Articles, Blog

A Montessori prison education: Brian Walsh at TEDxMonroeCorrectionalComplex

Translator: gilles damianthe
Reviewer: Denise RQ So last year I had the honor
to be on a panel at the White House. I’d been selected along with a number
of public school innovators. We were talking about education. I come from the Community College,
and in particular, I come from Prison Education
working with adult inmates, so when I first got this email
and I heard about this selection, I was convinced that there was a mistake. So, my family and I go to the White House. We go up to security, and they can’t find us on the list. So I turn to my wife and I say: “I told you! I knew it! it was a mistake!” (Laughter) Well, all of that is straightened out,
–it’s really complicated there–, and we’re on the panel, and there’s a question
about the behavior of students, and someone makes a comment
about how their challanges with the behavior of students,
must be nothing compared to mine with our students
in the prison. And I knew at that moment
that I was in the right place. You see, I had the opportunity
to tell them [that] inmates make the best students! They do all their homework,
they show up everyday, and if they don’t,
I know where they are! (Laughter) And they never bring
their cellphones to class! (Laughter) My wife is a psychotherapist and I’m the Dean at the Community College, and as a side job, we also own and operate an independent pre-school
through middle school. So our conversations can be very bizzare. I’ll be talking about an issue
that’s come up at the prison, she’ll be talking about something
at the preschool or in elementary school, and so our family slogan has become: “Education from preschool to prison.” (Laughter) And I want to draw
on that experience today. Today what I want to talk about is the future of prison education, both on how we can have
more college in prison, but also have prison education be
more like preschool. First, let me make the case
for prison education, and fortunately, it’s a really easy case! The RAND cooperation
has just completed a major study looking at prison education
across the United States, and here’s what they found: [From] 100 inmates who’re released, 43 will recidivate,
they return to prison. If they participate in prison education,
30 will recidivate. Now, 30 is still one in three
and it’s still far, far too high, but the key is in that 13
that don’t come back. See, it’s that 13 that means
13 victims that don’t happen, 13 lives that aren’t shattered, 13 properties not destoyed, 13 families that aren’t torn apart. And it is in that 13 that we also see
the return on investment. RAND estimates that for every dollar
spent on prison education, there is a return on investment of $5. Here in Washington, our Washington State Institute
for Public Policy says that for every dollar invested
in vocational education, there will be at least a $12 return. And that’s a return both to tax payers,
to families, to society. It also, on an individual level,
impacts the inmate who releases. That individual has
a 13% higher rate of employment if they’ve participated
in any form of education, and they have
a 28% higher rate of employment, if they participate
in a vocational education program. Prison education saves lives. Prison education saves money. Now, let me talk about my experience and how I can twist that
into my vision for the future. For the last 6 years I’ve been working as the Education Director
at Collin Bay Olympic Correction Center. And in those 6 years,
we’ve been able to do things that we really would not have been able
to do 10 years ago. We have an internet in a box,
that we’ve worked with other partners, where inmates are able to sit down and without ever being on the internet,
on the streets, can access the same kinds of resources that our students,
that our community college, would be able to access on the streets. So they access Khan academy. And they have an edited version
of Wikipedia. They have access
to a learning management system that’s used at every community college
in Washington state. They are able to be just like a Community College students
on our main campus. We’ve been able to use this to turn our prison campus
into our north-west campus. And it’s changed how we operate. If you could imagine what you could do with just taking a little bit
of these innovations of technology, and start to look
at what we know is working in graduate schools across the country. Let’s take a low residency program, and many of you or some of you
may have done the program like this. So picture a team of faculty,
kind of your dream team of faculty, that could come to a prison and spend a week
of face to face interaction with those students. They could bring with them simulations, sophisticated lab science simulations, because there are plenty of labs
that we don’t want to run in prisons; they’re just not safe. But you could take that technology,
you could bind it with that team of instructors
and develop that rapport. And then using technology
that we have now, we could secure an online class room, so that, that dream team moves,
a few weeks later, to another prison. And you start to build a series
of concurrent online courses, that started with that, really
very important, connection that then continues
throughout that semester. And you’ve now opened up
that possibility to have history degrees, which happens to be
where I come from. (Laughter) See mom! You can do something
with a history degree! (Laughter) You can have science degrees,
you can have engeneering, there’s so much more possible
when we just change a little bit, make that small change
as we’ve heard this morning, in how we deliver our services. What else can we do? So we take that dream team, and we also add to it
competency-based degrees. And we take
the life experience of inmates. Our inmates come to us
with a lifetime of experience. And while they are in prison,
they gain a lifetime of experience. And we evaluate it,
through careful assesments, and we identify
what are those skills that they have? What are those skills they need? And you combine that
with that low-residency program and now you can get
that much closer to degrees, opening up the number of possibilities
for our students. And then, we add other technologies. So we added a tablet, a simple tablet like a iPad kind of thing, that we load with all the lectures,
all the materials, the textbooks, in our case, we would use
open educational resources because they come
with the amazing price of free, and we load that textbook with everything
that an inmate student would need. So when a two-week lock-down happens, the education doesn’t end, and with that tablet we combine that
