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Has the Bread Become Our Master?

15 Aug

An old Iranian proverb says: “Eat your bread in such a way that the bread does not become your master.”  In modern times, we’d be wise to say the same thing about our relationship with technology.

If you were born between the 1940’s and the 1970’s, you’ve experienced first-hand how important technology is for getting ahead in the workforce.  Those in our generation who obtained the necessary technology training to keep up with industry trends have been able to move ahead in the workforce, while others who were stumped by computers have been left behind.  We stand in awe of tech wizards who do with computers what most of us could only dream of (I should know, my husband is one of those brainiacs), and society rewards them handsomely for their abilities.

Not surprisingly, we believe that the secret to our children’s success lies in early exposure to technology.  After all, if we’d been born with a laptop in our hands, we wouldn’t have had to undergo the scary technology learning curve most of us experienced in high school, college, or worse: on the job!  I still remember being in my first year of college (1994) and opening a web browser for the first time.  I had no idea what to do or what to type after arriving at mtv.com (the only website I could think of!).  I also remember working in the corporate world with people only a few years older than me who had no clue how to use basic office technology.  “I’m about to get fired” was written all over their angst-ridden faces as they cringed before the monitor.  Relate those experiences to the current day, when four-year-olds are giving their parents lessons on how to use an iPhone, and it becomes clear why parents are so eager to encourage their pre-schoolers’ impressive computer skills!

However, we are doing young children a terrible disservice by exposing them to computers at an early age (even those computers with so-called educational software).  We are stealing from our children the short window of opportunity for developing CRUCIAL neurological and intellectual skills that ONLY come through real-world experiences.

Am I afraid of technology?  That’s like asking if I’m afraid of tools.  Both are marvelous inventions when used correctly!  Computers are a tool, and like every tool, they should be handled responsibly and used for the right purposes.  An electric drill is a very useful tool for hanging a painting, but it can have dire consequences if used incorrectly.  So can computers.

Here are (a few of) the facts:

  • Computers rob children of outdoor playtime.  Playing outdoors greatly benefits their physical health, encourages socialization, and develops problem-solving skills (read on to find out why computer software fails to provide truly useful problem-solving opportunities).  Physical activity also increases oxygen supply and balances chemical secretions in the brain.  Children with balanced brain chemistry are more capable of dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression, and show an increased ability to learn and retain information.
  • Computers take time away from experiences with real-world items (be it toys, art supplies, or a basket full of laundry).  These physical experiences provide the child with important clues about how the world REALLY works (i.e. gravity, cause & effect, self-control), drive him to find out more, and allow him to control of his environment.  Computer programs decide what the child is going to learn; they don’t provide useful multi-sensory feedback (e.g. banging your finger with a hammer in real life is a lot more educational than the same experience in the virtual world); and they breed a passive learner who is dependent on machines to provide experiences and solutions.  Additionally, if a child is stumped on a computer problem, he can shut down the machine and walk away with no consequences.  Not so when he has to figure out how to load the dishwasher so all the plates will fit and the door will close!
  • Computers rob children of valuable child-adult interactions.  In a very large study, researchers found that interactions between children and adults were the primary determinants of children’s intelligence, academic success, and emotional stability. What did these interactions look like?  They were “relaxed explorations guided primarily by the child and supported by helpful and emotionally responsive but not overly intrusive adults.” (Healy, Failure to Connect)  Can computers be “helpful and emotionally responsive”?  No, but you sure can!
  • Computers discourage the type of problem-solving scenarios that create lasting intellectual growth.  When a child is stuck on a problem in real life, a subtle suggestion or question from an adult can be just what he needs to solve the problem himself.  Even the most sophisticated computer programs cannot do this, so children who work with computers learn that the only way to find out the right answer is by waiting for the computer to show them (if they’re patient and interested enough to wait that long).  Gone are the feelings of satisfaction and triumph that come from solving a problem, and gone too is the embodiment of that new knowledge through the experience of figuring it out.
  • Computers don’t provide clear “if-then” experiences, thereby impairing a child’s ability to judge situations.  Psychologists now know that children need physical experiences that they themselves can control (e.g. if I do x this way, then y will happen – What happens if I do x differently?).  This phenomenon is especially important between the ages of three and four, when the brain takes a giant leap in causal reasoning.  And this is exactly when many parents choose to introduce computers to their children – computers that are ripe with software that provides confusing and unnatural cause-effect relationships.  Not surprisingly, elementary and junior high school teachers report a growing number of older students who struggle with applying “if-then” concepts to math, science, and social relations.  Even my husband, who teaches at the college level, has noticed this growing trend among his undergraduate students.
  • Computers confuse children about what is fact and what is fiction.  While young children have a hard time telling the difference between fantasy and reality, by age seven most can tell the two concepts apart.  However, studies have shown that the more screen time children are exposed to when they’re young, the more they struggle with correctly identifying something as fact or fiction as they get older.

