As a Maker who doesn’t really Make much, it is probably no surprise that as an educator who never really used technology, I would spend five days at the recent International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) annual conference in Atlanta. As a result, I have been spending a fair amount of time thinking about the role of technology in the classroom and learning. I took a class through OSU last year that focused on technology in the classroom (interestingly an on-line class, but that is a topic for another day) and it was my first exposure to the variety of what teachers are doing with technology these days. My classmates represented the whole range of individuals teaching K-20+ and the different projects they shared encompassed an amazing variety of programs and topics. So, being surrounded by 14,000 educators, administrators, and technology specialists was not the complete culture shock it might have been a few years earlier. And, if nothing else, my fellow attendees are very excited about what they are doing. I have rarely been around so many enthusiastic, eager people who truly believe that what they are doing can change education for the better- they just oozed positivity!
Prior to my PhD journey, I was involved with Montessori for over twenty years. As I have previously written about some of the reasons I whole-heartedly agree with the Montessori pedagogy, hands-on, interest driven, collaborative, follow the child and such, I won’t belabor that here. However, my long experience with Montessori shapes my experiences with and attitudes about technology and education. Let’s just say that Montessori has not been quick to embrace technology. Montessori tends to be conservative anyway- it can happen when a movement grows around an individual and once that individual dies, it can be hard to determine how to incorporate new things/ideas in a way that preserves the original intention. What would Maria Montessori do? We can only make our best guesses. Some would argue that because she was a scientist by training, she would be interested in some of the new possibilities technology offers. However, as modern Montessorians strive to preserve what makes this pedagogy effective, new ideas and tools are subject to much scrutiny, if they are considered at all.
One misconception that others can have is around the “hands-on”’ nature of Montessori. One woman I talked to at the conference had a PhD in mathematics and had created some clever ways of modeling mathematical ideas on computers. She was surprised that Montessorians would not necessarily appreciate her programs as she saw them as “concrete” representations of abstract ideas- which is what many Montessori materials are designed to do. And for years there have been computer games (now aps) that allow children to “move” beads and other images around to represent Montessori math materials for work with the four operations (+.-.x./). Yet, most Montessorians would argue that it is important for the child to hold an actual bead bar, with three beads, or nine beads, on it and manipulate it, feel it, count it, notice the difference in weight and space it takes up. Does sliding an image around on a computer screen with your index finger really recreate that experience? And if we forego teaching handwriting and start children out with keyboarding at younger and younger ages, will that somehow affect human intelligence as we know it? The human brain and hand have coevolved in ways we don’t fully understand and there is some evidence that written language parallels other changes in our development as a species. Montessori believed in the importance of “work with the hand” for everything from intellectual to emotional and social growth, at all levels of development- preschool through adolescence. Will technology fundamentally change how we think and learn?
I don’t claim to know the answers, but I am concerned. I think that is why Make appeals to me. Yes, it does have a technology component, but the focus is on individuals being producers, not just consumers of technology. There are plenty of people at ISTE who also believe this, advocating for teaching coding and ap design to all grade levels. But, I am concerned what happens when we let this dominate their day. I heard Dale Doughtery (co-founder of Make and founder of MakerFaire) answer a question from a kindergarten teacher about how to create a MakerSpace in his classroom. Dale said that for this age, finger painting, sewing, playing with blocks and clay is Making. He even said that “Montessori had it right, children need to be working with their hands, with real materials” (and yes, I did do an internal fist pump when I heard this!).
I think there is a need for balance and that there is room for both. I realize we live in a world that is overrun with technology, and this is part of the reality of children and youth today, and I want them to be prepared for the world they inhabit. Yet, I want them to build real towers that they can measure their own height against and that can topple over and they hear the crash. I want them to know the difference, in their bodies, between a unit, a ten, a hundred, and a thousand.
I will end with a quote I saw on FaceBook this week (just to add my own bit of irony, I guess!). “Yes, kids love technology, but they also love Legos, scented markers, handstands, books, and mud puddles. It’s all about balance.” K.G. first grade teacher. It is all about balance- let’s all remember that!