Montessori and Technology

Montessori, traditionally considered a deliberately low-tech approach to learning, is in fact the pedagogy most suited for the digital age.

This project envisions a future of technology-enabled learning—done right, and drawing on Montessori principles.

The Coming Golden Age of Pedagogy

Written by Ray Girn on July 7, 2021

An essay on the relationship between ed tech and pedagogy.

Thesis: the promise of ed tech, to be realized, is wholly dependent on the understanding and adoption of a fresh pedagogical framework.

Despite wide appetite for change, software is not yet eating education.

Many incredible resources are emerging to supplement or support schooling, but nothing today is demonstrably on the cusp of creating a learning renaissance outside of schools. Why not? What is stopping software from transforming education? 

It isn't the public school system, a lack of incentives, insufficient financing, or any of the other obvious culprits. There is a more fundamental structural block preventing the transformation. To understand the block, it helps to broaden our perspective from school to learning. Doing so reveals both the outlines of a nascent digital disruption of education, and also why such disruption is largely stalled.

YouTube is a case in point: Youtube makes possible unprecedented self-directed learning if you’re a practiced, goal-oriented learner. But if not, you're at risk of getting snowed or distracted. You're as likely to get pulled into a mal-adaptive rabbit hole as you are to gain knowledge or skills. Recommendation engines can be a powerful tool, if they designed to synthesize particular context, confusions, and values in ways that develop and sustain active inquiry.

For software to eat education, content algorithms must be optimized not for engagement but for learning.

In addition to recommendation engines, a second area where we see hints of software’s potential impact is the design of educational content. Content production and distribution have been democratized, but stylized educational content remains exceedingly rare. The craftsmanship of the artist has been unleashed by software tools, transforming fields from film to architectural design. But we don’t see lessons crafted from the ontogenetic architecture of knowledge. There’s no education content equivalent to Game of Thrones or The Wire.

In addition to the lack of (1) effective recommendation algorithms, and (2) quality content, there is also a lack of robust integration between thinking and doing. Learning is an interactive process, and yet education today continues to rely on models that assume passivity.

Here again, we can see possibilities if we widen our view. In particular, gaming technology shows us new modes of engagement that interweave thought and action.

Ed tech can capitalize. But whatever the educational version of Grand Theft Auto is, it hasn’t emerged. So, why not? Why isn’t software eating education in all these ways?

The answer, the structural block preventing progress, is that we don’t know how to do it. We lack the requisite theoretical framework to guide our applied work. There isn’t a sufficiently developed, widely accepted science of learning that would drive these innovations.

To make progress, we need pedagogy. And since the mainstream pedagogies aren’t up to the task, we need to look elsewhere.

Some pedagogical problems:

  1. What *is* the architecture of various foundational knowledge and skill domains—with respect to acquisition? We’re better at “standards” than at methods.
  2. How do we truly solve for “transfer”—that is, real, future-oriented understanding?
  3. How does one scaffold “learning by doing”?
  4. What is the nature of healthy, sustainable motivation, and how do we systematically inspire it in individual learners?
  5. A big one: how do we *combine solutions* to the above so that they don’t trade off against one another?

Knowledge acquisition and skill development have an internal architecture. *And* they are shaped in deep ways by individual context and values. These two points are hard to integrate. But every big breakthrough is in some form an instance of having your cake and eating it too. What does that look like in education?

Thinking fresh about the aims of education: there’s never been a clear understanding of the relationship between cognitive development, character development, enculturation, and vocational training.

How these things are ordered sharpens pedagogy, which unblocks ed tech.

Today, most pedagogical frameworks are navigating stale tradeoffs. So, you get ed tech that improves upon delivering fairly standard content. Or that draws on your curiosity and sparks motivation in a way that doesn’t really channel it into learning.

You get the digital equivalent of worksheets and textbooks. Or the educational equivalent of social media algorithms that overfit for overstimulation. Despite some idealistic rhetoric, no one is happy with these non-solutions. We need new content and new modes of engagement.

Not coincidentally, the fundamental quest at @to_higherground is for this new pedagogy. We’re solving at the level of “knowledge vs. values” and “liberal arts vs. vocation”.

These problems are solvable. The lessons of the 19th and 20th centuries, all of them together, contain the ideas and evidence needed to reorder our understanding. But (1) we have to coalesce that understanding into a framework, and (2) we have to implement that framework. And software is a central piece of the puzzle. It’s a new medium that enables new forms, and will help manifest a better approach.

As the printing press made possible books in the vernacular, unlocking freedom of conscience; as property rights made possible industry, unlocking material abundance; so software promises to make possible high-agency pedagogy and to unlock human self-creation.

But technology is one piece of the new education, and there’s a need to see all of the missing pieces. We need to see in particular how pedagogy intermediates the impact of software on education. This is why few see the plot. We are at the cusp of a golden age of pedagogy, and we still mostly tinker at the edges rather than rebuild the core.

When a domain of human experience is fundamentally transformed, it disrupts everything. Part of the hostility towards social media, for example, is precisely because it expresses a change in our bedrock experience of life.

The changes in education, because they’ll center around pedagogy, will also be fundamental in this way. Software will change *how we grow up*, not just the surface level changes in the learning delivery systems or access points we are preoccupied with today.

There will be:

  • A new level of refinement in content and learning materials
  • Algorithms that build intentionality over how you interface with content
  • More and better portals between “education” and “the real world”
  • More and better affordances for doing, in and out of school

It’s likely that AR and VR will find education to be their most valuable niche—once the pedagogy becomes clear. AI will serve agency rather than undercut it—once the pedagogy becomes clear.

The digital-age accessibility of various forms of creative, social, and productive activities are opportunities for educators—with the right principles. The scope of the potential impact is unimaginably wide. To master our own development is to master our own futures.It is *the* means of fully adapting to the dislocations of the Information Age. It renders it a force for maturation.

So will software eat education? Yes. 

But what’s far, far more: in so doing, it will eat pedagogy. The result will be the most radical transformation in our ability to serve the human potential. And it will be glorious.

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