Leading the way in Montessori Early Education and training, Vicki and Derek McKinnon give us an insight into their business, Building Futures. In this episode of TALKS, we discuss alternate education options and the benefits Montessori possesses, as well as the importance of the digital world and technology in todays educational scene, and integrating it into a learning environment is a positive way.

It’s been a very unusual year with a lot of different circumstances for pretty much everyone. First and foremost, just really wanted to get an understanding from you as to thee business that you run. If you could just give us a little bit of a background or a little bit of a history as to how the business came to be, what it is today and what sort of an organization you’re operating today?

Vicki: Sure. So Dad was the bank manager and Mum was a primary school teacher and they decided to retire fairly young and looked at ways to conserve their superannuation and retirement funds and decided to go into business. That was just at the time private childcare became a thing and attracted government funding. So by 1994, we opened our first childcare service in an Blackstone in Brisbane and I’d formally been a secondary teacher. During ‘94 I did a graduate diploma in early childhood and joined the family business at that point.

I went through all the roles in a business, from an assistant to group leader, senior director and then further into development of new centres. In 2001, 2002 Dad made the business decision that we should look into the Montessori method, which he’d heard about from a family friend and a number of us embarked on a Diploma of Montessori being run by a lady from Perth who flew over every month and I became convinced at that point in time that to offer any other type of program to children was a lesser choice. I really feel convinced that Montessori is the best way to provide education to children and older children. At that point in time, we opened a new service, having sold the previous one, which was our Wavell Heights service. It opened in 2003 and that was our first Montessori based service. We opened Forest Lake in 2006. Derek joined the company in 2008, coming from a software development and Master’s Business Administration background.

We opened a third one in 2013, but Derek and I complement each other beautifully with our different skill sets and backgrounds. In order to supply workforce for our business, we ended up opening a registered training organisation that delivers both early childhood and Montessori training.

You can’t get Montessori trained people – they are rare as hen’s teeth, so if you can’t find them, you make them. That’s been our solution and do a couple of other little things on the side that support or co-exist with that business model quite nicely, including for day care, a little bit of consultancy and software.

Having a software developer onboard, we’ve been fairly early adopters of technology where possible, but we had our software to run our accounting side of things, including putting in the government funding, well before that was an electronic process. Then in 2012 it compulsorily became an electronic process, so we registered our software and Derek has been in charge of that. Way back then, I also felt that we could streamline the documentation and record keeping and parent communication regarding Montessori, but it has taken us till now to actually get to the point of developing that and I think that the push for that came when the government decided that they needed accurate data on children’s arrival time and departure time. I use the word accurate loosely because, of course, accuracy depends on parents, not people in their work mode who are looking to document those things, parents who were thinking about getting to work or thinking about getting home from work and putting dinner on it, as accurate as the parents are and that became the push for us to hire a software developer to work on the Derek and to add that kind of functionality. So we have a software that feeds from the same database that allows electronics on an app. It does much, much more than that parent communication and documentation and programming.

Cooper: Yeah, streamlining the business operations

Vicki: Absolutely educators are very busy people. As you can imagine, they actually look after small children, which is a very big job in itself, but there’s a whole bunch of compliance, recording of children’s progress, planning for children’s activities, communicating with parents and other administration that they have to complete on the fly or be replaced in the classroom to do, so making that more streamlined has become a real push, we’re currently doing a revision of the way that the programming works in action to even further streamline that.

 

I am really keen to get into the tech side of things, but before we do, just for those who aren’t familiar with the term, can you just explain the Montessori method or that method is a little bit more data?

Vicki: It’s one of those things you really need to see to believe. If you were to walk into a regular classroom at school or in an early childhood environment, there’s certain things you’d expect to see. Children, a desk, a teacher up front instructing them during activities. In early childhood, you’d expect to see a variety of activities going on and the teacher keeping children engaged in various things. In Montessori, that’s not what you see. If you walked into a Montessori classroom, you would actually struggle to find the teacher.

The reason for that Montessori fosters the children’s independence and interest and engagement in learning and then provides a wealth of things in the environment that just call to the child. So the child can follow that in a blueprint of learning and just act as facilitators to connect them. Now, that doesn’t happen by accident, which is why we needed the specialist training. So how do you arrange the environment about how you introduce children to activities in the environment, you’re fostering responsibility. So things like they will put their activities away when they finished, they use their work mat and respect each other’s workspaces and walk around another child’s work, they clean up their own skills and I’m not talking about 10 year old’s here, I’m talking about two and three year old’s. So, it’s really quite amazing and it does take that extra bit of training for the staff to implement.

