Technology in the Elementary Montessori Classroom
It’s the twenty-first century—the Age of Computers. Most everyone has Wi-Fi and the ability to Google anything within minutes. Communication is at the tip of our fingers and what would a car ride be without Pandora? Technology plays a significant role in our personal lives as well as our professional lives and many of us would not know how to act if we did not have constant access to a computer or a smart phone.
So if technology is such a big part of our lives, why is it not a big part of the Montessori classroom? Well, the short answer is that it is. Miriam Webster defines technology as the practical application of knowledge, especially in a particular area. In the broad sense of the term, nearly everything we do in the classroom is technological. Students are introduced to a concept and then they are given the opportunity to apply it to something. In the classroom we typically refer to the practical application as follow up work. Follow up work may take the form of a research project, constructing a geometrical figure, or performing a science experiment.
When we talk about technology; however, we often mean the use of computers. Computers are a tool given to us by the technology industry allowing us to perform incredible tasks. They also allow us to do things exponentially faster than we could without them. The word computer was originally used to describe a human who could perform calculations or computations. The first machine that resembles the type of computers we use today was invented less than 100 years ago and weighed many tons. Now we have computers so small they fit in our pocket or on our wrist. They do much more than computations now and are able to perform many functions without human input.
A simple form of a computer is a handheld calculator. Scientific calculators can be very useful for performing higher level mathematics, but they have little use in the elementary years. Sure, a student could check her division with a calculator, but it takes about 5 seconds and almost no executive function skills. On the other hand, a student could check her division with multiplication. This exercise may take several minutes instead of 5 seconds, but the student had to employ her executive functions and got in a little multiplication practice while she was at it. Executive function is a set of mental skills performed in the prefrontal cortex of the brain that help us get things done and make good decisions. These include working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control.
Executive function skills must be taught, and that takes time. Every chance I get to instill these skills, I take it. Needless to say, we do not use calculators often.
Another example of a computer is, well, a computer. Personal computers have many uses, and for now, I will focus on those that do not involve the internet. Typing or keyboarding is one of the ways that we use computers in the Montessori classroom. Students may use the computer to type a final draft of a project. Limiting it to uses such as this allows the students to practice their fine motor skills through handwriting and allows them to edit their work without the crutch of a spell checker. Students may also use computers for tasks like creating tables, graphs, or spreadsheets. Like typing, these are skills that the student can learn once he has learned to do it on paper. This ensures that the students understands the concept of what they are trying to create, and can therefore focus their attention on attaining the computer skills they need to create it.
So what about the internet? Google makes finding information fast and easy and I do not know where I would be without it. Larry Page and Sergey Brin co-founded Google in 1998. They have often credited their success to their early Montessori education. Ironically, in Montessori classrooms students do not use Google to find the answers to their research questions. Typing in a question and getting an answer teaches students how to ask questions, not how to find answers. The co-founders of Google perfected their skills of finding answers in the Montessori classroom, which fosters self-motivation, questioning, and different ways of doing things.
Figuring out how to find the answers is just as important—if not more so—than actually finding them. I have watched students come up with research questions, take them to the computer, and come back 15 minutes later with all of the answers and no enthusiasm for what they have discovered. I have also witnessed students searching through books for over an hour (while complaining profusely) before finally finding that one fact they needed to complete the research. The reaction is completely different. There is nothing like the feeling of accomplishment after putting forth time and effort on something and that feeling simply does not come from Google. Perhaps you’re thinking that an hour is an awful lot of time wasted looking for a fact that the student could have found in the matter of minutes; however, consider what was going on in that hour. The student was attempting to solve a problem and succeeded. Not only will he probably remember the fact that he found, but he was building his executive function all the while. Not to mention, the student can now take pride in his work, because he knows he put forth substantial effort to find it.
We use books in our classroom all of the time, and students come to love them. We read for information, we read for fun, and we read often. Electronics and computers are captivating and they can be fun, but they dull the senses, do little to improve executive function, and limit social interaction. I encourage you to not only support our limited use of computers in the classroom, but to also limit your children’s usage at home. The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends limiting screen time to one hour for two-five year olds with no screen time at all for children under two. Television and video games can over stimulate young children and have been correlated with attention deficiencies. For children over five, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends continuing to limit and monitor your child’s screen time while allowing them to have at least one hour of physical activity outside of school. Screen time is fun and candy is sweet, but attention spans and teeth are priceless.