Montessori education is based on a few key principles, the first of which is: Respect the Child. In traditional Montessori environments, children are given the freedom and opportunity to learn by making choices for themselves, with a teacher guiding and observing the students as they learn by doing. By its very nature then, Montessori is an inherently hands-on instruction environment.
Given its inherently hands-on focus, can the Montessori model be effectively delivered online? This question is made more urgent given the last two years of pandemic forcing most of the world into virtual interaction. And the last two years have given us an instructive look at what happens when Montessori education is delivered online out of necessity. Can we translate what we have learned in the emergency environment of a pandemic to build a more generalized idea of what elements of the Montessori experience can be effectively delivered online, and what must still be done in person?
Let’s examine what we’ve learned from teaching Montessori online out of necessity, and figure out what works well and what remains a challenge in an online environment.
What Works Well
Since Montessori is all about self-paced learning and exploration, it’s actually fairly well suited to online instruction. The key is not to sit students in front of a screen and lecture at them – that’s clearly not the Montessori way. Instead, online learning allows teachers to craft lessons and content in a way that allows students to progress independently through them at their own pace. That kind of self-paced instruction and learning is key to the Montessori experience. Giving students a variety of tools, modules, and learning environments, a kind of menu of instructional options, is a great way to instill the self-learning principle of Montessori education. A self-paced online learning environment teaches students that they are responsible for their own learning – essentially, building a culture of responsibility and independence in each student.
Online learning also builds on the Montessori principle that the whole family must be involved in a child’s education. Indeed, having each student sitting at a computer in their own home necessitates greater parental participation in their child’s education. In an online environment, the parent becomes like a Montessori teacher, helping to guide and orient their child to the online learning environment and keep their child on track. Online learning takes parental involvement to a whole new level, which the Montessori model really prizes.
Building on parental involvement, online Montessori programs can help provide parents with guidance in supplies they can purchase to enhance their child’s learning experience, and in how to best provide a productive learning environment at home. The key is for the program and the parents to become partners in creating the best possible Montessori experience for their child in the online sphere.
Of course, online learning cannot perfectly replicate the Montessori experience. No parent is going to have the variety of toys, materials, and activity options in their own home that a Montessori school would have in an in-person learning environment. Still, with judicious and innovative planning, online Montessori can work as an effective substitute for in-person learning when needed.
What Might Be a Challenge
Unless a parent has undergone professional Montessori training, the effectiveness of an at-home, online Montessori learning experience is going to have limitations. To be truly effective, a Montessori program must be taught by trained Montessori instructors. And while an online program can and should work with the parents and the students to build the best possible Montessori environment for online learning, there will be pieces missing from the puzzle.
Still, there are ways around this problem. Montessori instructors in an online environment must work with parents to provide instruction and resources necessary to create the kind of learning experience that will work within the Montessori model. There is necessarily a heavier burden on the parents to train themselves, to become the closest possible version of a Montessori instructor that they can be. In essence, online Montessori means teaching the parents as well as the students.
The other thing that might be missing in an online Montessori environment is the kind of hands-on objects that a traditional Montessori school would have. Since Montessori education emphasizes the importance of learning by “doing,” and accomplishes that goal by giving students a lot of different physical objects to work with, how can the tactile aspect of Montessori learning translate to the online environment?
The fact is that with advances in technology, online learning can be a hands-on, interactive experience like it never has before. Indeed, the exigencies of the pandemic have spurred a whole world of innovations in how we interact, meet, and learn online. There’s no need for an online learning environment to be a dry lecture on a screen. There are so many tools that can allow students to, for instance, play learning games, manipulate virtual objects on a screen, and build their own stories online in ways that are relevant and foster creativity and curiosity. There is really no reason a child needs to sacrifice the hands-on nature of Montessori learning in an online environment. Given a little creativity and innovation, an online Montessori school can be almost as interactive as being in a classroom with a teacher.
The pandemic has taught us that it is possible to translate the Montessori learning experience online. Indeed, an online learning environment, paired with in-person instruction, might provide a unique Montessori experience for the 21st century, taking the key Montessori principles of hands-on learning and self-reliant exploration into a whole new realm. The key is for instructors, parents, and students to work together to build a flexible, innovative, and creative learning experience – the very thing that Montessori education is intended to foster in the first place. In fact, by blending online and in-person instruction, a Montessori student might just find themselves learning and exploring in ways that student has never even been able to conceive of before. And isn’t that, in essence, the Montessori way?