Maria Montessori, in an address in 1936 entitled “For Peace,” (2007) discussed how the technologies of her day had brought humankind together and had created a single “great nation” (pp. 24-26):
By becoming a single nation, we have finally realized the unconscious spiritual and religious aspiration of the human soul, and this we can proclaim to every corner of the earth. ‘Humanity as an organism’ has been born; the super-construction that has absorbed all man’s efforts from the beginning of history has now been completed. We are living this reality. We have proof of it in the almost miraculous powers that today are enabling man to rise above his natural condition. Man now flies higher and more confidently through the heavens than the eagle; he has mastered the invisible secrets of the energy of the universe; he can look up into the skies and the infinite; his voice can cross the world’s seas; he can hear the echoes of all the world’s music; he now possesses the secret powers of transforming matter. In a word, contemporary man has citizenship in the great nation of humanity.
While we contemplate how our physical interconnectedness and the technology that made that possible, we have also spread one of the most frightening challenges we have ever known. We also know that only our interconnectedness and our shared technology can help us to survive. We cannot simply submit to technological solutions, however, without heeding the wisdom of history, without also looking to the needs of our humanity. It seems that this global crisis is bringing out both the worst and the best in people. Kindness and true altruism are shining out in the most unexpected places. Compassion abounds, even as the hackers who undermine our trust (along with spreaders of false news) try to dominate our world. Human needs and tendencies, at the core of the Montessori approach to what makes us human, are the defining features of the great nation of humanity. Any true education of the children of humanity depends on a full recognition of what makes us human.
So, while we grapple with the questions of how to deal with the unknown; how to work from home while trying to educate our children; how to keep our schools going when we cannot possibly adhere to fundamental tenets that distinguish Montessori education from conventional schooling; when parents cannot pay their fees because they have lost their jobs; when we don’t know if we will be able to return to our physical environments; and, all the while, trying to keep our own lives together, perhaps we should pause … because we do have time to pause … and ask some important questions: questions we have been able to ignore or gloss over in the past, because we knew that we could trust in our prepared environments. Why change something that works well as it is? All of a sudden, we are faced with a situation that demands that we operate in an environment that we have avoided and even renounced: a digital environment that seems to be the antithesis of our concrete, prepared environment.
The attitude of Montessori schools and Montessori guides towards technology in the classrooms has traditionally been an area of disagreement and mixed messages. While many Montessori environments eschew “technology” (in reality this is taken to mean digital devices and media), others tolerate limited use. A small group of schools have embraced digital technology and incorporated it into their programs. This might include issuing children iPads™ with which to assign and track work or allowing computers in the classroom. The use to which the devices are put can vary from resources that differ little from print material: tightly controlled usage (such as typing tutor software, off-line encyclopedias, etc) to varying degrees of free access to the internet and various applications, such as word processing and presentation software. The message from the Montessori community to the general public has, however, been largely united on limiting the use of digital devices, media, and television viewing.
School closures due to COVID-19 have prompted a drastic revision of this policy, and schools are challenged to not only justify the use of digital technology to continue functioning but also to find ways that do not conflict with basic Montessori principles or undermine the pedagogical approaches that differentiate Montessori education from everything else that is available on the internet.
As with any material or method introduced into the conventional Montessori environment, it is best to begin with asking whether Montessori herself has any guidelines on the matter. Recently, AMI published a short article written by Maria Montessori herself on the issue of what she called “mechanical aids.” The context was somewhat different from ours. It appears that Montessori was introducing an article by another unnamed author, who was advocating the use of film and other aids as support for children in India. Probably written during her stay in India (1940–1947), it was suggested that the use of such supports would both facilitate the preparation of teachers and make “culture” more accessible to more children (Montessori, 2015, pp. 235-238). Further, insight into Montessori’s view of the use of technology can be gleaned from an earlier piece where she considered the use of film within her system, quoting extensively from Carl Renner (Renner, 1932, pp. 235-238).
In the interests of clarity, it is probably best to begin with some etymology:
Technology is as old as the world, at least one inhabited by human beings, certainly when we lean towards the definition of the word when it was originally used; the Oxford Dictionary gives as its etymology from Greek tekhnologia ‘systematic treatment’, from tekhnè, ‘art, craft’ + logia’, dating back to the 17th century.
