Montessori Schools Balance Tradition and Tech

Over a 100 years ago, Dr. Maria Montessori developed a radical approach to education with a curriculum driven by a child’s natural development and interests. Mom Lori Israeli, whose three children attend Gladwyne Montessori School in Gladwyne, PA, has seen firsthand how the Montessori program ignites children’s passion to learn through both traditional methods and technology use.

Lori’s son Graham’s study of architecture began with books when he was a third grader. What he read led him online, where he discovered that the tallest building in the world is Burj Khalifa, designed by architect Adrian Smith and built in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

For Famous Person’s Day at school, Graham dressed like Smith and gave a presentation with a Lego replica of Burj Khalifa. His mom snapped a picture and e-mailed it to Smith’s Chicago firm, and Graham received a package filled with blueprints in return.

In the information age, such self-directed learning has no bounds. Montessori schools have integrated technology into the curriculum in unique ways while staying true to Montessori philosophy.

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Traditional Montessori approach

The traditional Montessori method includes the following tenets.

Individualized learning time. During self-paced learning, students explore materials independently until they have mastered the concepts. Montessori-trained teachers meet individually with students to assess their progress and to update and adapt the curriculum to meet students’ and teachers’ expectations, explains Janette Henry, head of Hockessin Montessori School in Hockessin, DE.

Multi-age groupings. Combinations of older and younger students promote peer mentoring, independent thinkers and close relationships.

Hands-on materials. Resources are designed to teach abstract concepts and multiple grade levels. For young children, the Montessori method “relies heavily on the use of concrete manipulatives,” which children select, Henry says. Teachers introduce the lesson using those materials and encourage children to play and try to master the given concept.

All mathematic concepts are introduced using concrete materials, adds Gerry Hartnett, interim head of school of Gladwyne Montessori School. Usually by the time a child has reached fourth grade, he can do division without using manipulatives.

As children start to process concepts abstractly, between the ages of 6-12, they no longer need to practice with the hands-on materials because the foundation has been laid, says Henry.

Facilitators. Adult leaders prepare the environment and guide the learning process.

Large blocks of uninterrupted learning time. Stretches of time devoted to one activity allow children to become absorbed in their work and learn unhurriedly.

Balancing tradition & technology

Montessori Academy in Delran, NJ, has farm animals as well as a vegetable garden that children tend.

“In the lower elementary school they don’t use much technology because the philosophy is on tactile learning first,” says Will Fleming, who serves as both director and a teacher of English and the humanities at the school. “We emphasize community and work the land together, tapping into more traditional ways of learning.”

At the Academy, older students use computer technology to conduct research, give presentations and solve problems that strengthen the community.

Hockessin Montessori School formally introduces technology in kindergarten. They teach coding through a robotics program and introduce computer basics and Internet safety to their young students. Group work requires students to share Google documents, develop content and make presentations.

Wilmington Montessori School in Wilmington, DE, has integrated technology into all classrooms to varying degrees, says Noel Dietrich, director of communications, without using tech as a substitute for traditional types of learning. Fourth through sixth grades have a 1:1 iPad program, and the school offers Maker Studios where students learn STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) concepts. Younger students use Bee-Bot, a robot that follows simple directional instructions, to learn the basics of coding, while older students use increasingly abstract tools such as Dash & Dot and Scratch Jr.

In the middle school, Gladwyne Montessori recently launched Entrepreneurship, a program in which each student works with an economist to develop, invent and take a product to market.

“Maria Montessori believed the prepared environment for adolescents should be a school of social experience,” explains David Shin, head of the Gladwyne Montessori Middle School. He believes that Entrepreneurship allows students to create something useful that they are passionate about for the greater good of the community.

“Montessori is not just about academics; it’s about developing the child’s full potential,” says Henry.

Lynda Dell is a freelance writer and experienced PA-certified early childhood educator.

Categories: Elementary Education