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Larry Shiller: “Our country is entrepreneurial”

A pet peeve of mine is that teachers are called teachers. The only real teachers are the students themselves. Montessori calls them “guides.” I love that. I don’t think the education field has a problem attracting top talent. Many young people are eager and enthusiastic to enter it. The problem is keeping that talent. Teachers, excuse […]

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A pet peeve of mine is that teachers are called teachers. The only real teachers are the students themselves. Montessori calls them “guides.” I love that.

I don’t think the education field has a problem attracting top talent. Many young people are eager and enthusiastic to enter it. The problem is keeping that talent. Teachers, excuse me, Guides, will stick around when they are empowered. Get rid of the bureaucracy and a one-size-fits-all approach. Give them the ability to experiment, yes, even to make mistakes without fear of punishment. Provide them with the same nurturing environment Montessori envisions for our students.

Finally, I know many people think we need to pay more and that might be part of the solution to keeping great talent. Parents would likely be willing to spend more if they saw better outcomes.


As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure to interview Larry Shiller.

Larry Shiller grew up with an intense curiosity and love of math. His teachers tried to feed his hunger as much as they could before he began teaching himself algebra at age 9. He went on to earn a perfect score on the Math SAT, math degree from MIT, and degree from Harvard Business School.

Shiller is author of Software Excellence (Prentice Hall) and ShillerLearning: Montessori at Home math and language arts curricula. In 2006, Larry founded the Rising Stars Foundation which has funded and awarded college scholarships to exceptional students, worked to empower our next generation of leaders, and brought Montessori philosophy and learning to countless homeschool, charter school, and special needs students.

As a professional violinist Larry has played with myriad symphonies, including the Toledo Symphony, Miami Chamber Symphony, Fort Lauderdale Symphony & Princeton Symphony. Shiller was host of Cox Radio’s Unconventional Wisdom radio show airing in New York City and has spoken at numerous industry and non-profit conferences. Always the learner, he won a US National Championship in Quoridor and got a pilot’s license in his spare time.

Larry ‘s greatest joy comes from sharing his knowledge and tools with parents and educators to help students of all abilities reach their full potential.

Please visit the ShillerLearning website for more information: www.shillerlearning.com


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

When I was 5 I knew I loved math. I would drag my mom to the library to pick out math books. My dad taught me algebra in 5th grade. The joy I felt after struggling through a difficult problem and then solving it was something I looked forward to every day. I couldn’t understand how anyone didn’t like math — I felt they were missing out on so much!

When my children went to Montessori school, I discovered a new (to me) approach to learning that dove-tailed with my experiences as a child. It drove me to develop a Montessori-based math curriculum so that many generations of children could experience the joy of epiphany I had.

I was fortunate to hire several educators (“guides”) at the Princeton Center for Teacher Education, a world-renowned Montessori teacher training program. They helped me select the best manipulatives for home study and edited the curriculum.

I was ready to take the next step to spread the word on how wonderful math can be!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

After the curriculum was done and manufactured, my first sales event was a Montessori teacher convention. I thought they’d be so excited to see the scripted curriculum and multi-sensory lessons. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The reception was by-and-large, in a word, hostile. “What do you mean I don’t need training to teach children Montessori math?” “You mean I just spent two years starving to get my certification for nothing?”

I began to wonder if I had just spent two years of my life for nothing.

Today, ironically, families with children who attend and then leave Montessori schools is one of our biggest and growing markets. So I’m glad I stuck with it.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We have new products continuously in the pipeline. Our staff developed and now delivers our Math Facts Boot Camp live online classes, which are popular and growing. We are testing a brand new line of three-part nomenclature cards that help children learn and recognize everything from painters to US Presidents to trees and continents. This new line makes it simple for teachers with a traditional education background to begin bringing Montessori teaching techniques into the classroom.

Stay tuned: There’s more coming!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

Let’s talk about reality: We didn’t even make the top 10 amongst industrialized countries in math, according to the well-respected and most-recent TIMSS and PISA studies that measure literacy, math, and science performance by country.

With our wealth and technology, why aren’t we #1?