In summary: The tech geniuses and titans of industry of today did not achieve their success by sitting in front of a computer at age four.  Their impressive creative and entrepreneurial abilities come from the real-life experiences they had as young children.

Let a pile of laundry be your children’s software and the sandbox be their Silicon Valley.  Allow them to care for a real mouse and “byte” into carrots and radishes straight from the garden.  Invite them to connect with the world and behold the true genius that’s just waiting to burst out.

*******

For a fascinating look at how computers affect our children, as well as a more in-depth explanation of the specific points discussed here, refer to the wonderful book “Failure To Connect” by Dr. Jane Healy.  If you don’t have time to read the entire book, at least check out Chapter Seven – Cybertots: Technology and the Preschool Child.  Get a free preview through Google Books!

The Force of Dr. Montessori’s Thought

28 Jul

During the past few weeks, I’ve received a couple of invitations to check out an online store that creates Montessori-based applications for the iPad.  On their blog, the product makers (two AMI-trained individuals who obviously skipped all the theory lectures) claim to wholeheartedly support Montessori education.  They paint themselves as champions of children, on a mission to “expose a new generation to the force of [Dr. Montessori’s] thought”.

Their only mission, as far as I can tell, is to make money by using the Montessori name, all the while tricking parents into thinking their children are obtaining a quality educational experience, and robbing children of the opportunity to fulfill their potential through real-world encounters.  Making money?  Perfectly fine.  Conning parents and denying children the opportunity to interact with the real world?  NOT FINE.

Join me as I dissect and respond to the very blog post that claims their intentions are pure (sections in green are taken from their blog):

“We are trying to introduce new families to the Montessori approach to early childhood education. We hope to highlight the importance of Montessori by exposing a new generation to the force of her thought.”

Unless the applications you’re selling come with a full download of The Absorbent Mind and an opportunity to observe in a Montessori classroom, I highly doubt that the families that purchase the products will be ‘exposed to the force of Dr. Montessori’s thought‘ (although I give you points for poetic prowess).  They will only be exposed to the force of mass marketing and the convenience of appliances-as-babysitters, and will once again be falsely reassured by money-grubbing sell-0uts that a video game is a great substitute for actual, physical learning experiences.

“We have carefully and thoughtfully translated the Montessori materials into iPhone and iPad applications. They are adherent to the Montessori philosophy of education. These applications are kinesthetic and proprioceptive, and incite the audio, visual, and tactile senses of the child. They also address the vestibular sense of balance. Additionally, positive feedback systems are delicately put into place, and control of error offers the child an authentic Montessori experience.”

The only way a material can adhere to the Montessori philosophy of education is if it is a REAL material that can be touched, carried, weighed, dropped, stacked, taken off a shelf, explored, and carefully put away.  And who are you trying to fool with your big words, anyway?  These applications are anything BUT kinesthetic and proprioceptive!  They don’t require the child to lift a red rod and gauge its length, or walk between tables and around rugs without bumping into anything.

