Montessori Education in the Age of Neurotechnology: A Conversation with Labposium Keynote Speaker Dr. Nita Farahany
Duke University professor Dr. Nita Farahany is one of the world’s foremost experts on the ethical, legal, and social implications of neurotechnology and artificial intelligence. She’s also a Montessori mom.
The American Montessori Society (AMS) is honored to have Dr. Farahany serve as the keynote speaker and facilitator of the AMS Leadership Labposium. She will help Montessori leaders delve deeper into the value of and strategies related to integrating technology thoughtfully into Montessori education. We know the importance of preserving our Montessori values. As a community, we will come together to envision the future of Montessori and how we can utilize new technologies to enhance our teaching practices. We encourage a diverse group of Montessori leaders to engage in this discussion, no matter their role within education or their knowledge level of AI and neurotechnology.
As a preview of what she will cover at Labposium, Dr. Farahany recently shared her thoughts with AMS about the possibilities and concerns at the intersection of Montessori education and technology.
Interview answers have been consolidated and edited for clarity and brevity, with the permission of Dr. Farahany.
What are the largest implications new technologies will have on education? Do you believe teachers and students can use emerging tech to improve their practices?
Dr. Nita Farahany:
AI is going to transform education in ways that are both good and bad. For teachers, it could help you brainstorm creative ways to engage a student. It’s really about enabling customization. These new technologies can help teachers create “customized tutors” for each student. Every child has a different way of asking questions or learning material. Having every teacher try to answer different questions in a different way can be challenging. With neurotechnology and AI, a child might even choose to learn how their brain reacts to information and then use AI to help customize learning plans according to that information. AI and neurotechnology can create an iterative process that takes into account a child’s personality and their cognitive learning styles. If it’s used in that way, to empower personalized insights, rather than for controlling and surveilling individuals, it can be beneficial.
In your book The Battle for Your Brain: Defending Your Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology (MacMillian Press, 2023), you mention the already established human right to "the freedom of thought" and a new “right to cognitive liberty," which you believe should be added to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Can the practice of self-chosen work and self-determination in Montessori environments help children develop an inner sense of those human rights?
Yes, Montessori education can help children learn key skills that align with the rights of individual liberty. Skills such as self-determination, interoception (learning to “feel” feelings inside your body), mental agility, empathy, and relational connection really are the building blocks of Montessori education. It’s about teaching how to think about thinking. It’s about the individual’s relationship to others, their relationship to the materials, their relationship to the world. That kind of fostering that curiosity, intellectual engagement, critical thinking, and resilience–those skills are at the very essence of what it means to have cognitive liberty, the right to self-determination over your own mental experience.
One of the direct aims of Montessori education is to foster concentration in children. In your book, you give an example of a school where students wear a device on their heads that measures concentration and indicates to the teacher whether a child is concentrating via a green, yellow, or red light on the device. What are your thoughts on this device and others like it?
The ability to have deep reading and focus is really eroding. The shorter the attention span, the less likely people can reflect on materials and be able to grow from them. Developing skills of concentration enables deep thinking. Lights on a headband a student is wearing in a classroom to track their attention is clearly a bad use. Concentration is multifaceted, and we should take into account the different types of concentration children need to be engaging in, including “mind wandering,” which is a form of concentration that enhances creativity but is very different from single-pointed concentration that these devices track.
Mind wandering is really important for innovation! The example of the device in the book simply rewards long periods of focus, but that may be at the expense of mind wandering. Focus for focus’ sake is not what we’re going for. Concentrating, engaging, and mind wandering are all good. Collaboration is also good. These are all mind states we see promoted in Montessori classrooms.
Can you share some other examples of how neurotech is being used that has benefits for children in classrooms?
Consistent neurofeedback used by students who struggle with ADHD over time can cause them to retrain their brain activity and in some cases even lessen or eliminate the need for medications. Stress is a serious problem for adolescents. Neurofeedback can help them see how meditation and other calming practices like you do in Montessori classrooms can help promote inner peace and calm.
In an increasingly tech-centric world, how can Montessori educators help children establish a healthy relationship with the 3-Dimensional world? Should the youngest brains be protected from or introduced to tech?
In the ideal world, we would say “let’s introduce screens later.” That’s just not realistic in most cases. Children are seeing screens from babyhood onward. Six-month-olds now know how to tap and swipe a touchscreen. It’s trying to find the balance and giving latitude, especially to parents.
For now, the jury is still out. It’s clearly rewiring brains. Will it be good? Will it be bad? I think it depends on the nature of the screen usage, the amount of time, and whether it’s passive vs. active engagement. Active learning is the most important thing we can emphasize rather than passive watching. Co-viewing with children and asking them questions about what they’re seeing, hearing, and experiencing is also important. We need to help them develop brains that are strong and resilient to navigate tech. With my own children, I have limited their screen time at home and choose schools that prioritize hands-on and project-based learning, such as Montessori schools.
What can Montessori educators, parents, and students do now to be proactive about how these new technologies will affect Montessori education?
Schools need to be teaching Digital Citizenship from the earliest ages, Pre-K onward. They’re already doing this in Estonia and Finland. It’s not waiting until children are in adolescence or into their later teenage years. Teach them how to resist misinformation and disinformation from the earliest years. If we don’t teach them to identify that now, as the tools of Gen AI explode, how do we expect them to know those skills of discernment later?
You don’t necessarily have to be on a screen to teach digital citizenship. Get kids thinking about questions like “What is our interdependence and co-evolution with technology? What is mindful use?” We have to teach digital citizenship in the classroom to both empower children and their parents.
These technologies can feel quite abstract. In Montessori, we love the concrete! What’s a simple, concrete way that educators can explore these new technologies?
Start small. Ask a GenAI tool: “Tell me a funny joke that would resonate with a six-year-old.” Or ask it to “Design a classroom lesson based on my favorite animal.” Go in with curiosity and start small. Start with a joke. See how it responds. You can even say, that wasn’t funny. Or that was too sophisticated for a six-year-old.
In the classroom, have children describe a fanciful animal or mythical creature. Enter their descriptions into DALL-E and show the students what it generated. Ask them: “Did that reflect your imagination? Why or why not?” Help them to see how their imagination can be both translated but also misunderstood or misperceived by AI tools. Help them develop that discernment and critical thinking.
As Dr. Farahany suggests, the more teachers become comfortable with new technologies, the more we empower ourselves and our students through that learning process. That’s the virtuous cycle of Montessori learning. Whether we’re talking about math or peace or neurotechnology, learning for, with, and from our students is the embodiment of the Montessori Way, and it’s what will help us walk into this new world together.
About the Author
Dana Anderson, MS, (she/her) is an AMS-credentialed (Early Childhood and Elementary I) Montessori guide, a children’s digital content expert, and a proud mother of 3. She holds degrees and certifications from The University of Minnesota, Northwestern University, The Center for Guided Montessori Studies, Palm Harbor Montessori Teacher Education Program, and The Poynter Institute for Media Studies. She is soon to begin her next certification in Montessori Secondary education.
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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.