Media Literacy

When Maria Montessori developed her pedagogy in the mid-1900’s, humans communicated nearly exclusively via the spoken or written word.

Even when text included illustration, these were used to complement the written word.  Although it is true that photography and filmmaking were already in their childhood during Dr. Montessori’s time, few people actually had access to these technologies. Consequently, being literate in the 20th century really meant being well read.

In today’s world, the world of our children, being truly literate requires substantially more.  In this 21st century we are living in the midst of an explosion of multi-media technologies that have transformed human communication. To be literate in this century requires the ability to communicate in codes more varied than orthography. To prepare children for the world they will actually live in now, requires an education that gives them the tools to decode and encode messages of all kinds.

At first glance it seems incongruous that a Montessori school would even consider delving into the digital world. And yet, at EAC we now consider a substantial media literacy curriculum to be an essential component of a well-balanced education precisely because we are a Montessori school.

The most basic tenet of Montessori pedagogy, the umbrella under which all else falls, is the goal of changing the world through the education of children. Dr Montessori believed that a new kind of being would emerge if, in addition to being rigorously academic, school environments were created to speak to the essential “goodness” of children at each developmental stage. This new kind of being would be one who knows his strengths and weaknesses, who understands her self in relation to others and the planet as a whole, and who would be accountable for his actions. This would be a being with a well-formed moral compass: a respectful, responsible and ethical being. Over time, the need to expend human energy and brain power on war mongering and injustice would be replaced with the freedom to expend energy and brain power on things that would benefit all.

As an institution of social reform, we work towards this lofty goal by envisioning who we want our graduates to be and what skills we want them to have when we send them forth into the world. In addition to being deep and critical thinkers capable of reading the world around them, and creative and collaborative problem solvers, we want our graduates to be able to articulate their truth in whatever medium is most effective for their message. Articulating a message effectively, after all, is the only way to impact the world.

We therefore consider media literacy to be the 21st century extension of the Practical Life curriculum that was and is the cornerstone of the Montessori Method.

“The realities of participatory digital culture mean that every student needs to develop higher-order thinking skills. It isn’t just a workforce preparation issue. Without the ability to think critically, evaluate and synthesize the information they access, solve problems both independently and collaboratively, and communicate their understanding effectively to others, students will quickly be overwhelmed. And without reflection, students have the power of new media technologies in their hands without the ethical grounding to use them well and wisely.” (Scheibe and Rogow, 2012. The Teachers Guide to Media Literacy. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press))

Our media literacy curriculum is still in its infancy as we have been very conscious that attempting to integrate technology while holding true to Montessori pedagogy puts us in uncharted waters. In this initial phase we are creating curriculum along two different tracks. The first will involve learning how to look at media* of all kinds in a critical manner using novel questioning techniques and visual thinking strategies. Our purpose is to create a school-wide “culture of inquiry” with students building a repertoire of skills over time. The second track in our initial media literacy plan involves teaching children from Junior Level on up skills in multi-media production. They have been learning to be book authors for years; now they will also learn how to take and edit still photographs, take and edit video film and create podcasts. These skills will be taught with an emphasis on these technologies as tools for communicating. In Upper Level and Middle School students will be photographers, filmmakers and audio reporters while also learning more advanced presentation skills such as making digital posters and presentations. Additionally, we will be giving students the tools to be thoughtful consumers of Internet information. Upper Level students are learning how to judge the quality of Internet sources, how to read URL’s and how to be good citizens in cyberspace.

The explosion of new technologies in the last decade has made this a very exciting time to be an educator. We now have at our fingertips tools for all kinds of minds, not just those that function best in a linear and sequential manner, nor those that communicate most effectively via orthography. There are infinitely more ways to access information and connect with our world than just a few years ago. The challenge for us all is how to integrate what is useful in ways that keep our values intact.

*  “Media” is used here to mean books, newspapers, Montessori card material, money, maps, posters, textbooks, music, signage, packaging, audiovisual media and computer based media.