Perhaps most tragic, in my view, is your claim to ‘incite the audio, visual, and tactile senses of the child’ (it’s auditory, not audio, by the way).  How can you rob children of their RIGHT to have real physical experiences, which are so crucial for the appropriate development of the brain?

Let me quote Dr. Joseph Chilton Pierce, whose theories are based on Montessori’s discoveries: “The more extensive and complete the child’s interaction with the content of the world out there, the more extensive the resulting structure of knowledge within…  In our anxieties, we fail to allow the child a continual interaction with the phenomena of this earth on a full-dimensional level (which means with all five of his/her body senses); and at the same time, we rush the child into contact with phenomena not appropriate to his/her stage of biological development.”  Can this statement more clearly describe the cognitive devastation your products are supporting?!

Now, let’s talk about your so-called ‘control of error’ (which is how the child is able to check his own work with the real Montessori materials and learn from his mistakes).  In the Red Rods (a Montessori material and one of the apps that you sell), the control of error is in the child’s ability to discriminate the differences in length.  But did you know that in order for the child to truly develop this ability and apply his new knowledge in more abstract ways, he has to actually carry the rods and feel their difference in length?

Dr. Montessori, in The Advanced Montessori Method, explained that the value of the control of error is in its ability to allow the child to compare and judge his work.  However, the simple posing of the problem (in this case, putting the Red Rods in order of length) is not what drives the child.  What brings the child back to the material is the sensation of “acquiring a new power of perception” thanks to the control of error, but perception between the ages of zero to six can ONLY be gained through hands-on exploration of materials that are concrete and physical representations of abstract concepts. This makes the control of error in your apps useless as a true tool of cognitive development.

“If Maria Montessori were alive today, we think that she would be at the Apple store, playing with an iPad, thinking hard about these complicated issues… In our opinion, Maria Montessori would be trying to open up and discover new ways to think about how we learn.”

First of all, nothing ticks me off more than misguided Montessorians who justify their schemes by saying, “If Maria Montessori were alive, she’d agree with me”.  Let’s get this straight: If Maria Montessori were alive today, she might very well be at the Apple store, playing with an iPad; but she would NOT be making iPad applications because she understood how children really learn and develop!  Don’t believe me, read her books!  The materials and the method she created were not designed simply to show the children how to read, write, or sort color tablets… She was helping develop “the human spirit” and change the world by following the needs, interests, and drives of children!

“Education must be reconstructed and based on the law of nature and not on the preconceived notions and prejudices of adult society,” she reminded us tirelessly.   The law of nature has not changed in 100 years, although our willingness to accept and adhere to it has.  We adults think we know what’s best for the children, and we fill their lives with our “anxiety-conditioned view of the world,” as Chilton Pearce says.  We think abstractly, and thus force our children to follow suit.  Any person who claims to believe in and support Montessori must put aside their ego and their delusions of grandeur, take a seat, observe the children, and take their cue from them.  THAT is what Maria Montessori would do.

“Existing Montessori students will return to the classroom with a renewed sense of joy and wonder.”

NO.  THEY.  WON’T.  You people are obviously not experienced guides, or you would know that any Montessori student who has been forced, bribed, praised, or coerced into working with Montessori materials at home after school will hardly ever want to touch the materials in the classroom, because the thrill of free choice, uninterrupted exploration, and intrinsic reward is gone.  Even worse, by exposing Montessori children to the apps, you will have robbed them of the experience of  interacting physically with the actual material.  I can hear the children now: “No, I don’t want to work with the Red Rods.  I already played that game on my computer at home.”  Sadly, our children’s loss is EVERYONE’S loss, including yours.

“A parent summed it up best, ‘I look forward to this app since children 3 or 4 are VERY adept at using their PARENTS’ iPads and iPhones – especially during long car trips and long waits at busy restaurants, doctor’s clinics, and in airports and on airplanes…all of which we have experienced in the past weeks. Our iPad has been engaging, educational, and fun.’ “

Uh, whatever happened to keeping your children entertained the old-fashioned way: by interacting with them???  For long car trips, sing songs and play I Spy.  Waiting at a restaurant?  Tell a good story or bring a couple of books.  At a doctor’s clinic?  Bust out a shoelace and play Cat’s Cradle.  For airplanes, nothing beats a coloring book or paper dolls!  Good grief, parents… You complain you don’t get enough time with your children, and when you have the opportunity to interact with them, you plug them into a computer!

