elementary and prepares them for the rigors of Middle School. Students choose a topic of interest, then undergo several months of research, interviews, and preparation before they present their findings in a final presentation to their classmates, teachers, and family.

At the beginning of the year, Inly’s 6th grade students work with their advisor to brainstorm ideas and select a project that can sustain and occupy their focus throughout the year. Each week, students meet for direct instruction on elements of research, communication, expository writing, and long-term planning skills.

This year, Olivia D’Allessandro of Hingham, MA has chosen to focus her Capstone Project on how the human brain reacts to music. “My teachers asked me to come up with an ‘Essential Question’ for my Capstone Project,” D’Allessandro said, “and my question explores how the human brain reacts to music.” When asked what inspired her choice of topic, Olivia explained that she has always had a passion for music. She was in a band at Inly School, plays the guitar, piano, and also sings. D’Allessandro is also fascinated with the human brain—how it functions and its many complex parts.

“Olivia’s excitement about her Capstone project has been shared with the rest of our family,” said Jon D’Allessandro, Olivia’s father. “It’s been a frequent discussion at dinner, breakfast, and on the way to school—basically it’s been her passion.” Olivia’s mother, Robbi D’Allessandro, is grateful that Inly School has assignments like the Capstone Project to engage her children. “It’s one thing to have a driven student like Olivia,” she observes, “it’s quite another to put her in a setting where she can channel her innate abilities in a topic of her choice. The Capstone Project is just one of many projects that Inly School has developed to nurture eager minds like Olivia’s.”

“I have three subtopics to my Capstone Project,” D’Allessandro explains. “The first is the psychology behind how our brains process music, the second is why we like music, and the third is how music can actually make us smarter.” To further the depth of her project, Olivia is hoping to conduct interviews (either in person or via Skype) with experts in all related fields. “I’d like to interview everyone from musicians to neuropsychologists—basically anyone who may have some insight into this topic.”

Inly’s Head of School, Donna Milani Luther, is a big supporter of the Capstone Project. “We want our students to be lifelong learners. This project not only allows our students to explore a particular topic but it also teaches our students how to learn and how to enjoy the process of learning. It’s really quite remarkable.” Tara Calianos, one of Inly’s Upper Elementary teachers, also feels that Capstone is an incredible opportunity for Inly students. “Throughout this whole process,” Tara said, “our students are going through critical self-reflection—asking themselves important questions about how they learn and where there are opportunities for growth. As a result, they leave 6th grade with a greater understanding of themselves.”

If you are a musician or a psychologist interested in being interviewed by Olivia, please email Upper Elementary teacher, Tara Calianos, at or call Inly School at  781-545-5544.

See the Inly Upper Elementary Curriculum page for more about academic curriculum and experiential learning in grades 4, 5 and 6.

What Are the Benefits of a Montessori Preschool?

“There are many who hold, as I do, that the most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six. For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement, is being formed.
– Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Montessori Preschool Absorbent Mind The Absorbent Mind: The Toddler and Preschool Years

Dr. Maria Montessori coined the phrase “Absorbent Mind” to describe the child’s most crucial developmental stage: the first six years. During decades of scientific observation, she noted the remarkable sponge-like ability of the child to take in new information.

During two stages of the Absorbent Mind period—from birth to age 3, and from age 3–6 —children soak up information from their environment, learning at a rapid rate. Because the unique capacity to learn in this way—and at this rate—lasts for the first six years of life, Dr. Montessori urged educators to take advantage of this critical stage. During this time, she argued, the impressions made on a child’s mind through lessons and the classroom environment are highly formative and can have a lasting impact on their future development.

Many of Dr. Montessori’s scientific theories are now supported by brain research being done today, more than 100 years later.  Based on our own experience over the past 40 years as an innovative Montessori school, we see many of the same benefits every day as children discover the joy and wonder of learning all around them.

5 Benefits of a Montessori Preschool and Kindergarten Program

1. Developmental Approach

The Montessori philosophy behind the Children’s House (preschool and kindergarten) program is based on scientific research into the stages of early childhood development. Designed to meet the developing needs of the three- to six-year-old, the Montessori program makes the most of this period of intense mental activity.

