Last week I stopped in the Moose Tracks Class to watch them playing a version of the “Have You Ever?” game. The children stood in a circle while one stood in the middle and said, “If you like to swim in the ocean, switch places.” Everyone who liked to swim in the ocean switched places with someone else that liked to swim in the ocean. It took several rounds before everyone had the game figured out. I returned to my desk to find an email about how children these days lack skills that are developed in playing games with others. They spend so much time playing video games that they have trouble figuring out how to follow verbal directions and respond to physical cues in a group.

A few days later a teacher spoke of her concern that the Utah State Core Curriculum had dropped cursive writing. The discussion reminded me of recurring topics over the years. Someone says, “Kids don’t need to tell time – they have digital clocks now”. And we Montessorians counter with – but how will they value time if they don’t visualize a circle and the fractions of hours that have passed? It’s the measurement of time we are after, not just a ticking off of numbers. Then there was, “Kids don’t need to tie their shoes – now we have Velcro!” The Montessorians wrinkled their brows and replied, but how will they wrap a gift or tie a sash or untie a knot?” More recently it’s been “Kids don’t need to know how to spell – they communicate through texts now.” And then, “Kids don’t need to know how to write in cursive – they use keyboards all the time now!” Sometimes I see a child examining a clothespin or an old telephone or a picture of an ink-well or a typewriter. The standardized test we use has pictures of a check and a car with a trunk. Has any child in Park City ever seen these things?

Modern technology is amazing and just keeps getting more so. And every time we add something to our repertoire of wonderful fun new tools, we evaluate its worth in our lives. Because we can watch movies everywhere we go does that mean we should? Are we still playing games and singing songs in the car? Are we playing Hang Man and Pictionary on restaurant placemats? Do we go outside and play Hide & Seek and Kick the Can with the whole family after dinner? Are children still messing around outside for hours on end like we all did as kids? Climbing trees? Building forts? Digging holes, just for the sake of digging? Designing little towns in the garden?

In an article by Jana Morgan Herman, MEd in the current issue of Montessori Life, the journal of the American Montessori Society, she points out, “Though today’s digital natives are constantly connected to friends through virtual chats, including texting, instant messaging, or social networking websites, research shows that today’s children, ages 8 to 18 are less able to read social cues, express empathy, or participate in deep conversation.” She says even though we believe our ability to multitask with our electronic instruments makes it seem as though we are much more efficient there is evidence to the contrary. “It turns out multi-taskers are terrible at every aspect of multi-tasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”  Just because we can Google every question immediately on our phones, should we? Is there value in the long debates at the dinner table over minutia such as the origins of words and where the dessert fork is properly placed? When I was a child one such debate – about whether or not cows have horns – went on for weeks with all of us searching for examples. Elsie Borden has horns, but she’s a cartoon cow. The cows in the field down the street don’t have horns, but they may have been removed. Finally my mom called the public library and then the librarian got into the act searching through the stacks. It had become such a grand game that we made sure it never ended so we could launch the debate again at will. Now I can Google the question and have the answer in seconds. Where’s the fun in that?

Herman concludes, “Montessori pedagogy is the perfect anecdote to the frenetic lifestyle of so many technophiles. Montessori specifically addresses the importance of sustaining concentration, focusing on one task to completion, and cultivating skills in grace, courtesy and empathy. …Montessori education is in line with what neuroscientists understand about the optimal development of the brain… By bringing an understanding of media’s impact on social functioning and brain development to teachers and families, we may be able to help children grow into adults who experience life in it’s entirety and not merely plugged into a shallow virtual world.”

Of course it’s all about balance. Unlike the pioneers we can have ice cream at any time of the day or night. But do we need it? Our new devices are wonderful tools – if I’d had a computer when I was analyzing statistics for my master’s thesis it would have taken about a quarter of the time. My sister-in-law made the comment “It’s everywhere – you see children staring into the light of their toys and games – they are drawn to the light! We have to embrace it.” This Montessorian wrinkled her brow and said, “How will they learn to work with real objects, communicate with real people and connect with the Earth if they’re always looking at a screen?”

Duna Strachan, AMS
Executive Director
Soaring Wings International Montessori School
Park City, Utah USA

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