Technology in the Great River Elementary Program

written by Erik Akre, Minnesota River LE Guide  

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When her daughter was entering Kindergarten, my sister visited several schools to see what might be the best environment for her child.  She related to me that one Kindergarten classroom had purchased an iPad for each child. The teacher handed them out to the children during the school day for academic purposes.  I tried to imagine a room full of five-year-olds hunched over little machines, the environment around them left untouched, unnoticed, and effectively non-existent.

  At our faculty retreat in 2013, with such educational situations on our minds, our lower elementary team broke out to discuss the use of technology in our budding program.  How might technology fit into our work with children of this age?

  We all agreed on the first and most important point in our discussion: the nature of child development at these ages.  When children enter first grade, they are just entering Montessori’s second plane of development--a time when abstract thinking and reasoning are only beginning to manifest, and concrete learning is still prevalent.  Most children of this age interact with the world by manipulating objects with their senses, and in three dimensions. The use of iPads in our classroom environments is thus unthinkable; this learning object is a flat screen, with all of its distractions and entertainments included.

  As children move into the middle of this second plane, around age nine, they become more able to process abstractly, yet three-dimensional, sensory learning remains beneficial as a base from which to work.  At all elementary ages, using concrete materials also gives them a chance to work together with peers and develop their social nature--a crucial aspect of development for the entire second plane, ages 6-12.

  After our discussion at the retreat, we made a decision that technology--iPads, laptops, or computers--would hold no place in the lower elementary curriculum.  In the upper elementary the students use computers, but this is restricted to certain purposes, especially extending research opportunities.

  Leaving technology out of the lower elementary, we determined, makes room for other life-long skills.  Children learn to sew, knit, write in cursive, develop the strength and versatility of their hands, or organize and sort objects in three-dimensional space.  These skills cannot be learned--or learned with any degree of meaning--on an iPad. In a Montessori environment, a child can live life with a more varied skill set while developing along the lines appropriate for their age.

  In part, we made our decision based on the fact that students use technology ubiquitously in other areas of their lives.  In my experience with children, I have found that video games, television, and movies are among the most discussed topics among the students at school.  They are clearly very important. At the retreat, we talked about the need for a “haven” from screen time, providing a place where children could take a break from the experience of two-dimensional entertainment.  We want to give them a place to slow down, to center themselves, to be in their bodies. Keeping technology out of the classroom intentionally addresses this issue.

  I do not intend here to vilify technology in general.  It is an incredibly important aspect of life in our time, and children must have experience with it to prepare for their lives in this world.  But in the elementary years, they need a good portion of each day to touch their world, to manipulate it with their hands, to play outside, and to experience the three-dimensionality of their lives as humans beings.

  The Montessori environment is a place where children can work to develop themselves along the lines that nature and evolution have provided.  Given real objects and real materials with which to learn, elementary children can experience the world in harmony with their developmental stage.  And the money that might have been used to buy 30 iPads can be channeled to the purchase of good books, geometric solids, bead chains, grammar boxes, or bus trips to the farm.