Technology and Montessori

One of the many September tasks that Junior teachers complete each Fall is the review and editing of their Technology Policy.  That it must be done on an annual basis at least, is a reflection of diligence towards best practices, but also a testament to how quickly devices and their use evolve in a staggeringly short breath of time.  While the issue is prevalent when dealing with young adolescents, it is nonetheless a discussion at every age level, or has been at some point.  Montessori professionals, taking every aspect of the prepared environment into consideration, have long debated the use of technology in the classroom (in the early 70’s, arguments over the use of typewriters were not uncommon).  Dr. Montessori died in 1952, leaving her eponymous pedagogy without specific direction on the multitude and magnitude of technological tools that the following 65 years made available. How would Dr. Montessori have felt about the internet?  Video cameras streaming from locations all over the world? Google searches that deliver 2.5 million “hits” in .25 seconds? Fortunately, there are foundational concepts in Montessori that allow us to extrapolate a few principles to guide our work.
Technology at the First Plane of Development. First and of course most importantly, it is to follow the child keeping mind his or her developmental stage.  The three-year old child interacting with the three-dimensional pink tower material or manipulating the binomial cube, is gaining insight and making connections that are personal and more meaningful.  Learning through their hands, the experience is “owned” by the child.  From birth to six-years old education is nearly all sensorial.  At this young age he or she learns to discriminate between shape and size, form and dimension through the senses. Observing a Primary child repeating the knobbed cylinder work, perfecting the movement, refining the decisions, it is clear that the auto-education of which Dr. Montessori spoke, is the deep reality of these early years. Seen in this light, it is easy to make a determination as to the appropriateness of a screen for the child in the First Plane of Development. It is not.

Technology and Montessori at the Second Plane of Development.  As more and more longitudinal studies emerge regarding elementary-aged children and screen-time, it is clear that the activity in which the child is involved rather than the mere sum of hours spent is a better barometer of the experience’s efficacy.This seems a reasonable starting point for a discussion of technology at the Second Plane of Development (ages 6-12). Simply stated, technology is “the use of science to invent useful things or to solve problem”, essentially a tool.  A compass to determine the angle bisector of a triangle?  Technology.  The pegboard to calculate a square root? Technology.  A wheelbarrow to move soil into a raised bed?  Technology. In effective Montessori elementary classrooms, technology is not seen as inherently good or bad, but rather as a tool to be more useful, to solve problems, just like any other teaching material in the classroom.  The teacher’s responsibility is to present the “tool”, its appropriate use, and precautions against its misuse.  In arithmetic this could entail demonstrating how to exchange ten 10-stamps for a 100, and a reminder to count carefully, lest you make a error.  In the classroom kitchen, the lesson could be the most efficient way to cut an onion, along with  safety considerations (“keep the tip of the knife on the cutting board…).  In this light, using a computer is no different than any other learning tool  Montessori teachers and students have at their disposal.  This helps to inform our decisions and our discussions with parents and colleagues. The question. “Is this an appropriate use of this technology?” becomes more manageable.  Will this computer use help solve a problem?  Will it enhance the lesson?  A group of upper elementary children studying meteorology may become interested in forecasted temperatures versus actual temperature.  A weather website would prove useful in developing a chart for comparison.  A classroom writing a common document would find GoogleDocs an effective tool for collaboration.
The crucial distinction here is that concept and interest remain our starting points while the technology takes the role of service. Screen time augments the experience, it is never the genesis.

Technology at the Third Plane of Development. In Dr. Montessori’s view, growth into the Third Plane of Development, and a child’s concommitant entry into the Junior Class, marks a second birth, but now into nascent adulthood.  The use of technology at this age must serve two purposes.  It must assist the child as a resource for research and communication, but it must also act as a tool to support organizational and executive skills.  That education should be an “aid to life” is a well-known Montessori exhortation.  Practical Life activities in the Primary and Elementary environments include the use of the hand and tools for independence and motor control.  While the refinement of those skills continues into the Junior Class (farming, cooking, canning), they are supplemented with those computer skills that serve the same purpose –  tools to facilitate a process that prepares the child for life and work in society.
Towards that end, last year each Junior student was given a Chromebook for the year (they are returned and “wiped” each June).  So far the experience has been a positive one; the laptops being used for everything from presenting monthly projects in Language Arts to creating spreadsheets for JuniorClassy businesses. GoogleDocs allow students to work on pieces of writing with more flexibility, as they can access them from home, library or school.  And as each Junior is assigned a “cornerstoneschool.org” email address, it also allows teachers to broach subjects such as proper protocol and etiquette in e-communication.  The Junior Class has a technology policy for the classroom that promotes technology’s benefits while minimizing its adverse effects.  The benefits of these technologies are numerous.  We’ve observed note-taking, research, google apps, organization tools, calculator, cameras used for notes and work materials (vocab, math, etc), music for focus, learning tools (math, programming, typing tutor, etc…).  Alas, the challenges are just as numerous: texting, inappropriate use, Instagram, Snapchat, wifi hotspots, games, 3G/4G data connections, printer overuse, photographing without permission, screens at lunch, and general distraction during lessons, school trips and independent work time. While these have been the rare exceptions it does give teachers the opportunity to have open discussions and natural consequences. The use of technology in school for early adolescents should be an ongoing lesson in all Montessori environments. The evolving capabilities of  devices, their positive and negative attributes create a dynamic that requires constant attention.