We planned what the children were going to learn, we planned how we were going to teach it to them and how we’re going to see it. In Montessori, the whole curriculum is basically in existence in the classroom, one of each thing, and the children access those things that call to them that they’re interested in and that obviously they’re inner blueprint for learning is calling them to do and the teachers act as facilitators to that process. So, if you walk into a Montessori classroom, you’ll see 20 odd children, some might be making themselves morning tea, some might be doing some complicated math activities. Others might be playing with sandpaper letters and forming small words and it’s just an organic hub of activity with engaged children and then you might spot the teacher in the corner doing a presentation of a new apparatus for a child. So it might be worth the time to go and have a look, if you haven’t actually seen a Montessori classroom in action.

Cooper: That’s a very interesting concept that I feel probably has more and more traction as parents explore alternative methods to education and bringing children up. There’s not quite as much conformity necessarily as there once was.

Vicki: I do think that we keep trying to improve education and I’m a teacher by trade historically, and we really tried hard to do it. But at the same time, on the 3rd of June, not all five to six year old’s sitting in a class are going to be ready for the letter D. The benefit of the Montessori is that just as all children get teeth, but they come in different orders and at different times, it’s very adaptable to the individual child’s needs and the educators work with the children’s own urges we call them ‘horme’. Their own horme to what they’re particularly gravitating to, which means that a child might seem delayed because they’re not interested in reading and writing, but when that time comes, that sensitive period for learning, we can act upon that and provide materials that children to try things like touch, feeling things they like when they’re younger.

 

How do you feel as obviously operators in the childcare space – how do you feel childcare affects children as they develop into older children, teenagers, young adults and adults? What have you seen in practical application of that?

Vicki: So, you know, I’m only talking from an anecdotal perspective, I have read those studies as well, things that show quality, early childhood do lead to good lifelong outcomes, studies like the Head Start program in America. But the most important thing is the quality of the program in the service, which relates to child to teacher ratio and teacher training. I think most families are now recognizing quality early childhood programs for their children and even if you’re the greatest mother that ever lived, you can’t be 20 other three year old’s. It’s that social environment that you just can’t recreate in the home and Montessori in particular has a lot built into the way that we do things that foster what we call ‘grace and courtesy’ or those social skills that lead to better outcomes later in life.

Derek: From my own perspective, one of the things that I found interesting moving into early childhood is as somebody who wasn’t trained in it, you tend to think of education as one, two, three, four, five and ABCDE, but once you get into the early childhood, there’s a learning in teaching somebody how to use scissors, teaching somebody to cough politely. There’s a wide range of activities that as adults we don’t even think about necessarily having to learn, but setting up your fine motor control, learning to start putting new concepts together and things like that which are formed in those early years.

 

In terms of your experience with digital. So digital, it’s bringing so much value to the world as a whole, children included. Everything from the internet to social media to devices, etc. It also brings so much negativity and so much destruction and so much despair in so many ways, which I feel are so complex and not yet fully unravelled. The emotional intelligence development, and how you interact with people etc. What do you feel has been the reality of that or what in younger children, how to how have you seen digital technologies affect them either positively or negatively or both?

Vicki: Montessori herself said it’s important to give children the tools of their time and their culture. So, we want to ensure that children are given the skills that they need to navigate their particular world. However, I would qualify that with respect to screen-based technology, because one of the things we understand, if you’ve ever had a small child, a baby, you will know that everything goes in the mouth. That’s a baby thing, but that’s actually because they are sensorially exploring, that part of their learning process. Yes, it creates some hygiene hazards and other hazards that we have to manage. Then you’ll find that children can’t help themselves touching everything because they use their tactile senses to learn about their world and Montessori said, ‘the hand is the instrument of the mind’ and that’s very, very true. One of the things as parents that you find most faced with, particularly in unfamiliar environments, is having to remind your child not to touch everything. Those things are very natural – they’re part of the way that children are designed to learn. So, what we need to ensure is that that we allow that sensorial learning for children.

When it comes to technology in the classroom, I would say that under six years of age, we should not be using screen-based learning. So that’s one of the reasons is that children learn concrete learning. If you know Piaget, he was influenced by Montessori. It’s concrete learning up until around the age of six. They can start to get into some of the more abstract, conceptual learning, and that’s where screen-based learning might have a place. But in the early years, it’s touch, hold, feel, grasp, carry, experience the weight, length, texture, all of those things are really important for learning for young children.

Another importance about developing for later in life, is for the children to develop a healthy self-esteem. Self-esteem and the new term ‘grit’, which is about that resilience, that being able to push through difficulties is actually related not to praise, as perhaps people have thought through the last several decades, is actually more related to having achievements. So, in the Montessori environment, there’s a lot of materials, practically all of them, that give children a sense of achievement and there’s nothing more special than saying a child who is tied a bow or managed to get all the cylinders in a block and they look up and have this look of absolute joy on their face and that’s a self-validation. That’s an internal experience and the educator can share that with the child and have that moment together.

