Montessori in the Digital AgeA. Prem KumarDr. 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 thanThomas Edison, probably the most celebrated technologist and entrepreneur. AlexanderGraham Bell and his wife Mabel founded the Montessori Educational Association at theirWashington, DC, home in 1913. And later, Albert Einstein was a supporter of Dr. Montessoriand worked to bring her methods to the US in the 1950s. Evidently she was no stranger totechnology given that at the age of thirteen she had joined an all-boys technical school toprepare for engineering, before she went on to become Italys first dottoressa.Technology today, 60 years since her death, has changed manifold impacting human cultureand 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 wherethe 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 soonoutnumber people on the planet; and they will all be connected to the Internet. Digitaltechnology has not only augmented our cognitive capabilities it has also begun impingingupon our social capabilities too. The rise of social media has had such a fast impact on theworld that many are still unraveling how it got so disruptive so quickly across the variousspheres of human activities and interests ranging from consumption to creation tocollaboration to revolution. Thanks to the advances in science and technology, jobs thatwere unheard of even a decade ago are in high demand today. Can we even imagine, letalone anticipate, what jobs will the children of today prepare themselves for? Will my sonactually grow up to be an astronaut chef that he dreams of now? Space tourism is definitelyon the raise, so maybe he will be a gourmet chef on a space cruise ship? The dream job isactually an original idea of my son that probably reflects on the imaginative mind of a childof seven.With the digital technology becoming so ubiquitous there is no way that an urban infant canescape it; many probably are raised on lullabies played on the mobiles. Toddlers already are
trying to swipe or pinch the images on magazines expecting them to either change or zoomout. While the frequency range of a mobile phone is so limited and thus robbing the infantof a richer range of sounds, the touch screens are devoid of any tactile feedback which is sonecessary for the development of the toddler who is learning the most through her sense oftouch. And yet, these same digital technologies hold the promise of delivering education tothe length and breadth of the nation at minimal costs. Paucity of teachers can be overcomethrough videoconferencing or recorded videos of lectures. In fact, "massively open onlinecourses" (MOOCs) are quite the flavour of the day in the higher education circles, withhundreds of thousands of registered students and billions of views of uploaded videocontent.Between the digital devices that exist in the childs first environment, the potential theyhold to help a child learn and the "unbundling" effects of the Internet that provides analternative to the tutor on premises, the changes that are apparent in imparting educationare not so clear where it comes to actual learning. There is no empirical study on the impactof digital technology on learning, but the few research results that are emerging are notencouraging. While the smartphones and tablet PCs can draw the attention of the childrenkeeping their attention is increasingly difficult, resulting in easily distracted children.Children tend to become passive recipients of content, rather than moulders of theirexperiences by manipulating these devices. To counter the passivity by teaching them howto manipulate, can we introduce them to tools like Gcompris for children below six yearsand Scratch, developed by MIT, for children older than six, by which they can control howthe computer behaves & responds to their commands?Pew Research Center has recently found by surveying 2000 teachers across the USA, thatwhile children have better access to information for their research purposes, there is notmuch improvement in their research skills as such. One teacher said, “They don’t know howto filter out bad information, and they are so used to getting information quickly that whenthey can’t find what they are looking for immediately, they quit.” In fact criticalconsumption of information is a skill that even adults find difficult. The amount ofinformation available online is huge, and they are made easily & quickly accessible thanks tothe search engines, however not all that is on the web can be trusted. As Howard Rheingoldsays in his new book, "Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter?”
"Part of the process of effectively harnessing the power of search involves the metacognitiveskill of regarding all digital information with a skeptical eye, searching for clues, and usingsocial networks and online tools to test the validity of online “knowledge” found or sent tous. Such tools might be thought of as mind-extending lenses, bringing into focus the mosttrustworthy information while blurring the questionable information into the background."Dr. Montessori was of the opinion that “when dealing with children there is greater need forobserving than of probing.” Do we need to be bold enough to consider providing mobilesand tablet PCs, probably as exercises of practical life, so that we can observe children withthese technologies? Like how the One Laptop Per Child has attempted by giving theirspecially designed laptops to children in a remote village in Africa and learnt that childrencould learn alphabets on their own within a short time and were even able to changesettings on the laptop so that they could activate the camera in it, having figured it out all bythemselves. Or do we wait till there is greater penetration of digital technologies, when it isinarguably and irrevocably accepted as an item of human culture? Probably this requires aplane based evaluation rather than a single yes or no for children of all planes ofdevelopment?There definitely are more questions than answers at this stage. And thus this definitely callsfor observation by Montessori adults and the sharing of these observations for us to evendiscern any impact of these digital technologies on child development and learning.Probably we can use these digital technologies ourselves too to collaborate and share sothat we not only learn about the children but also the technology to shape our ownMontessori materials for a digital age if need be?This text is shared under a creative commons license. CC:BY-NC-SAThis text was submitted as a draft for an article in the magazine “Follow The Child” from Indian Montessori CenterPublication. An edited form was subsequently published in their January 6, 2013 issue.