2. Comprehensive Curriculum

The Montessori preschool and kindergarten curriculum is remarkably broad and deep. The curriculum includes Language, Math, Science, Spanish Language, Cultural Studies (history, geography, physical sciences, botany, and zoology), Practical Life, Visual Arts, Music and Movement.  It is designed to help the child build skills and absorb knowledge at an individual pace and provides a solid foundation for elementary school and lifelong learning.

3. Focus and Independence

Making choices and using coordinated movements to accomplish tasks leads the preschool and kindergarten child toward self-regulation and self-control. The Montessori classroom environment and the Montessori method encourage focus, concentration and internal self-discipline.

4. Observation and Problem-Solving Skills

Through their Montessori work, children develop strong observation and problem-solving skills. Encouraged to make decisions from an early age, children in Montessori programs are nurtured to become creative problem-solvers who can make appropriate choices and manage their time well.

5. First Grade Readiness

Students who master the Children’s House Preschool and Kindergarten curriculum are extremely well prepared for the academic, physical, and social work of first grade in Montessori Lower Elementary or traditional elementary schools.

More on the Benefits of Montessori Early Education

Exploring the Benefits of Montessori Early Education (Inly Insights)

Montessori Education and Brain Development: New research validates 100-year-old method (Inly Insights)

The Benefits of Montessori at Inly School

The Benefits of a Montessori Education at Inly School

Montessori Philosophy and Mission at Inly School

Montessori Preschool and Kindergarten at Inly School

To learn more about the Children’s House program at Inly, visit the Preschool and Kindergarten portal on the Inly website:

Montessori Preschool and Kindergarten at Inly

Toddler, Preschool and Kindergarten Spanish Classes Celebrate Spring

Toddlers take Spanish classes at Inly School

Toddlers in the Bridging class look at a book with Marisol, Spanish teacher at Inly School

Over the past few months, toddlers and younger preschoolers in our Montessori-based Toddler and Bridging classes have been immersed in language about the season. They have learned about la primavera (spring), las flores (flowers), las mariposas (butterflies), la mariquita (the ladybug) and la araña (the spider). Integrating music whenever they can, the children have also been learning a new song, la araña pequeñita (the little spider). It’s been fun watching them perform!

Learning Spanish in Preschool and Kindergarten

Three-, four- and five-year-old students in Inly’s preschool and kindergarten program have also been building their Spanish vocabularies this spring. Along with covering primavera (spring) and las flores (flowers), students have been reviewing colores, numeros and frutas.

Montessori Preschool Spanish class at Inly School in Scituate MA

Dr. Steve Hughes: Montessori and the Future of Education

Preschool Spanish class at Inly School:
Learning with the Hungry Caterpillar!

Watch this video of the “Hungry Caterpillar” sampling frutas in a Children’s House classroom at Inly to get a sense of how hands-on activities make learning languages fun.

Inly Spanish Curriculum in Toddler House, Children’s House Preschool and Kindergarten

Spanish language for toddlers and preschool at Inly School in Scituate MA

Spanish classes integrate music and movement

At Inly, the Spanish program is designed to enable students to speak and write their basic thoughts and questions in a second language. The curriculum utilizes a combination of speaking, writing, and activities that are often based on music, art or Total Physical Response. Students learn to express themselves in a second language environment that promotes confidence and creativity.

What is Total Physical Response (TPR)?

Developed by Dr. James Asher, TPR is based on the premise that the human brain has a biological program for acquiring any natural language on earth. Designed for use with languages as well as math and science, the teaching method uses hands-on, kinesthetic activities to make learning stick.

Dr. Asher based the TPR program on 30 years of laboratory research. He observed that many months before even speaking, the child develops a “language-body conversation” with the parent, internalizing the patterns and sounds of the target language—and imprinting a linguistic map of how the language works. Read more at What is Total Physical Response?

