The Future Is Now

I’ve always been a science fan. One of my earliest memories is of watching earthworms crawl between my fingers. I made hospitals for insects, trapped (and released) desert animals for study and did my best to sterilize a dead rabbit in the bathroom sink so I could make my own rabbit’s foot. My mother’s scream when she discovered that project stills echoes in my memory. As the offspring of a doctor and a nurse from a family full of scientists, this was not surprising. When I read Born Free in 6th grade my mind was made up to spend my life as a scientist.

I was on course to continue from my graduate studies in Environmental Zoology into the jobless world of biology when I ran into a fascinating person, Dr. Maria Montessori. Not in person, of course. She died in 1952. It was 1983 when I discovered Montessori and was fascinated with the science-based learning system unlike any other. I had been conducting experiments on my own toddler daughter and rejoicing at the ease of working with a human – in stark contrast to the many years I’d spent traipsing the blazing desert looking for clues into the behavior of various wild creatures. Now I could just ask her.

Time went by and I became immersed in the day-to-day development of a school as well as a family. I gleefully used my science background to order my Montessori training into a much more logical sequence. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that I began to wonder why Montessori was so unknown in the larger educational community. Parents told me daily how astounded they were at what my students were learning in comparison to those in traditional schools. Why didn’t everyone know this? Probably because most Montessorians, by nature, are talented, educated, introverted people who are better at leading a class from the sidelines than marketing their technique. And yet, slowly, the Montessori Method is managing to emerge into the mainstream.

The August 2013 edition of Scientific American features several articles on the future of education. One points out that through online learning even the most under-privileged child in the most remote 3rd world country will soon be able to access a first-rate education. Think about that. World news is full of war, terrorist attacks and destruction of the very environment that supports our lives. But what if everyone had an education? What if people all over the world understood science? And humanities? And peace education? And each other? It seems to me that we are on the brink of changing the world within a few generations. And what if the teaching methods could be Montessori based?

Elsewhere in this fascinating issue of SciAm is an article by Peter Norvig, director of research at Google, about how best to utilize the new technologies at our disposal. While we are aware that spending our lives in front of screens, as depicted in the movie “Wall-E”, is not a good idea, Norvig points out that short 2 – 6 minute videos interspersed with personal exercises work very well in the world of online education. Salman Kahn, of Kahn Academy, points out that it’s time to let go of the 19th century factory model of education. It’s time to allow students to move at their own pace. Peter Veterbacka of Rovia Entertainment says that students in Finland spend a larger part of their day playing rather than on school work and yet they earn some of the best national test scores because they are playing with educational software. Arne Duncan, the US secretary of Education remarks on a classroom in Detroit where children of mixed ages work together on various projects, each at their own pace. There are digital tools and traditional ones interspersed throughout the classroom.

Does this sound familiar? Mixed ages, a diversity of tools and progressing at the student’s own pace? The cutting edge of education seems to be describing the 106-year-old Montessori Method. In the 1980’s there was a huge debate over the value of technology in the classroom. Philosophy on this issue has evolved to embrace the addition of computers in classrooms while managing the age-appropriateness of exposure. We Montessorians are staunch supporters of allowing children daily unstructured time in close connection with concrete materials and with the Earth. We hold to our convictions that teaching penmanship, shoe tying, and telling time on analog clocks are all important steps in building the human consciousness.

David Pogue of the New York Times suggests that with a computer in every pocket we no longer need to memorize anything. The need to commit the names of all US Presidents to memory is now just as important as knowing how to operate an elevator or transmit Morse code. Think of all the luscious tidbits that are captive in your memory – poems, lyrics, quotations, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the preamble to the Constitution. Will our children woo their sweetheart by whipping out a tiny computer and reading off a romantic verse? Will they wow their potential new employers by fidgeting with an electronic devise to find a suitable quote with which to impress them? Will they enchant their grandchildren by scrolling through a list of stories to read rather than telling them spontaneously? Just because we have the option of never memorizing another thing, does it mean we should accept it?

As usual, Pogo was right. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

With so many options in our very near future, there is much to consider. It seems as if science fiction often comes true. Do we want the future of “Blade Runner” or the future of “Star Trek”’s planet Vulcan? (Translation for you non-sci-fi fans: a bleak and toxic future or a peaceful future in a world where nature and education are intertwined?)  We Montessorians will stand by tradition while mindfully integrating modern advances. We want to encourage a foundation in concrete experiences from which to build the abstractions available in unlimited amounts through technology.  We want every child to progress at her own pace while learning from a myriad of concrete and technological tools.  And the piece that is still unique to Montessori – we want every child to begin from day one on a curriculum of education for peace.

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

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