with this form of education. And we expand those possibilities. And these are all using technologies
that exist now! We’re moving them from the streets, securely moving them into the prison! But then there’s preschool. Preschools and prisons
have a lot in common. They all have similar rules: Keep your hands
and your feet to yourself, no biting, hitting, spitting, no running. Prisons have wreck,
preschools have recess, prisons have hobby-craft,
preschools have arts and crafts, prisons and preschools, both have music, and they both,
have lots and lots of drama. (Laughter) But they also share
one other thing in common: They are both about creating a space, a space where the individual
can learn or re-learn, how to be in the world. So let me draw on two examples
from our preschool program. Many of you wil remember
having Lincoln Logs sets, those little logs, with the little pieces and you put them together to build forts. At our preschool, we recently made
a real Lincoln logs set, and I mean 6 foot long Lincoln Logs. And we did that intentionally, because the only way to make it work, is for those children to work together. Because no one child can move
a 6 foot long Lincoln log! They have to work together to build and so they learn through that exercise
the joy of creating, when you get to create something, when you get to destroy something, that you get the owners permission. (Laughter) You have that opportunity
to build together. The other thing we know is that no significant learning happens without a significant relationship. And we know, when you think back
to your experiences as a child, that it is those early relationships with those teachers that are so vital. So we take those 2 ideas and how do we incorporate those
into this furture vision? Well we do it in subtle ways. I used to work with an inmate who had committed
absolutely terrible crimes. And even when he was incarcerated, he committed some terrible assaults. But he had changed,
made some other decisions, and now he was working
in our adult basic education classroom. And he was learning
how to take cassette tapes… –some of you may not know
what those are–, (Laughter) –I ‘ve just realized that!–, and digitizing them
and putting them next to books so that low literacy students could read and hear the words
at the same time. It was really frustrating for him. As he’s working through that
he’d come to me: “Mr Walsh, I don’t know how to do this!” And I’d say: “I don’t know how to do it either,
break it ’till it works!” And he’d go back, and he’d work on it and he’d work on it,
and he’d come to me and say: “I broke it again, I got to restore it! I broke it again, but i’m getting closer! I’m breaking it till it works!” And he’s experiment with it
in a safe enviroment. In our horticulture program
I had a student who had never once gardened, who had never had
anything to do with plants. And we know
that horticulture is theraputic. And he came to me, or I came to him and he was showing me
with just this utter joy on his face, what he was able to bring into the world: a garden plot that he had planted, that he had taken care of, and at the same time
he was learning botany and biology. I had a student who I had expelled
from our business program. It was really not a good fit
for him there, and so he’d eventually chosen
to end up in our baking program. And the one thing I know
about that baking program is that I have an instructor,
who everyday, when I ask him how things are going, he says: “I’m just having so much fun!” And this student, in that class,
could make the most beautiful braided breads
that you’ve ever seen. He’d make challah, and I can guarantee we were the only challah producer
for about 70 miles on the Peninsula. He would make these breads
that tasted amazing. And his life in the living units,
his life in our classes, were completed changed
when he found that place where he could connectedly,
and artistically, express himself. In our business classes, my instructors
have spent far too much time finding every single TED talk
and putting it on our network to share with the students, so that a student can go from an accounting software package
to a TED talk. They can go from business math, and then they can go and watch a podcast from Planet Money
or some other kind of podcasts. They learn that they are in control
of their learning, and they jump back and forth
between these things. It’s dynamic, it’s fluid,
but they are in control of it. A few years ago I started
a computer programming program, and I had pictured
a very, very traditional program: everbody would start at the same time and they’d end at the same time. There would be lectures,
there’d be text books there’d be big fancy projects. Well, we found out that it wasn’t working. So we changed courses, and we took the same ideas
and the same outcomes, and we started teaching computer game design and development as a way to teach computer programming. If you were to go into that class room now you would see
it’s very much like a preschool: some students are playing games, some students are breaking games, some students are writing games, some are doing music,
some are doing arts, all of them are learning. And there are learning high level
computer programming languages: Java Scripts, C++, C#. The learning there is intensive,
but it’s student directed, they form their own teams,
just like those giant Lincoln Logs, and they figure out how to build
what they want to build. But I have to tell you, I always worry,
I always worry that one day, the associate super attendant
is going to stop by and she’s going to look in
and shes going to say: “Wow! They look like they’re having fun!” (Laughter) “Don’t they know this is prison?” Thank you very much. (Applause)


  1. ttnah5 Author

    I wonder what would happen if you also introduced Montessori materials to some of the inmates.  As a Montessori preschool teacher, I have had math professors come to the classroom and say that the math materials unlocked a piece of knowledge that even they hadn't realized.  

    Since research shows that 75% of inmates have some sort of learning issue, perhaps Montessori materials could help fill the gap.  The materials are also be used with dementia patients — because they support "human" development (not just "child" development).

  2. M S Author

    If we put more money and quality attention into quality education and economic justice so that every child has a safe and comfortable homelife then you will be able to close prisons. this isn't rocket science ….but this speaker sure would like you to think so.


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