Spanish Curriculum for Toddlers through Kindergarten

Toddler and Bridging Classes: Spanish Curriculum

  • Numbers
  • Body parts
  • Songs
  • Animals

Preschool and Kindergarten Classes: Spanish Curriculum

  • Vocabulary
  • Numbers
  • Games and songs
  • Questions and answers

More Recommended Reading

Inside Inly: World Languages for Toddlers, Preschool and Beyond…

Mandarin Chinese at Inly: Global Citizenship from the Ground Up

Inside Inly: Epiphanies in Elementary Spanish Classes for First, Second and Third Grades

Inside Inly: Upper Elementary Students in Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Grades Present in Spanish About Their Pets

World Languages for Toddlers, Preschool and Beyond…

Foreign languages for babies, toddlers and children

"Hearing Bilingual," The New York Times (illustration by Joyce Hesselberth)

When is the best time to learn a second or third language?

The earlier the better, according to research. During the sensitive period for language—from birth to about age six—children learn the primary language spoken at home and school at a rapid pace. They also have a remarkable ability to learn and even fluently speak other languages.

Over the past year, articles like Why Bilinguals Are Smarter and  Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language in the New York Times have examined new research on the cognitive benefits of learning foreign languages early. It turns out, they say, that learning other languages improves not only linguistic skills but also cognitive abilities like executive functioning. [See more links to resources below.]

Prime times for language acquisition

From birth to age 6, the “absorbent mind” soaks up information like a sponge. The child uses all five senses to absorb and understand information about the surrounding environment at home and in school.

Within this stage, the period from age 1.5 to 3 or 4 is marked by a “language explosion” as the child rapidly expands vocabulary and develops more sophisticated use of language. It is also a prime time to learn another language.

Spanish for toddlers, preschool and kindergarten

At Inly School, world language instruction begins in Toddler House. Spanish classes are integrated into the curriculum in the Toddler, Bridging, Preschool and Kindergarten classes, and in Lower Elementary (grades 1 – 3), Upper Elementary (grades 4 – 6) and Middle School (grades 7 – 8). Mandarin Chinese is taught in Full-Day Kindergarten and in the After-School Program.

Developing an ear and getting a head start

“Starting to learn a second language early on gives children a huge head start,” says Lynda Jackson, Director of World Languages at Inly. “Children are able to pick it up quickly and with enthusiasm. They are not inhibited and are willing to speak it without fear. It provides them with a better ear for the language. They pick up the sounds and can duplicate them naturally, and the younger they start the more likely they will develop a native-like accent.

“Also, all the basic vocabulary they learn early on gives them a leg up as they enter the upper grades. They will be better prepared to take advanced classes in middle school and high school.”

Montessori philosophy and the Inly language program

“World languages have always been part of our curriculum, at all levels,” explains Julie Kelly-Detwiler, Inly Curriculum Director. “It’s part of our Montessori philosophy to teach children when they’re developmentally ready and to take full advantage of these ‘sensitive periods’ of intellectual development. We teach material when children are most receptive to learning it.”

Research supporting PreK-12 foreign language instruction

The ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) has a whole section of its website arguing for an earlier start to language instruction—and it has the research to back it up. Here are some excerpts from its Q & A section:

[Link]: What does research show about the cognitive and academic benefits of early language learning?

“Every piece of research in the field points to the benefits of starting a second language as early as three years of age. The other key to becoming proficient in another language is a long, continuous contact with the language.”

“It is critical that foreign language instruction be available to all students throughout their PK-12 academic experience. Knowing other languages and understanding other cultures is a 21st Century skill set for American students as they prepare to live and work in a global society….”

“Additionally, foreign language learning is much more a cognitive problem solving activity than a linguistic activity, overall. Studies have shown repeatedly that foreign language learning increases critical thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility of mind in young children….This relationship between foreign language study and increased mathematical skill development, particularly in the area of problem solving, points once again to the fact that second language learning is more of a cognitive than linguistic activity.”

Montessori Education and Brain Development: New research validates 100-year-old method

Dr. Stephen Hughes: Montessori and the Future of Education

Dr. Steve Hughes: Montessori and the Future of Education

VIDEO: Dr. Steve Hughes: "Montessori and the Future of Education"

Throughout our month-long celebration of International Montessori Week here at Inly School, we’ve been digging up our favorite reads and resources on the past, present and future of Montessori.

