The Elementary years of a child’s education are crucial and can have long lasting effects.
By about age six children enter into what Maria Montessori called the second plane of development. The child becomes less dependent on imitation and much more concerned with the how and why questions. Social interactions with peers become more important, discovery of, and pride in, one’s personal heritage and family customs becomes fascinating, and knowledge is no longer accepted at face value. These children are hungry for intellectual challenges, open-ended questions, and lots of facts.
The Montessori elementary program begins with the “Great Lessons” because these children are hungry for knowledge and are able to use their powers of imagination to envision concepts that are abstract rather than concrete. A three or four year old accepts a story about the stars or planets with the same mind-set as he or she might use to listen to a fairy tale but the elementary child can actually imagine the grandiosity involved.
The five great lessons are: The Story of the Universe, The Coming of Life, The Coming of Humans, The Story of Language, and The Story of Mathematics. We use a one hundred foot long yellow ribbon to help the child visualize how long the universe has existed. To demonstrate how long the earth has existed we use a fifty foot long black ribbon added to the yellow one. At the very end of the black ribbon there is a red piece, about one inch in length, to demonstrate how long people have lived on the earth.
Montessori education begins with the “whole.” There is nothing that a child will ever encounter that is not contained in the universe! For the next six years we will add layers of detail providing an incredibly broad curriculum that, above all else, inspires a child to continue asking questions and seeking knowledge. A love of learning is our primary goal because learning is a life-long endeavor and none of us can predict exactly what knowledge the future will require of our children.
In every school, children learn math and grammar, science and geography. The Montessori approach allows the children to master all of these content areas in a universal context. They don’t merely label parts of speech in grammar and wonder, as many of us did, “Why do I need to learn this stuff?” because the Story of Language takes children back to the very first humans and their need to communicate. Children understand that in order to be effective one must communicate in a way that others can understand – so the need for correct spelling, proper grammar, and punctuation becomes evident.
I remember my history curriculum as being focused on warfare. We studied the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, and so on. Montessori takes a different approach. History, in a Montessori setting, focuses on the accomplishment of all people. The children study the contributions of the Chinese, the Romans, the Greeks, the Indus Civilization, the Mayans, and Native Americans, among others. The underlying message is always that we owe our modern conveniences and vast knowledge base to the work and dedication of those who came before AND that each of us has something to offer to future generations. I believe this is a far more empowering message than merely focusing on why human beings have fought wars throughout history.
Similarly, the story of mathematics examines the roots of our number systems and those that came before, again focusing on the contributions of earlier people. Children learn that, for example, the right angle was used by the Egyptians to make sure that their buildings were aligned and sturdy. They learn that the decimal system evolved because it is the easiest way to record and work with very large numbers as opposed to having a separate symbol for every possible number one might ever need. Geometry is taught, beginning in first grade, because it is very sensorial in nature. The children can see and touch triangles, rectangles, and so on, and understand the broad concepts involved without the need for measurement or quantity. The study of arithmetic; adding, subtracting, multiplication, and division, leads naturally to a fundamental understanding of algebra because algebra deals with the laws of how numbers work and the formulas that allow one to predict mathematical outcomes.
Montessori elementary builds upon and is based on what came earlier during the preschool years but it is not “more of the same.” Our unique, global perspective to curriculum helps children incorporate new information into their growing body of knowledge in a way that no other educational system can. The respect for all that has come before, which is very actively taught, also builds respect for all the other people that a child might ever meet, in school or in the future. Because respect is such an integral part of the curriculum, children with different learning styles and needs are accepted as peers. Cooperation extends into the learning environment because children are not pitted against one another for grades, praise, or respect. They encourage and help one another along the way and applaud the accomplishments of their peers as well as their own.
The materials available in the classroom generally cover at least a five year scope which allows all children to work at their own comfort level and to advance through or review any subject area that is appropriate for them. While working at their own level and pace they also have access to peers the same age or a year or two older or younger which means they can always find an equal. The older children serve as role models while the younger children offer an opportunity to the older children to learn patience and to “show off” what they have learned.
The reason for mixed age classes is not always apparent to parents but consider this: Do you only interact with people exactly your age at work or socially? Of course not. One of the most powerful tools we can provide our children is the opportunity to meet people of different ages, different backgrounds, and different abilities. It’s just one more way that a Montessori classroom is unique and empowering.
Typically, Montessori graduates are excellent students and go on to become the leaders in whatever schools they might attend in the future. The rich academic curriculum is only one reason for why this is true, however. The social skills and values that are so integral to Montessori are the real reason for the poise and confidence that Montessori children exude – in any setting.