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Reflecting Poole

Computer-Based Learning and
Montessorian Manipulatives

The methodologies applied in the schools of Dr. Maria Montessori are based on a philosophy of education that recognizes children's preference for control over their own learning. In that context, one only has to consider some of the various "discoveries" she made about the learning modes of the children she worked with.

As you consider each of the Montessori discoveries that follow, consider how each might be realized in the "prepared environment" of appropriate computer-based learning. Some of the discoveries might come as a surprise if you are not an experienced teacher. If they run counter to your own experience, either as a student or as a teacher in training, suspend disbelief and keep an open mind as you read along. These discoveries are re-discovered every day, not just in classrooms modeled after Montessori's ideas, but in classrooms in general all over the world. The goal of education is to make the application of these Montessorian discoveries not the exception, but the rule.

Children love freedom of choice when it comes to activities.
That is why Montessori went to such pains to understand and define the appropriate "prepared environment" for her students, depending on their developmental stage. The classroom was set up with carefully constructed learning aids (called didactic materials) and manipulatives of all kinds.

The children were left free to decide what they wanted to work at or, for that matter, they could decide to do nothing at all. Of course, Montessori recognized that one is only free when one has options, otherwise one has no choice; hence the considerable variety of stimulating learning materials that she prescribed and prepared for her classrooms. It is beyond the scope of this article to detail all the didactic materials used in the Montessori classroom. The reader is referred to any of the many excellent texts on learning theory for a more extensive description of the Montessori Method. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, by E.M. Standing (1962) would be a good place to start. Rita Kramers Maria Montessori: A Biography, (Putnam Books, 1976) is another excellent, honest appraisal of Montessoris place in the history of education.

Children have "amazing mental concentration" when their interest in anything is spontaneous.
Hence the importance of the "prepared environment" designed to naturally capture a child's interest and stimulate the desire to learn. This interest and desire to learn will be fostered in the classroom in which children have access to a range of computer-based learning systems alongside other more traditional learning tools.

Children "love repetition of material even when it is already known."
Montessori describes this as a "profound psychological need" during the early years of a child's education. The appropriately programmed computer can be an invaluable vehicle for such repetitive activity because, unlike teachers, it never gets tired. One only has to watch children playing video games to know how easily and exhaustively children are motivated by engaging computer-based activities. When those activities have the added value of being educationally constructive, it seems sensible to take advantage of the computer's motivational capabilities.

Children prefer work to play.
The distinction between work and play is an artificial one. Culture to a large extent determines what we will perceive as either one or the other. For example, Winston Churchill liked to lay brick walls as a form of relaxation. My 3-year-old nephew asked me if he could play on my computer, and then proceeded to carefully spell out his own name.

If we create and maintain a learning environment in which children can enjoy what they are doing -- including the option to do nothing -- they will be more likely to busy themselves with useful activities. As one teacher observed, "Kids who have fun will work harder." Even Plato, that advocate of mental discipline as the basis for learning (Bigge, 1982), commented that "early education [should] be a sort of amusement; [for] you will then be better able to find out the natural bent."

Naturally, when work is perceived as play it will be preferred over activities that are perceived as less enjoyable. One of the problems in too many classrooms is that the teacher-pupil ratio is still so high that it is difficult to provide an environment where children can be allowed to "do what they want." The computerized classroom can go a long way to overcoming the problem of numbers. Classes can be more easily broken up into small groups, or individuals can be left to work on their own. So the teacher becomes the facilitator of learning, rather than the source of it.

Children love silence.
When we are trying to think, we usually find noise a distraction. Children will be the first to appreciate the opportunity to work undisturbed. That is why teachers place so much emphasis on discipline in class; not to stifle intellectual activity, but to maintain an environment in which it can flourish. Classrooms in which children have access to computer-based learning systems, while still needing adult supervision, often will not need much of it because the children are engaged.

Children "explode into writing" once they have learned the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they represent.
Children do not need to be taught to write. Montessori students first learned the letters and the sounds they represent; that led naturally to the discovery of an ability to construct written words. It was only several months later that they learned to read those written words.

Children are spontaneously self-disciplined -- and extremely obedient-- in a Montessori classroom.
The reason is simple: the children are engaged in activities of their own choice that absorb their attention, thus obviating much of the need for externally applied discipline. Standing calls it a "cosmic discipline." He quotes Montessori herself as saying: "The quiet in the class when the children were at work was complete and moving. No one had enforced it; and what is more, no one could have obtained it by external means." Teachers and parents who have had experience working with children in well-designed computer-based learning environments make that "discovery" for themselves every day.

There are other significant advantages to computer-based learning stimuli:

  • The child can have 100 percent of the computer's attention.
  • The computer frees up the teacher for interaction with other children who might need more help.
  • The computer-based learning system gives the child complete control over the pace of learning. That echoes the aspiration of the philosopher George Bernard Shaw who said, "What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child."
  • In the long run, computer-based learning will realize significant economies as the cost of teachers continues to rise, while the cost of computing falls.

Thus, computer systems that have been carefully crafted and selected by trained and experienced educationists for the purpose of stimulating learning in children will, in the hands of those children -- at their own pace and in their own time -- achieve the same effect as a teacher for many learning situations. This is not to say that the teacher will become redundant. Far from it; learners of all ages always will benefit from the proximity of an experienced guiding hand.

About the Author

Bernie Poole, an associate professor of education and instructional technology at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, has been a teacher since 1966. For the first 15 years of his career, he taught English, history, French, or English as a foreign language primarily to middle school children in England, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. Poole has published several books related to instructional technology. Two of the latest editions are available free of charge online at

Author Name: Bernie Poole
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