“As many of you can imagine, comments have ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other.”

Gee, I wonder what true Montessorians – men and women who have selflessly dedicated their LIVES to fighting for the developmental rights of children – think about all this?  Spend one day – heck, even one hour – in a Montessori classroom, and you’ll understand why we’re fighting so arduously against the computerization of Montessori.

“In our estimations, the relevance of Montessori no longer rests with Montessori. It rests with us.”

No, it doesn’t.  It rests with the children.  Respect their rights, observe their needs, and go make your money at the expense of a less vulnerable social group.  If you truly want to be relevant in the lives of children, then maybe YOU should spend a little more time being ‘exposed to the force of Dr. Montessori’s thought’.

**********************

“To stimulate life,–leaving it then free to develop, to unfold,–herein lies the first task of the educator. In such a delicate task, a great art must suggest the moment, and limit the intervention, in order that we shall arouse no perturbation, cause no deviation, but rather that we shall help the soul which is coming into the fullness of life, and which shall live from its own forces.”

— Maria Montessori

Nature Week Part 1: M-ant-essori (I couldn’t resist)

22 May

This is part one of Nature Week!  There are many activities that can stem from each concept I will blog about, so feel free to post your own ideas in the comments section as inspiration for other teachers and Montessori moms!

Age: 4+ years (Can be done by one child or a group)

What child isn’t buggy about bugs?  Go outside with your child, discover the world of ants (or other common insects), and use the tiny creatures as a springboard for science, art, language, math, and music!

First, educate yourself and your child about ant facts.  You can go online to find child-friendly ant information or check out a book from the library.  Children aren’t afraid of “big words”, so you shouldn’t be either!  Use the correct terminology and include it in the context of your activity so your child gains a hands-on understanding of her new vocabulary.  Here are some words to consider for the following activities: colony, antennae, thorax, abdomen, harvest, exoskeleton, pupa, hypothesis, conclusion.

Activity: Ant Buffet

Items needed: magnifying lenses, paper plates divided into fourths with a marker, potential ant food items (ripe fruit, bread, cheese, dead leaves, grass, meat, sugar, salt, etc.),

1. Ask the child which foods the ants are most likely to be attracted to, and why she thinks this is the case.  Incorporate the term “hypothesis” by telling her: “What you think will happen is your hypothesis.  Now you’re going to test your hypothesis.”  Let her place her four food selections (about a tablespoon is enough) on the four sections of the plate.  (If working with several children, they can each make their own selections and have different assortments on their plates).

2. Go outside and conduct an “ant hunt”.  Great places to look are cracks in the sidewalk, under rocks, or near water sources.  Show your child how to roll logs or rocks towards you so that any inhabitants (spiders, centipedes, etc.) will crawl away from you.  Talk about not harming any animals.

3. Place the plate nearby and wait.  While the ants find the food, you can talk about what you learned from the book/online resources.  What do ant bodies look like?  How do they move and communicate?  How does their behavior change when they find food?  Observe the ants as they arrive for the food, help your child count how many visit each type of food, and help her record her results.  The easiest way to do this is to write the name of each of the four foods on a paper, and make a check-mark next to that food for each ant that visits it.

Note: It’s OK if your child doesn’t do this perfectly.  The purpose of this project is to help develop observation skills and introduce the Scientific Method.

4. Restore the habitat and clean up when you’re done!!!

5. If you wish, you can help your child graph the results by writing the four foods at the bottom of a page and pasting an ant picture above each food for each ant that visited it (older children will love this).  Discuss your child’s findings with her.  Was the hypothesis correct?  What does the graph tell her?  Talk about how scientists sometimes have to test their hypothesis several times to confirm their conclusions, and sometimes have to refine their testing methods.