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Not really. Our system was created in the late 1800s to keep children busy while their parents worked on farms: It’s archaic. In a country that supposedly values independence, our schools are designed to provide the same cookie-cutter education to every student. You can get a pair of sneakers with your name on it for under 100 dollars. Why can’t we do the same with education?

That said, educators in the US are among the most educated and hardworking in the world.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

Before recommending action, what does good look like?

Huge disparities exist among economic class, race, and even gender. Good looks like providing a nurturing and respectful environment to every student. Montessori classrooms model excellence: Everything in the classroom is child-sized, down to the toilet. Adults find it uncomfortable because there’s no place to sit. Imagine how children feel every day in our current classrooms.

Age discrimination is illegal. So why do we segregate children by age? That’s not how society works. Schools that bring together children of different ages foster mentoring, sharing, cooperation, and greater learning.

Many schools think they need to motivate children to learn because otherwise, they won’t. Nothing could be farther from the truth: humans are naturally born learners. Testing is not for students: It’s for teachers and administrators. Let students design their own tests and watch them excel far beyond Common Core standards. Competition is misplaced: students today are taught to compete with their peers for the best test scores. The only valid competition is within each student to see if they can reach their own potential.

Who came up with the idea that junior high and high school students need in-depth, advanced knowledge of chemistry, biology, physics, math, and other mainstream subjects? Schools that create a nurturing environment put students in charge of their own learning: Students are given the opportunity to follow their passion and not what some bureaucrats think they ought to learn. There’s an infinite amount of knowledge; how can we be so sure that these standard subjects are all they need to know?

Our country is entrepreneurial. But many businesses fail, in part because their owners never learned how to keep books, develop and market products and services, and use technology. Imagine the graduates of a nation’s schools that put their focus on business, psychology, marketing, sales, finance, governance, and accounting.

Finally, and thank you for your indulgence in my bringing in a sixth key area, people have different learning styles that change over time. The best foundation comes from using all the learning styles: visual, tactile (fingertips), kinesthetic (large muscle groups), and auditory (speaking and singing and listening to music. Teach piano to 3-year-olds as a required activity and they will, according to many studies, be more accomplished in life.

Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.

Spoiler alert: Most of these are from Maria Montessori.

1) Go from concrete to abstract. At ShillerLearning, 5-year-olds do 4-digit arithmetic. For example, ask a child to bring two hundreds (10cm x 10cm x 1cm hundred flats) from the materials bank. “I asked for two hundreds and you brought me two hundreds.” Then ask the child to bring one more hundred. Then put the hundreds together. “How much do I have now?” The child answers “three hundreds” or “three hundred.” That’s 3-digit addition. All without having written — or even looked at — a number. That’s concrete. Once a child has mastered arithmetic with objects, the next level of abstraction are logarithmically-size cards where, for example, 1000 is 4x the width of 1. And so on, until the child is reading and writing large numbers and doing complex arithmetic with ease.

2) Let the child set the pace. All too often, we expect the child to follow someone else’s rules about where they ought to be. There’s no “should” in a child’s development because every child is different. At ShIllerLearning, we invented and promote the concept of the 2 Cs: Competence and Closure, and the four lesson outcomes that result.

The first learning outcome is fast competence and fast closure: The child gets it quickly (competence) and wants to move on (closure). I might have written 15 exercises for that lesson but trust me, I won’t be insulted if your child moves on after only doing two.

The second learning outcome is fast competence but no closure. Have you ever seen your child do something over and over and over — and over? They get it right but they enjoy it. Some parents want to jump in and say, “Honey, I see that you’ve got this and we’ve got a lot to cover, so why don’t we move on?” But I urge you: don’t do this because your child is focused and concentrated and interrupting that will cause ADD and ADHD. We have students who do 10 lessons in 10 minutes and the eleventh lesson takes a week. Not a problem. Just say, “I admire your focus and concentration” and walk away. Let your child get closure on their own terms.

The third learning outcome is no competence and closure. They don’t get it and have no desire to get it. Some parents think they “ought” to try and get it. But that only causes feelings of frustration, lack of respect, and self-doubt. Instead, say, “No problem you may not be developmentally ready for this so let’s put it aside, mark it as a to-do on the Activity Tracker, and maybe you’ll be ready tomorrow or the next day.” And move on. We’ve designed ShillerLearning so the child can continue on in the curriculum and experience the same concept from all the learning styles, which often connect when this lesson didn’t.

