The Dual Nature of Screens
There is a lot of concern in our culture over the quantity and quality of screen time, and its effects on children of all ages. Headlines regularly recount a litany of issues for children that result from the use of devices including depression, shortened attention spans, cyberbullying, obesity, addiction, and more. Yet, our world is awash in screens and we adults succumb to their allure as readily as kids. Furthermore, the ubiquity of screen use shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
We also know from our own use that there is a lot of good that occurs as a result of these technologies. These same devices allow people of all ages to connect with friends, to organize our lives, to communicate with others, to take care of chores, navigate to various destinations, learn new things, and more. These conveniences assure that these technologies are here to stay, and kids will need to be conversant in their use to be successful.
The approach to technology as a teaching aid in Montessori is often resisted. While teachers may use it for communication and record keeping, when it comes to its use as an instructional tool, it is dismissed in favor of the Montessori canon of materials. Frequent justifications for this approach include things like, “they get plenty of screen time at home,” “it isn’t appropriate for this age group,” or “the Montessori materials are enough.” These dismissals, however, overlook some important aspects of educational technology and discard the significant contributions it can make to learning in an effort to avoid some perceived ills.
What Would Maria Do?
Let’s start by asking, “What would the good doctor do?” When Maria Montessori developed her pedagogical system over 100 hundred years ago, there was nothing resembling the information devices we take for granted today, nor did anyone foresee that there would be. There wasn’t even television! So of course she did not develop any lessons involving the use of technology. However, that does not mean she would not do so today.
I contend that had there been such informational devices, she would have recognized their importance to children’s futures as well as their power to instruct. Did she not develop her Method based on children’s natural curiosity about the world and their desire to grow into competent adults, which in this current era includes digital devices? Weren’t her materials designed to reflect the important things she thought children would need to know and be able to do? Didn’t she advocate “following the child”? Today’s children naturally gravitate to technology, and it will be a significant part of their futures. I am concerned that if Montessorians dismiss technology, they run the risk of becoming outdated and left behind. This would be unfortunate as the Montessori Method has so much to offer the world of education that it would be a mistake to let it be dismissed because it is not keeping up with the times.
What’s the Right Approach?
So, how as teachers and schools do we manage screens to protect our students but still continue to reap the benefits and keep pace with the society around us? I am certainly NOT advocating that any and all screen time is good and children of all ages should be allowed unfettered access. As is apparent from the above, the issue is not simply all or nothing, unalloyed good vs. despicable evil, total screen time or none at all.
The situation is a nuanced issue that needs some careful consideration. The technology itself is not inherently good or bad, but like many things in life, it is about the choices we make in how we use it. To that end, there are ways of utilizing technology in education that can enhance the good aspects and improve instruction while at the same time minimizing its worst elements.
Managing the kinds of media children use goes a long way toward the impacts of that media on young minds. Just like you wouldn’t/shouldn’t give kids uncontrolled access to candy and desserts but instead make available a variety of healthy options that give children autonomy in their eating, so to teachers can find high-quality content for their students to choose from and to make available on their devices. Some good guidelines for helping children manage technology, including age appropriate levels of use, ways to insure positive use, and more can be found at the American Academy of Pediatrics web site.
Let me be clear about the position I am taking. I am NOT advocating dispensing with Montessori materials in favor of an all online curriculum or anything like that. What I propose is that technology be interwoven in the curriculum as an adjunct to existing materials, and possibly replacing those works where it makes sense to use a technological solution. Certainly at very young ages, using Montessori manipulatives is important for the multi-sensory advantages they provide, their aesthetic qualities, and the concrete manner in which they embody concepts and skills. As children get older, however, and are tackling more abstract aspects of say, reading, or math, using well designed apps or programs that allow children to experiment with concepts and test solutions makes sense.
I envision ever greater use of technology in a curriculum as students progress through their education and the concepts and ideas they work with increase in their abstraction such that they are hard to capture in physical materials.
Currently, there are a variety of game style apps that teach lessons in math, language, and other subjects. For example, sites like Commonsense Media contain lists of apps and other programs that are approved by educational experts for various grade levels. In addition, it is a truism supported by neuroscience that the visual trumps other senses, or in other words, a picture is worth a thousand words and video multiplies this effect. Take for example, the amazing Earth Primer app that teaches earth sciences in a way that Montessori manipulatives simply cannot convey.
Advantages of Using Technology
Another aspect of this question that bears mentioning is the advantages of technology itself. Once created, software can be replicated many times at virtually no cost, can be shipped around the world for nearly nothing, and has few if any parts and pieces that can be lost. There are few or no limits on how many students can use it simultaneously, there is potential for students to collaborate on solutions (think multiuser games), they can progress at their own pace, and record keeping is automatic, all of which makes individualized learning much easier and less costly.
In contrast, good quality Montessori materials are expensive, need to be manufactured individually using a variety of resources, require physical shipping to distribute, have multiple pieces that can be lost, can only be used by maybe a couple of students at once, and require teachers or assistants to observe and keep records on children’s progress.
Technology has an additional advantage in that its neutral trial and error method of success and progress lends greater autonomy to students and removes elements of interpersonal communication that can impact learning.
Recent research suggests that student interactions with teachers about their work can send subtle feedback of disapproval or failure that affect students’ learning and motivation, making it about the social exchange and desire to please as opposed to about a child’s learning.
Think about how it feels when someone in a position of authority is looking over your shoulder while you are trying to learn something new. This dynamic is removed with neutral software, which only provides feedback about whether the attempted work was successful or not. Think about the many hours a child will spend playing a video game, repeating the same levels until they have mastered it.
Contrary to common wisdom, there is growing evidence that video gaming can be cognitively beneficial. Recent research shows that gamers have improved executive function, mental flexibility, working memory, hand-to-eye coordination, faster decision making and more. Even more amazing is that fact that gaming appears to be one of the most effective ways to build these skills.
Let’s Move Montessori Forward
One of the geniuses of Maria Montessori was that her method was based on observable evidence. Were she alive today, I believe she would seriously consider this research and how to use it to children’s advantage. Shouldn’t we do the same?
Just to reiterate, I am not advocating that all learning be digitized and gamified and kids stay glued to screens all the time. What I am suggesting is that technology in education, when done correctly, appropriately, and in moderation, can boost knowledge acquisition and provide a powerful multiplying effect that could significantly increase learning outcomes. The Montessori world would be wise to embrace these technologies and leverage them alongside the Method to achieve what I believe will be extraordinary learning.
Are we ready to level up?
-By Aaron Oesting
Aaron Oesting is the co-founder of ClassrooMechanics and believes in the power of Montessori to transform education. His early career was spent in the technology industry before becoming a librarian. He worked in public libraries for over a decade, all the while working to synergize education and libraries to promote learning. He continues his work to advance education and learning through ClassrooMechanics.