FOLLOW-UP ACTIVITIES

Art: Make thumbprint ants by using a stamp pad or washable markers.  Allow your child to experiment with the size of her fingers to see which are best for making a realistic head, thorax and abdomen.  Show her how to add eyes, legs and antennae.  Talk about the ant’s body parts and what they’re used for.  She can also make an anthill on her paper by “painting” with glue and sprinkling sand over it.  Talk about what the ants in her painting are doing.  NOTE: This is art, so there is no “right” or “wrong” way of doing it.  Allow the child to create based on her impressions of the insect she studied.

Music:

– Sing “The Ants Go Marching…” (You can find several other options for lyrics on YouTube and iTunes, but the one I linked is my favorite version because it shows the movements associated with the verses.  My students LOVE doing this song marching around the ellipse and crouching down during the “down to the ground” part.  It’s a great way to wear them out!!)

– Sing “Head, Thorax, Abdomen” to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”

Language:  For older children (6+), pose open-ended questions that encourage them to use their imagination.  Writing topics might include: “If I were as small as an ant…”, “If I had six legs…”, and “If I were waiting inside a pupa, I would think about…”.

Snack time:  Make “ants on a log” by spreading cream cheese on a celery or carrot stick and putting a row of raisin “ants” on top.

Chumiles (ant larvae), a tasty Mexican delicacy!! (I'm serious!)

Culture:

– Talk about cultures that eat ants and ant larvae, and show them pictures of these foods.  Discuss how foods that might seem strange to us are common-place and even delicacies in other countries (and vice-versa).
– Discuss how some cultures use ants for medicinal purposes (sutures, anti-inflammatory medicine, etc.)

Stuff to buy (if you’re so inclined):

– Insect eye kaleidoscopes allow children to see the world as an insect would (found in science stores)

– Ant farms are a great way to study the hierarchy and team work of an ant colony (just be careful it doesn’t open up in your living room or classroom!)

As always, when working with animals it’s imperative to discuss and model ethical treatment of all creatures and their environment.  Be kind to ants, they play a crucial role in our ecosystem!!!

News Flash: Pre-Schoolers Can Understand Math Concepts (no duh)

22 Dec

Yesterday, the most popular article on the New York Times website discussed a recent finding in the field of cognitive neuroscience.

Brace yourselves Montessorians!!!  Contrary to long-held beliefs in the highest echelons of scientific research, the cognitive neuroscience community has discovered that children as young as four can grasp fundamental math concepts.

*pause for effect*

Uh, we could’ve told them that.

So, maybe we should!

Dear cognitive neuroscientists,

Congratulations on your ground-breaking discoveries in the field of pedagogy.  You must have been quite pleased when you found out that young children can understand basic math concepts before the age of six.  I’m so glad you finally put your expensive Harvard Ph.Ds to good use!

I hate to burst your bubble (actually, I quite enjoy it), but I thought you might want to know that a woman named Maria Montessori figured this out 100 years ago.  Talk about arriving late to the party!

It is my pleasure to introduce you to the Primary Montessori classroom, where pre-schoolers have been actively working with math concepts – from numbers and quantities to long division and fractions – for over a century.

Maria Montessori believed that children have a natural curiosity for mathematical concepts, and look for order and patterns in the world around them.  She called it the “mathematical mind”.  However, because the concepts of math (the value of numbers, arithmetical operations, geometry, etc.) are not instantly recognizable to the untrained eye, Dr. Montessori deemed it necessary to create a curriculum where children could use concrete representations to discover these mathematical abstractions.

In other words, for children to understand what a number represents, what addition is about, or why we need to borrow during subtraction, they need to involve their senses, and we need to isolate the concept being introduced.  These are two of the (many) reasons why traditional math education has never worked, and why so-called experts thought that young children were incapable of learning math.