Montessori certainly understood technology in this light. She was fascinated by technology and the way in which human beings have used technology to meet needs. Some animals use tools, e.g., apes use sticks to dig in termite mounds. But of all the animals, only humans utilize technology. Technology requires the use of the hand and of the brain. The very earliest tools of stone and bone are evidence of technology. It could be claimed that it was the use of technology that saved humankind from extinction 70,000 years ago. Technology is a feature of human culture and an integral component of what Maria Montessori called supranature. Technology and culture place humans above nature. Technology has always been a part of Montessori education to the extent that the Montessori materials are, in and of themselves, technological artifacts.
For the purposes of this article we understand technology in this sense. When referring specifically to computers, iPads, mobile phones and their related media we refer to “digital technology.”
A reading of the two brief articles make it very clear that Montessori did not discount the use of technology in her classrooms. What we cannot say without reservation is that she saw a place for digital technology in the education of young children (or even older children and adolescents), as this was not something she knew about. She supported the use of media that allowed the children to access knowledge beyond that which was presented in the classroom in print, which was presented directly by the adult in the room, and this would necessitate the presence of mechanical aids: machines that the children would be shown how to use and to which they would have free access. It also included means to access experts outside the classroom, such as radio broadcasts.
The opponents of the use of digital technology are able to cite research that point to its pitfalls and dangers. While the benefits have long been recognized by educators looking for ways to reach children beyond the classroom, Montessorians have generally avoided the exploration of the internet as a means to help children access information or, indeed, to give children independence from the guidance of the teacher. Now we find ourselves in a situation where students are at home, physically distanced from both the prepared adult and the prepared environment. In order to support children in a way that is in line with Montessori philosophy and Montessori’s educational aims, we should first examine Montessori’s own views and explore how those are applicable in our current context.
Although Some Observations on Technology was written for a different time and context, the ideas that Montessori expresses could have been typed on a Facebook™ post this morning, only to refer to digital as opposed to mechanical aids: “to promote the acquisition of culture by means of mechanical aids is most opportune at the present moment, when we can almost speak of an emergency.”
This article explores how, in this current emergency, we can remain true to Montessori’s intentions, while maintaining physical distance. It is also concerned with how what we learn now can impact, and even transform, education as distancing requirements are eased.
Montessori reminds us that many children going into elementary classes from Montessori preschools can already read and write and “possess many cultural notions;”
When, therefore, our children enter what is commonly called the elementary school, where compulsory education comes into force, the intelligence requires a much vaster culture than is ordinarily given in those schools.
In the early stages of the development of the program for the second plane of development, Montessori was acutely aware of the needs of the 6–12 year-old child for access to an expanded field of knowledge. Conventionally trained teachers were, in Montessori’s view, ill prepared to meet the needs of the child. Even teachers with subject specializations lack the general breadth of knowledge across disciplines to fully support a child in the second plane:
As with any material or method introduced into the conventional Montessori environment, it is best to begin with asking whether Montessori herself has any guidelines on the matter.
This awareness of the needs of the child and the limitations of the teacher, coupled with her passion for research and a fascination and admiration for technological development, opened to her the possibility of using various means for putting a vast array of content available to the child. The “mechanical aids” to which she refers are those which were commonly available in her day: gramophone records, lantern slides, film and wireless, She includes these in the aids that could be used in the service of the second plane child. Television was only beginning to find its way into the average household, and the personal computer was a long way off. The internet as a replacement for “wireless” (radio) was not even yet in the realm of fiction. Today’s equivalents would be audio recordings and video, which are available on the internet. Much excellent quality material is freely available, as is a plethora of material of dubious quality and provenance. Just as Montessori argued for the use of the technology of her day so, too, we could support the use of digital technologies with certain reservations:
There is no doubt that the schools applying my method, where the cultural development of the children is highly intensified, not on account of any pressure exercised by the teacher, but as a natural consequence of the opportunities given to their individual and social spontaneous activities, will have to avail themselves of these new aids.