It’s always reassuring to see the feel-good factor backed up by hard science. This compelling three-minute clip validates what many of us instinctively know about the value of Montessori education.

“Maria Montessori really got everything right… ” reflects Dr. Steve Hughes in the video Montessori and the Future of Education. “She anticipated so much of what we know about neuroscience, brain development, and optimum models of education.”

A pediatric neurologist and Montessori parent, Hughes has been spreading the word for years. Take time to watch some of his later videos [see Resources below] for some fascinating insights and recent findings.

Choice quotes on Montessori from Dr. Hughes:

“A skillful Montessori teacher knows what stage a child is in their brain development and they are meeting it, and they are feeding it.”
“The Montessori method is like education designed by a pediatric developmental neuropsychologist.”
“If we decided that the purpose of education should be to help every child’s brain reach its highest developmental potential, we would have to radically rethink school. The task seems insurmountable, yet this work has already been done. In fact, it was done over a hundred years ago.”
“When examined through the lens of environmental enrichment and brain development, Montessori education presents a radically different – and radically effective – educational approach that may be the best method we’ve got to ensure the optimal cognitive, social, and emotional development of every child.”

Dr. Steven Hughes, Ph.D, President, American Academy of Pediatric Neuropsychology

Read more about Montessori education, cognitive development and brain research:

Inly School: Why Montessori?

Building Better Brains: The Neurological Case for Montessori Education

Dr. Steve Hughes: “Why Start with Montessori?”

Dr. Steve Hughes’ Website: “Good at Doing Things”

Montessori for Everyone Blog: “The Neurology of Montessori”

Montessori and Brain Research: Moving Forward

Author of "Montessori Learning in the 21st Century" speaks on brain development and education at Inly School

Montessori Learning in the 21st Century


large_open_bookIn honor of International Montessori Week, this month’s Parent Insight Event featured M. Shannon Helfrich, globe-trotting Montessori trainer and author of Montessori Learning in the 21st Century: A Guide for Parents & Teachers. Helfrich spoke to a group of 50 parents and faculty in the Inly Library and made plenty of time for questions and answers. Drawing on her 40 years of experience in Montessori education as both a teacher and teacher trainer around the world, Helfrich provided valuable insights into Dr. Maria Montessori’s philosophy on education and the modern brain development research that supports it.

Brain development research and Montessori education

Shannon described Dr. Montessori’s early interest in brain development. In 1896, when Maria Montessori became the first female to earn a medical degree in Italy, knowledge of the brain and brain development was crude in comparison with today’s standards and technologies. So it is even more amazing that Dr. Montessori’s philosophy, which was based on her own observation, has found scientific validation nearly 100 years later.

In her book, Shannon takes these current neuro-scientific findings about the brain and parallels them with direct quotes from Dr. Montessori, providing perspective on the basic elements of child development. She said that her hope is for parents to find the book to be a great resource for supporting their children’s development in life and in the home.

Montessori at home and at school: Connecting the dots

Throughout her talk, Shannon’s passion for Montessori was clear. Stating that Montessori is “a way of living, not just a classroom philosophy,” she stressed that understanding of Montessori principles can help parents be more successful and confident in supporting their own children at home.

While she doesn’t recommend that parents create a Children’s House classroom in a child’s bedroom, she did say, “As parents, we need to become as mindful as we can be about what we can do to support our children at home.”

About the author

Shannon Helfrich is an Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) teacher trainer, examiner and consultant, training Montessori teachers in the United States, Australia, Thailand and China. Shannon currently divides her time between the International Training Center of Montessori Education of China in Hangzhou, China, and the United States. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Related links

Preview Chapter One of Helfrich’s book on the New Sage Press website.

Why Montessori Education?

Montessori at Inly School

Montessori at Home: Practical Tips for Toddler, Preschool Children and Parents blog post on Inside Inly.

Montessori Kids at Home blog post on Inside Inly.