The final learning outcome is no competence and no closure. “What do you mean I’m not dev… whatever you said. I can do this!” The child tackles the lesson with gusto but pretty soon is frustrated and struggling. But that’s a good kind of struggle because the child is in charge. And they’re focused and concentrated. When you see your child making mistakes, don’t jump in and mathsplain. Instead, say, “I admire your desire and ability to tackle something hard; let me know if you need any help” and walk away. This is hard because no parent likes to see their child in pain. But this is a good kind of pain: When the child finally figures it out, they experience an epiphany and endorphin release they can’t get any other way. When we take away the discovery process, we take away that high, and children may find another suboptimal way to get it.

I encourage parents — and their children — to learn and become self-aware of these four lesson outcomes because doing so removes stress and the “should” from learning. We have several popular videos on this (and other) subjects on the ShillerLearning YouTube channel.

3) Use the three-period lesson: This is; Show me; What is. It works with anything new. This is an oak tree. Say with me, “Oak tree.” Look at its leaves, its bark, its size, its shadow. Now go to a park with many types of trees. “Can you show me an oak tree?” If they show you a tree that’s not an oak tree, go back to period one as if you had never discussed it before. “Oh! This is an oak tree.” For period three, point at an oak tree, and say, “What is this?” If the child says anything other than “oak tree,” go back to period one.

I haven’t found a better way to teach new things to children (and adults) that’s more stress-free.

4) Don’t make common mistakes helping little ones learn the numbers. Teach the number 1 first. Put in one hand a bunch of, well anything small, such as grapes, unit cubes, paper clips, marbles. Then place one at a time into your child’s hand, saying “one” each time. Use the three-period lesson to help them learn “1.” Then repeat for 2: Place two at a time into your child’s hand, saying “two” each time. Use the three-period lesson to help them learn “2.” And so on. Now when your child counts to 20, they’re not just using memory, they actually know the numbers.

5) Are you familiar with the Socratic method? Did you know that when people think and discover things on their own they generally absorb and retain it better? Would you like to learn more about the Socratic method and how to use it in your home school?

OK, I’ll stop now but you get the idea 🙂 The Socratic Method is a way of teaching that uses questions. The Harvard Business School uses it with their case study method: It has worked for thousands of years.

In the ShillerLearning curricula, for both math and language arts, we start new topics with the three-period lesson and then help children discover for themselves. For example, we don’t state the Pythagorean theorem or the formula for the area of a circle: children figure it out with our Socratic-based lessons.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?

A pet peeve of mine is that teachers are called teachers. The only real teachers are the students themselves. Montessori calls them “guides.” I love that.

I don’t think the education field has a problem attracting top talent. Many young people are eager and enthusiastic to enter it. The problem is keeping that talent. Teachers, excuse me, Guides, will stick around when they are empowered. Get rid of the bureaucracy and a one-size-fits-all approach. Give them the ability to experiment, yes, even to make mistakes without fear of punishment. Provide them with the same nurturing environment Montessori envisions for our students.

Finally, I know many people think we need to pay more and that might be part of the solution to keeping great talent. Parents would likely be willing to spend more if they saw better outcomes.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Those that never made a mistake never tried anything new.” I think Einstein said that. I think of this quote every time I’m afraid to try something new or beat myself up over a mistake.

Growth doesn’t occur without struggle and error. As Edison did searching for the perfect light bulb filament, we learn what doesn’t work and celebrate that.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

My mother told me a story about the wise man on the hill. He was the wisest in all the land. A little boy asked, “How can he be so wise and keep learning and getting wiser if he is already the wisest?” The little boy made a trek to find the answer. After several days climbing and with great hunger and thirst, the boy finally reached the summit and saw the old man in a simple chair at the top of the hill. “How are you the wisest man that keeps getting wiser? If no one is wiser, from whom do you learn?” “It’s simple,” the man said. “I learn from fools.”

Most of those biggest names have written books and I’ve read some of them. They’re great, and often inspirational and occasionally life-changing. So I’m not sure what else I’d learn from having lunch with them. But give me some person who’s had a really different life than mine and I’ll be the better for it.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You’ll find me and ShillerLearning on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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