Maria Montessori was able to envisage the potential of “material, discourses and visual representations … prepared by fascinating speakers and persons of a culture superior to that of the ordinary teacher.” Montessori foresaw many benefits accruing from this approach: firstly, that fewer teachers would be required and secondly, that materials could prepare for a “higher universal culture.” The preparation of materials would require a team of specialists to prepare and present materials.
If our approach is merely to find experts to prepare online content, or to prepare such resources ourselves, then we are late-comers to a party initiated and perfected by others. Kahn Academy was an earlier pioneer in the field, which offers excellent materials for free on the internet for different levels of learning on a myriad of topics. Many students know and use Kahn Academy already, including students in some Montessori schools. The website offers materials and tutorials for various subjects aimed at children from age four through to AP level. With over a decade of experience (and continuous improvement), this is a valuable resource for learning—particularly those subject areas where “mastery” learning is regarded as particularly valuable. There are many other resources, including YouTube™ channels, which offer sequential lessons of a high standard.
What would differentiate a lesson given by a Montessori trained guide, making it more effective than those offered by online teachers with at least a decade’s head start and accumulated experience in a medium to which we are mostly newcomers? How would we justify creating new materials and justifying their use in place of twelve years of accumulated content? What will make what we have to offer quintessentially Montessori? Do we have to reinvent the wheel to support Montessori students? Maria Montessori gives some direct guidance.
Referring to Renner (1932), Maria Montessori discussed “educational films” of her day, lamenting that they seemed confined to “the world of nature and the world of machines” and looked forward to a time when films dealing with “social and historical problems and the essential problems of culture” would be available. While she envisaged a place for varied visual and audio materials in her scheme of education, she regarded the quality as insufficient to meet the needs of children.
However, I don’t believe there is satisfaction of the real interest created by these films and their success. I believe instead that the little interest they offer to the viewer is due to their fragmented, incoherent character that rather makes them an entertainment show than a truly educational film. Film series coherently connected in a way to create a complete course covering a specific subject, would create a much livelier interest and would have, from an educational standpoint, a more rewarding result.
This deficit in coverage of disciplines has since been remedied, and digital resources offer both expert tuition and visually appealing experiences that cover all the disciplines.
Even well-constructed recent materials may reflect the shortfalls Montessori identified in the films of her day. The brief citation mentioned above, points to two areas that need to be considered. The first issue is that they do not satisfy “the real interest” that they provoke. Put another way—the films can and do create interest, but they do not satisfy the need of the child. They are entertaining rather than educational. This is because they lack the structure, or the inter-relatedness of the curriculum which she envisaged. Some resources, such as The Big History Project are structured in a way that matches the structure of the Montessori elementary curriculum, with many overlapping themes. The way the material is presented conforms to much of what Montessori hoped for in the presentation of the materials. Despite the high quality, logical structure, and interesting content, The Big History Project, and other similar programs, do not constitute Cosmic Education.
A reading of the two brief articles makes it very clear that Montessori did not discount the use of technology in her classrooms.
To properly unpack the thoughtful and planned design of curriculum and methodology that typifies the Montessori approach it is necessary to consider certain philosophical tenets of Montessori—that is the very nature of the educative proposition that is Cosmic Education, and the role of the child as the agent of his or her own education. It requires that we shift our orientation as regards discipline content (which can arguably be more effectively transferred by digital rather than print media) from content for its own sake (i.e., the child as recipient) towards content being the fuel for the child’s self-construction.
To make digital materials useful to children, it is necessary to look at what we know about the development of the child. In Cinema Educativo, Montessori discusses how verbal explanations might be suitable for adults, but that young children require a more concrete experience. She commented that films give “significant advantages.” Because teachers can produce films themselves, these could be geared to the needs of children.
What is needed, in Montessori’s view, is “a guide of a kind of syllabus directing their distribution” (Montessori, 2015, p. 5). The “syllabus” to which she refers had not yet been fully developed, but its guiding principles were already being incorporated in her lectures and eventually became known as the Cosmic Curriculum implemented in Montessori prepared environments for the second plane.
It is clear that Maria Montessori did not oppose the use of film (or in our modern terminology—video) as a means to deliver content to children. She proposed the development of centers for the production of such materials. If the appropriate technology were used, the production of Montessori-compliant media, potentially, has a far greater reach, and could truly transform the way education is understood in the post-COVID world:
These centers would gradually become the means to unify the cultural development of the children all over the world … They would be institutions in the world of the child comparable to the institutes of scientific research in the world of the adult and, as the latter, they would be not only of national, but of universal advantage (Montessori, 2015, p. 6).