Traditional approaches to teaching math have been truly uninspired and frankly insulting to a child’s intelligence.  Using a pizza slice to illustrate the concept of a triangle is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read about, and yet according to the NYT article, this technique is used in many children’s books (among many other equally idiotic tactics).   And speaking of dumb techniques, why should pre-schoolers be using books to learn math, in the first place???

In Montessori, children start working with mathematical concepts around the age of three, when they are exposed to fractions, geometry, algebra, equivalences, and base-ten from a sensorial perspective (this means they’re using their senses to explore mathematically-precise materials without knowing they’re learning about math).  By the time they’re 3 1/2, if they’ve been in the Montessori environment for at least six months, many are ready to begin their formal math education.

Yes, 3 1/2.  I’ll give you a moment to pick yourself off the floor and climb back into your ergonomically-correct office chair.  Ready?  Let’s continue.

Associating symbols and quantities through the use of the number rods.

Montessori students move at their own pace through the math curriculum, first exploring quantities through the use of the number rods, then learning to identify symbols (aka, numbers 0-9), and then associating the symbol with the quantity.

Guide a child through this process, and voila!  She can clearly understand that “5” is not just a hard-to-write squiggle named “five”, but is an actual quantity she has carried, counted, and compared to other quantities.  Deny a child the right to understand this concept clearly, and you’re setting her up for a lifetime of struggle and confusion.

Within a few weeks of commencing their formal math education, Montessori children will have learned about quantities, odds & evens, and the concept of zero as an empty space.  Then it’s on to the decimal system, where – hold on to your lab coats! – children who just turned four learn how to work with four-digit numbers.

I bet you’ve never witnessed a four-year old who sees the number 8,657, says “eight thousand, six hundred, and fifty-seven”, AND represents the quantity accurately using golden beads.  I know you’ve never seen this because, in the article, you were excited about children who could touch their nose seven times.  You guys sure do have low standards for what children are capable of.

Using the golden beads to represent four-digit numbers.

At the same time our students are discovering the joys of arithmetic, they’re also developing a clear understanding of what the numbers 11-99 represent, through the use of several beautiful, precise, and engaging materials. Skip-counting is also introduced, and the concepts of carrying and borrowing are practiced extensively.

As before, we follow a specific method of presenting the information to the children: first the quantity, then the symbol, and finally the association of the quantity and the symbol.

Yes, you mention this ground-breaking process in your article… Guess it’s not so ground-breaking after all.

Throughout this entire time, the children are free to move at their own pace, revisiting concepts as they see fit and staying with a particular material as long as necessary.  If we, as guides, see that a particular concept has not been clearly understood by a child, we have the ability to bring him back to the appropriate material.  We’ll gladly spend quality time re-presenting the concept and encouraging repetition through one-on-one games and small group activities.

Only when the above-mentioned concepts are clearly established in the child’s mind, will we guide her towards the memorization of tables.  After all, what good is it to regurgitate 3+4=7, 3+5=8, etc. if there’s no understanding of what the concept means, and thus no way of applying it to daily life?

Oh, wait, I forgot.  Traditional schools educate children to succeed on tests, so regurgitation is not only sufficient, it is required.

Well, here’s the thing: we, as Montessorians, would rather prepare children to succeed in life.

And speaking about preparing a child for life… If a child is fortunate enough to remain in the Montessori environment for her Kindergarten year, she will continue learning the arithmetic tables (always through the use of materials she can manipulate).  Little by little, she will wean herself off the materials, as her brain matures and she learns to apply the knowledge she acquired in the first two years in the classroom.  Upon solving an arithmetic problem without the use of the materials, it is not unusual for a five-year old Montessori child to remark: “I don’t know why I know, but I know.”  If that doesn’t build self-esteem, I don’t know what does!

After reading the NYT article, it sounds to me like you guys are just re-inventing the wheel.  Fortunately, you are starting to discover that you under-estimated children’s abilities (and over-estimated your own).   Stop wasting time pretending your theories are ground-breaking, do some real research, and use your soapbox to give children the type of education they really deserve and are desperate for.

Welcome to Montessori.  It matters more than you think.