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Montessori in the digital age

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Montessori in the digital age

  1. 1. Montessori in the Digital Age A. Prem Kumar Dr. Montessori was well respected by the leading scientists and technologists of her age, most of whom defined the previous century. One of her advocates was none other than Thomas Edison, probably the most celebrated technologist and entrepreneur. Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel founded the Montessori Educational Association at their Washington, DC, home in 1913. And later, Albert Einstein was a supporter of Dr. Montessori and worked to bring her methods to the US in the 1950s. Evidently she was no stranger to technology given that at the age of thirteen she had joined an all-boys technical school to prepare for engineering, before she went on to become Italy's first dottoressa. Technology today, 60 years since her death, has changed manifold impacting human culture and thinking profoundly. The computer in your pocket, the smartphone, has more memory & processing power than the largest of computers at her time. And we live in a time where the number of mobile phones outnumbers the number of toilets in India as per a UN report, a grave situation in itself. The world lies at the dawn of an era where computers will soon outnumber people on the planet; and they will all be connected to the Internet. Digital technology has not only augmented our cognitive capabilities it has also begun impinging upon our social capabilities too. The rise of social media has had such a fast impact on the world that many are still unraveling how it got so disruptive so quickly across the various spheres of human activities and interests ranging from consumption to creation to collaboration to revolution. Thanks to the advances in science and technology, jobs that were unheard of even a decade ago are in high demand today. Can we even imagine, let alone anticipate, what jobs will the children of today prepare themselves for? Will my son actually grow up to be an astronaut chef that he dreams of now? Space tourism is definitely on the raise, so maybe he will be a gourmet chef on a space cruise ship? The dream job is actually an original idea of my son that probably reflects on the imaginative mind of a child of seven. With the digital technology becoming so ubiquitous there is no way that an urban infant can escape it; many probably are raised on lullabies played on the mobiles. Toddlers already are
  2. 2. trying to swipe or pinch the images on magazines expecting them to either change or zoom out. While the frequency range of a mobile phone is so limited and thus robbing the infant of a richer range of sounds, the touch screens are devoid of any tactile feedback which is so necessary for the development of the toddler who is learning the most through her sense of touch. And yet, these same digital technologies hold the promise of delivering education to the length and breadth of the nation at minimal costs. Paucity of teachers can be overcome through videoconferencing or recorded videos of lectures. In fact, "massively open online courses" (MOOCs) are quite the flavour of the day in the higher education circles, with hundreds of thousands of registered students and billions of views of uploaded video content. Between the digital devices that exist in the child's first environment, the potential they hold to help a child learn and the "unbundling" effects of the Internet that provides an alternative to the tutor on premises, the changes that are apparent in imparting education are not so clear where it comes to actual learning. There is no empirical study on the impact of digital technology on learning, but the few research results that are emerging are not encouraging. While the smartphones and tablet PCs can draw the attention of the children keeping their attention is increasingly difficult, resulting in easily distracted children. Children tend to become passive recipients of content, rather than moulders of their experiences by manipulating these devices. To counter the passivity by teaching them how to manipulate, can we introduce them to tools like Gcompris for children below six years and Scratch, developed by MIT, for children older than six, by which they can control how the computer behaves & responds to their commands? Pew Research Center has recently found by surveying 2000 teachers across the USA, that while children have better access to information for their research purposes, there is not much improvement in their research skills as such. One teacher said, “They don’t know how to filter out bad information, and they are so used to getting information quickly that when they can’t find what they are looking for immediately, they quit.” In fact critical consumption of information is a skill that even adults find difficult. The amount of information available online is huge, and they are made easily & quickly accessible thanks to the search engines, however not all that is on the web can be trusted. As Howard Rheingold says in his new book, "Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter?”
  3. 3. "Part of the process of effectively harnessing the power of search involves the metacognitive skill of regarding all digital information with a skeptical eye, searching for clues, and using social networks and online tools to test the validity of online “knowledge” found or sent to us. Such tools might be thought of as mind-extending lenses, bringing into focus the most trustworthy information while blurring the questionable information into the background." Dr. Montessori was of the opinion that “when dealing with children there is greater need for observing than of probing.” Do we need to be bold enough to consider providing mobiles and tablet PCs, probably as exercises of practical life, so that we can observe children with these technologies? Like how the One Laptop Per Child has attempted by giving their specially designed laptops to children in a remote village in Africa and learnt that children could learn alphabets on their own within a short time and were even able to change settings on the laptop so that they could activate the camera in it, having figured it out all by themselves. Or do we wait till there is greater penetration of digital technologies, when it is inarguably and irrevocably accepted as an item of human culture? Probably this requires a plane based evaluation rather than a single yes or no for children of all planes of development? There definitely are more questions than answers at this stage. And thus this definitely calls for observation by Montessori adults and the sharing of these observations for us to even discern any impact of these digital technologies on child development and learning. Probably we can use these digital technologies ourselves too to collaborate and share so that we not only learn about the children but also the technology to shape our own Montessori materials for a digital age if need be? This text is shared under a creative commons license. CC:BY-NC-SA This text was submitted as a draft for an article in the magazine “Follow The Child” from Indian Montessori Center Publication. An edited form was subsequently published in their January 6, 2013 issue.

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