Patterns and Design
How can we capitalize on past innovations in education to design useful technologies for learning? One way is to look at the methods used by innovators to arrive at their designs. Another way is to directly examine designed artifacts and their uses.
One of the great educational innovators of the last century was Maria Montessori. Montessori set out to create a science of education through an iterative approach of design, experimentation, and observation to develop a rich set of educational technologies and an environment that supports learning with those technologies (Blodget, personal communication, April 24, 1998). In recent times, such an approach has been proposed "to study different ways of using technology in classrooms and schools; and to begin to construct a systematic science of how to design educational environments so that new technologies can be introduced successfully." (Collins, 1992).
While Montessori wrote a great deal about the importance of experimentation in education, there is no discussion of iterative design in her best-known writings. A thorough review of her notes and speeches might prove illuminating in this regard.
On these pages, I will try to extract design lessons from a short sequence from Montessori's rich set of interrelated exercises that John Chattin-McNichols (1992, p. 115) calls "webs of indirect preparations". The sequence consists of four activities designed to help children construct an understanding of fractions. The activities are taken from the Montessori Math Album of Shu-Chen Jenny Yen's Online Montessori Albums (1999).
For each activity, a brief description is given, followed by design lessons that may or may not have been explicitly articulated by Montessori or others. It is hoped that this method of presenting design principals in the context of specific Montessori activities will be useful to designers of manipulatives or educational software.
There are significant design lessons that can be drawn from Montessori's years of work with children. A more thorough examination of Montessori's web of activities might provide a much richer set of lessons that can be used by designers of manipulatives and educational software, and show us more about the mutual support that different learning tools can provide. It would also be interesting to examine whatever notes exist that could shed light on the process used by Montessori to improve her designs as she made new discoveries in the classroom.
Another element that is critical to the success of educational technology is the environment in which that technology is situated. A review of Montessori's work in this area could prove useful to modern designers of learning environments who are concerned about the successful integration of various learning technologies.
Along with my ongoing literature review and examination of Montessori classrooms and materials I am developing Montessori design patterns for use in development of various aspects of the Montessori environment, including educational software. The papers below contain my work in this area to date.
Applications of the patterns can be found in the papers above and also on the Lesson Ideas page.