There is, however, a critical aspect that requires further deliberation. This relates to how these materials are to be used by the children. I have already alluded to the centrality of the agency of the child as opposed to the centrality of content. Montessori ends her brief introduction:
I would like to point out that these mechanical aids are insufficient to bring about the totality of education. Children to do not learn and do not develop their character by merely listening and looking on.
The technological aids are “only partial aids.” She concludes:
The child learns by means of his own activity and if given an opportunity to learn actively he develops his character and personality too. The child perfects himself even more by means of his hand than by means of the senses. He can develop himself and the personal talents of his nature when given the opportunity and guidance to produce and to discover by himself. Modern methods of education, in fact, are not only visual, but above all active. (Montessori, 2015, p. 7).
A goal of Montessori education is that children are prepared to fully participate in their time and place. There is no doubt, just a few short months into the global crisis that our world is going to change, and that to function in this world one will have to be comfortable with new technology. Adaptability is human trait that has ensured our survival umpteen times in the past and will be key in the coming months and years. Montessori commented on schools that based their learning solely on mechanical devices, and compared these to schools that had a strictly academic focus:
Wherever possible mechanical contrivances are introduced for every detail of practical life, so that our children may be fitted to take part in a civilization which is entirely based on machines.
In their adoption of this part of our method, some modern schools, especially in the United States, have gone too far, so that children in this intellectual stage of growth are made to occupy themselves solely with these machines, devised as they are for developing intelligence. In such schools freedom too has entered with the machines, children being allowed to choose their work, which is good so far as it goes. But whatever cannot be learned in this way is barred out, as insignificant and negligible: mathematics and other abstract subjects are considered as beyond the child’s comprehension by free and spontaneous activity. These schools based on practical work are opposed to the so-called ‘old-fashioned’ schools where mainly abstract subjects are taught and facts memorized; but we oppose both alike (Montessori, 1989, p. 8).
It is clear that Maria Montessori had no aversion to the use of technological aids, that she envisaged the use of visual and audio technology to enrich the child’s experience of knowledge content. She insisted, however, the visual and audio materials must be structured to meet the developmental needs of the children for whom they are intended. Furthermore, adults prepared in the Montessori approach were the best people to plan and prepare such materials. These materials would be part of “the totality of education” that requires that all aspects of Montessori pedagogy are understood and applied.
This article has not touched on many critical components of the Prepared Environment and the role of the adult, including the place of the concrete materials and the potential use of the digital environment to facilitate social interaction while maintaining physical distance, and how to meet the needs of “Going Out” when going out is no longer safe (or indeed even in a post-COVID world, where the rich opportunities available in first-world cities are not accessible to children). We need to remember that our children may know this technology better than we do, but in many cases (such as the impoverished townships of South Africa), children do not have full access to the digital world, just as they do not have access to a truly educative concrete one. How do we deal with this? How do we understand the real child outside of our carefully prepared rooms? There is work that has been done on this. Looking at how children learn when given free access to digital technology (See for example the work of Sugata Mitra – https://www.ted.com/speakers/sugata_mitra) there is immense potential to reach children hitherto denied such access, but Montessori would require that we utilize Montessori methodologies to extend such experiences into a total education. Using digital technology to simply transmit teacher-talk and digitized worksheets and text books is not Montessori education. We are required to observe children and respond to what they reveal to us. How do we observe children in a digital environment?
As Montessori taught us—global human interconnectedness is immense and just possibly we have the provocation necessary to fully explore the potential of our digital technology to fully realize Cosmic Education and transform how the world sees education. If we want to get the right answers we have to start asking the right questions.
Montessori, M. (1932). Cinema Educativo. Rivista Bimestrale Dell’Opera, pp. 235-238.
Montessori, M. (1989). To educate the human potential, ABC: CLIO
Montessori, M. (1989). Education and peace, ABC: CLIO
Montessori, M., Pierson (2007). Address European Congress for Peace in Brussels 1936