The single most innovative concept in education is at least 100 years old

Forward-thinking education caters to every child’s needs.
Forward-thinking education caters to every child’s needs.
Image: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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There’s a whisper in the air. The long-awaited reform in education, they report, is finally here. The proposed solution? Technology. More specifically, iPads in classrooms. Every student, so the argument goes, should have the opportunity to learn at his or her own pace. Fittingly, the movement is called “adaptive learning.”

While this is a radical idea, perhaps the single most innovative concept in the history of education, we have some news: It’s at least 100 years old. Italian physician Maria Montessori pioneered this novel approach to education—an education centered solely on the developmental needs of children. Her greatest insight? That everyone learns differently, and at their own pace. We’re natural learners, she said, born with an insatiable curiosity.

The major question then becomes, how can we implement a system based on these observations? This is exactly why the promises of technology are so exciting. Not only does technology offer the potential of limitless scalability, to a degree never before seen, it also offers the hope for personalized learning opportunities. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the “adaptive learning” movement has unknowingly adopted many of the core principles of the Montessori approach to education.

Students learn best individually, meeting their own needs over the needs of the group. Internal success should be fostered, rather than external judgment. Teachers should be able to analyze progress and offer highly customized feedback. And, perhaps most importantly, students learn to compete with themselves, rather than with each other.

It’s no coincidence that Marissa Mayer was quoted in Wired as saying, “You can’t understand Google, unless you know that both Larry and Serge were Montessori kids.” Why? Because Montessori helps prepare students for the challenges and innovations that technology affords. “In a Montessori school,” Mayer explains, ”you go paint because you have something to express or you just want to do it that afternoon, not because the teacher said so. … This is baked into how Larry and Sergey approach problems. They’re always asking, why should it be like that? It’s the way their brains were programmed early on.”

Now, imagine a system of education customized specifically for you and your individual needs. A system of education that responds to your abilities, and follows your interests. That sounds pretty amazing, right? Well, it happens on a daily basis, in Montessori schools throughout the world. Can these principles and methods be replicated outside of the classroom? It’s the paradox of the technological argument: How do you prepare a student with technology, for a technology that does not yet exist?

An insightful perspective on this subject comes from a most unlikely source. You might be surprised by the following quote: “I used to think, when I was in my twenties, that technology was the solution to most of the world’s problems. Unfortunately, it ain’t so.” Uttered by Steve Jobs. Perhaps you’re wondering why Jobs would articulate such a line of thought, and so vehemently. Well, because, as he explains, it takes people.

People have an unparalleled ability to help guide, inspire and support the aspirations and efforts of others. After all, when people invest in other people, not only are they investing in themselves, they’re also investing in humanity. They’re working to help make things just a little bit better for everyone else.

In this wonderfully candid interview, conducted in 1995, Jobs was asked, “Some people say that this new technology maybe [the most important thing in schools]….” He responded:

I absolutely don’t believe that. … I’ve helped with more computers in more schools than anybody else in the world and I [am] absolutely convinced that [it] is by no means the most important thing.

What is the most important thing? Well, for Steve Jobs, no less than Maria Montessori, to be sure, it was another person. As he goes on to explain, “The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can.”

Indeed, people have a special way of sharing their warmth and encouraging us to take things at least one step further. They also know when to hold us back until we’re ready. Interesting enough, Steve Jobs expounds, nothing will replace “playing with gravity.”

If the goal of education, since at least Plato and Isocrates, has been to impart a sense of values no less than accomplishments, then we must ask, in all seriousness, “What values do we want to impart to our children? How can we best prepare the next generation for what remains to come?”

Montessori was convinced that education could change the world. We’re convinced that she was right. There’s no reason to whisper anymore. Change is already here. It’s been working, for at least 100 years. The only question remains, should it be quiet, or should it be loud?

And more importantly: Who, not what, will effect the change?