That’s the stuff that builds self-esteem. That’s the stuff that builds concentration and the desire to complete tasks. It builds that desire to overcome obstacles and builds grit in children. Now, the difficulty with screen-based products for learning, is that there’s an external result of achieving something on a screen, the bells and whistles that they know, are very craftily designed by psychologists. We really want to build that, in a sense of ability, capability that builds into those qualities that take them further in life.

So that would be my second qualification around technology for young children. However, I will say this just a little scenario. We have a tower called the ‘pink tower’ that children build. If we had one day a child said that looks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, for instance, that’s a really interesting thing. That child’s travel to obviously to Italy or seen something from Italy. We don’t have a book on Italy in the classroom, but we do have an iPad so we can immediately access a picture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

We can share it with the children who been interested in that and that’s relating to a lot of discussion about architecture and geography. That kind of aid in the environment is very, very useful for those types of research or interest area experiences and also, can I just say, my Montessori trainer had to buy three copies of every book to make language cards and learning materials so that you could cut the pictures out to use them – we don’t have to do that now.

It’s all available image images online and it helps us to make the very specifically Montessori types of learning apparatus that we want for our classrooms. So, I think it’s wonderful and as I’ve said already in this podcast, the ability to streamline the documentation, record keeping and communication with parents is an absolute godsend.

 

Just on the technology train of thought in general, I’m interested to hear your opinion on where you see digital going in the future, i.e. how it’s going to influence day to day life. We often as an agency, get really hands on in the digital world and we see all these different things, all these different technologies coming really fast and get to the foresight into the future, but you’re working with the next generation every day. It’s sort of the extension of that model, looking after children every day and educating them and helping them to learn – seeing them develop and seeing technology develop. Do you have any thoughts around where we might be with technology in a decade’s time? Is it going to be like it is now or is it going to be more integrated into our everyday lives and the way we operate?

Derek: I mean, my opinion on that is that there are subjects you can do at university about how to make your games and your apps more addictive and the reason for that is because that works. I don’t think we even had a computer in the house until high school, yet I still became a software developer, it didn’t hold me back at all. So, that reinforces the idea, that the concrete learning, I went through prior to that built the intellectual foundations I needed to operate in that abstract world. We had very little technology in my house and my children were growing up and then integrate with the need to have an iPad at school and some of these iPads in the home.

You control it to a certain extent, get busy and then suddenly start doing homework, they spend two hours on the iPad, as I’m sure all parents can relate to, and the iPads are very addictive. I say that as somebody who struggles with that themselves and it’s designed to be that way. As my children have grown up and become more enmeshed with the technology being just part of the lives. I have a fifteen-year-old daughter who I don’t think has ever rung one of her friends on a phone, but she’s in constant communication with them electronically all day.

I think the world will look different because I think that’s why it’s going. Whether it’s better or worse, it’s probably a mixture of both. Are the relationship is going to be as deep? Perhaps not, but there’ll be a lot more relationships. Will that make up for it? I suspect not, but that will change people in the future to be different from what they are now. I don’t think even our children will fully understand the impacts. I think it’ll be our great grandkids and great, great grandkids that can perhaps look back and think ‘is it better or is this worse?’ and how do we make it better without necessarily making it worse?

I mean, ultimately, all the psychological studies report that one of the key aspects of people’s mental health is about relationships and quality relationships and so, you know, yes, I can school the top score and some online game and have a moment of feeling accomplished an achievement, which certainly helps mentally, but for the long term, is that building my relationships with the people around me to improve my long term wellbeing and creating meaning in my life? Perhaps not, not as much as an old-fashioned traditional relationship do.

Even though I’m a software developer, I’m a little bit on the pessimistic side of things. As I said earlier, I try and make sure that if I failed, that I control the technology, not the technology controlling me.

 

Do you have any parting words of wisdom for anyone listening, to instil in us to encourage us in the right direction?

I think COVID has kind of taught everyone a lesson. I’ve gone with the crowd quite accidentally. I put in some nice garden beds and I’ve been harvesting my first ever cauliflower ones and I just think those back to basics out in the garden. Can I just say technology has been a real part of that. When do you plant cauliflowers? When do you know how to harvest cauliflowers? I’ve been on my internet more, finding all these things out, there’s apps for gardening, etc. So, there are ways to blend into it and use technology alongside of those things that help us get back to basics. We may all be YouTubing how to knit because it’s a lost art. I think it will be a real guide to life going forward and it’s serving us, not us serving it.