“Before elaborating any system of education, we must therefore create a favorable environment that will encourage the flowering of a child’s natural gifts. All that is needed is to remove the obstacles. And this should be the basis of, and point of departure for, all future education.”
– Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, 1936
At first glance, the intersections between Montessori education and high-quality digital learning are not immediately apparent. To those of us with some knowledge about Montessori methods—based on formal training, general awareness or, as in my case, the observations of a parent whose children attend a Montessori school—its natural materials and deep traditions seem to stand in opposition to the vision of a futuristic, technology-rich digital or blended learning environment.
While a surface look at Montessori learning and digital learning reveals obvious differences, a deep-dive into their undergirding principles reveal a set of very similar core values. Interestingly, these shared values manifest in similar ways in terms of teacher and student roles as they play out in seemingly-contradictory environments. Both high-quality digital learning and Montessori education prioritize the personalization of learning and create systems that allow for customization of content and instruction.
Here are five intersections between Montessori education and digital learning that I’ve observed as a parent to a Montessori preschooler, online educator and an education policy researcher.
1. Individual Learning Progressions & Competency-Based Learning
In both Montessori and high-quality digital and blended learning models, students have control over the path and pace of their learning. For students in a Montessori classroom, this means the choice of “work” that is matched to his/her individual interests, strengths and abilities. Montessori educators are trained to provide students with the next step in a sequence of lessons when the individual learner shows signs of readiness. Technology facilitates students’ progressions through course material in a similar fashion for students in high-quality online and blended environments. In both cases, students move through content based on demonstrations of mastery and their own interests. Because learning is student-centered, student motivation is high.
2. Elimination of Age and Grade Restrictions
Both Montessori and digital learning give less attention to age-based chronological movement through content. The multi-age classroom setting is one of the most well-known features of the Montessori classroom. Rather than moving through traditional K-12 grade bands based on age, students in Montessori classrooms learn alongside their peers in three-year bands. High-quality digital learning provides similar flexibility for students to learn outside of the traditional grade-based system. In both cases, students who need remediation or advanced instruction can do so within the natural learning environment.
3. Formative Assessments & Short Feedback Loops
Assessment in both the Montessori and personal digital learning setting is an organic part of the educational setting. The primary purpose of assessment in both cases is to guide instruction, and therefore ‘testing’ is integrated mindfully and seamlessly into the learning environment. Because assessment is a natural part of the learning environment in both cases, feedback is also immediate and on-going. Montessori lessons are set up to give students opportunities to learn from mistakes in real-time and to self-check their own progress as they complete activities alone or with peers. Online learning opportunities can be set-up to provide similar real-time and on-going feedback.
4. Non-traditional Teacher Roles
In both Montessori and personal digital learning environments, students are active participants in their own learning, rather than learning passively in whole-class lecture-style classrooms. There is more peer-to-peer learning and opportunities for self-guided and informal learning than traditional settings. Since learning comes from multiple places, teachers in both Montessori and high-quality digital and blended learning settings take on varied roles. Teachers in both cases move from traditional roles as experts with the primary task of instructional delivery to facilitators and guides of learning that is personalized and customized to individual student needs. There’s a reason why the teacher in the Montessori settings is referred to as the “Directress”; her primary task is to direct learners to ability-appropriate lessons that students then explore with her guidance and support only as needed. The same is true for personal digital learning settings. The focus is on creating opportunities for discovery and self-learning rather than expecting students to learn primarily from the instructor’s direct instruction.
5. A Global Citizen Perspective
Maria Montessori believed that education had the ability to inspire peace and reconstruct society. The curriculum is built on the importance of instilling a global perspective and respect for the common good from pre-school through graduation. Digital learning presents another route to creating global citizens by removing geographic barriers among learners and connecting students to the world at the click of mouse.
Education systems across the globe are rapidly being propelled into the realities of the future. As policymakers and educational leaders consider how they will create the future of education, there is much to learn from the past. Montessori education, with its deep traditions of child-centered learning and long histories of honoring the unique needs of students, can speak to calls for ‘proof’ that alternatives to traditional K-12 schooling have merit.
For an interesting discussion of the potential of Montessori education to meet the needs of 21st century learners, check out this piece from Forbes about innovators including Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos – who attribute their successes to their roots in Montessori classrooms.