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research methodology

4 Montessori Principles to Help Guide Client Work

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4 Montessori Principles to Help Guide Client Work


Until a couple of years ago, I knew very little about Montessori schools – something about kids having freedom of choice in the work they do.  But I was a bit skeptical about whether that would be a good environment for my child. I felt if given too much “free reign”, my daughter would be the type to run with it.  (I think she gets that from her Dad! :) But an event in her first preschool left me feeling different.  I walked in one day to pick her up, and the teacher pulled me into the classroom.  With every 4-year old eye on me (including my daughter’s), the teacher pointed up to a wall of kid’s work – all of the letter “u’s”.  My daughter’s work was hanging up – completely blank.  Then, the teacher proceeded to tell me about how my daughter wouldn’t listen in class, showing me the blank piece of paper she had posted up for everyone to see.  My face reddened, and so did my daughter’s.  When we left the class, I began questioning her to understand what was going on, and she broke into tears and said “mommy, I don’t know how to draw a ‘U’ – I don’t know how to do it right.”  And that experience is what led me to rethink putting her in a Montessori classroom - how that environment would be interesting to learn more about…

Fast forward 2+ years, and I am thrilled that we found White Rock Montessori. Not only has our daughter thrived in this environment but we have as well, as parents.  

After seeing the impact Montessori had on her love of learning, I was curious to understand more about “why” this was effective for her, as well as “how” the classroom works.  What I discovered was that some Montessori principles were applicable to the work we conduct with our clients

When conducting marketing research, my teams are very involved in “learning” – learning what people think about products, how consumers react to new ideas, etc.  And my job is not only to learn new insights through my interviews but also keep my clients engaged in the learning.

Here are the Montessori principles that directly link to the work I do -

1.     Pull, Don’t Push - Montessori teachers refer to this as “The Art of Drawing Out.” Instead of pushing information in, they use acknowledgement and questioning to get children to think about what they are doing.  This helps children learn to be accountable for their learning.  Similarly, when in research, questioning the listening team to help “draw out” learnings creates ownership in the learning process. 

Montessori Principles

2. Concrete Before Abstract - The Montessori belief is that students learn best from something they already know, so teachers use physical objects to begin each lesson, and present new concepts through storytelling. This builds connection with students’ emotions and gives them greater interest in the concept. In my practice, especially when conducting ideation sessions, I find this principle helpful to ignite creativity with clients. When brainstorming, it is actually easier to create new ideas by starting with “constrained” stimulus because participants start with something they can visualize, making it easier to alter/change/adapt to new ideas. Learn more about this topic from Chip & Dan Heath’s Myth of the Garage eBook (see “Get Back in the Box” page 31). This helps spark their imagination and allows them to think about “abstract” concepts.

3.     Structure That’s Flexible - The beauty of this principle is that children believe they have freedom of choice but their choices are orchestrated around what the teacher plans for them to learn.  Providing a flexible structure for learning with client teams is just as important because clients appreciate getting to make choices – and it allows them to “own” the process.

4.     Observe Before Acting - Teachers in a Montessori classroom don’t take on the traditional role – you won’t see them in front of the room, chalk in hand, writing out a math problem step-by-step. They see themselves as guides, not teachers. They ask questions, then sit back and let students take their own path to figure out a solution - make their own decisions.  As a facilitator of client’s learning, my role of guide is similar. Sometimes this means facilitating a highly involved team debating a controversial learning.  Other times, creating activities to encourage a distracted team to actively work together is necessary.

Check out this video to see all 4 of these principles in action in a Montessori classroom environment. 


I will be speaking more on this subject, specifically how I use these principles alongside a Design Thinking at the 2017 QRCA Annual conference in LA on January 19. Click here for the schedule conference and other presentations. 

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Uncharted Territories for Prestigious Summer Art Exhibit


Uncharted Territories for Prestigious Summer Art Exhibit


Jeffrey Johns of Northstar consulting recently presented on “Using Insight Innovation to Re-Invent a 247-Year Old Institution” at the 2016 QRCA Worldwide Conference on Qualitative Research. His investigation piqued our interest and made us want to dig deeper to understand his methods and findings. The Summer Exhibition at London’s Royal Academy  is one of the most significant and unique visual experiences in the world due to the combination of works from emerging and established artists. However, since its inception in 1769, the structure of the exhibit has remained largely unchanged. But for the upcoming 250th Summer Exhibition, London’s Royal Academy intends to make changes that incorporate the needs of a new generation of visitors as well as other trends from our changing world.

Consulted for their expertise on customer-related research, Northstar was brought in to help The Royal Academy as it moves forward with its redesign. Northstar’s undertaking of this project was unique because The Royal Academy had never consulted with researchers before, thus making the collection and presentation of findings original and unfamiliar. In fact, Northstar’s insights were reflected in the 247th Summer Exhibition in 2015 and visitor volume and art sales were noticeably higher; a good indicator of the impact they will have on the 250th anniversary. The study itself was unique because of its short timeframe and methods used, unlike those commonly used in ethnographic research where experiments are long and data collection is extensive. Northstar’s goal with this immersive research was to provide consumer insights that could make the Summer Exhibition more popular and enjoyable.

Northstar conducted its research within the institution and yielded 16 hours of data and 400 photographs. Their qualitative, ethnographic approach included methods such as listening in on visitors’ conversations, observing gestures/interaction of visitors with art, and conducting ‘non-interview-like’ conversations with visitors. The research uncovered trends such as “Visitor control”, “family”, and “divergence” which rose to the top across many exhibit visitors. But how does this help the London Royal Academy? What do these trends mean? “Visitor control” meant that visitors liked that they weren’t guided through the exhibition and were free explore on their own. “Family” referred to the fact that the exhibition has become well known to families who have made visiting the exhibition a tradition. “Divergence” showed that the combination of both emerging and establishing artists is a positive for the exhibit because it reflects inclusivity. By understanding these trends, the Royal Academy will have a better understanding of what is needed for the redesign of the Summer Exhibition.

Northstar’s innovative research methods provide d actionable insights for an institution that did not formerly utilize qualitative research. Utilizing qualitative research may be something that the London Royal Academy will continue to do given its increase in art sales and visitor volume since changes reflecting the trends of control, family and divergence were made. Entering uncharted territory was a success for Northstar because this unique methodology resulted in positive outcomes for their client; indicating that innovative methods could be advantageous and should be implemented in other non-typical areas.