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How the Great Lessons Open Up the Universe for Elementary Students

April 16, 2019

“Let’s give [the child] a vision of the whole universe, the universe is an imposing reality – and an answer to all questions.” – Maria Montessori

Preschool- and kindergarten-aged children learn the most by taking in their surroundings and exploring the things around them. They’re highly attuned to their environment and absorb just about everything they hear, see, and feel.

Once they reach the elementary school years, children don’t stop learning from their environment or by manipulating objects, but they do expand their horizons far beyond the confines of their home and classroom.

This is the age when they become keenly aware that the world is a very big place and that they have explored so little of it. They’re also becoming aware that the present moment is just one little slice of human history, and that the past extends long before anything they can remember.

It’s also when they start developing strong reasoning abilities and they’re keen to put them to use. They can spot the gaps in their knowledge and want to explore as much as they can to fill those gaps.

Our elementary curriculum sets the stage for that exploration by introducing our students to The Great Lessons.

The Great Lessons

The Great Lessons are a series of stories we tell our students each year. Together, they give a big picture view of how we got where we are today – from how the planet came to be to how we created systems to communicate with each other and measure just about anything.

When students enter elementary school, they tend to come with a bunch of big questions – my daughter would routinely ask me things like “Who was the first baby on the planet?” and “Were there any trees before there were people?” Starting each year with The Great Lessons is our way of giving them big answers.

Elementary students are also incredibly imaginative. Their brains are always creating, picturing, and inventing. It’s what makes them so receptive to stories. Presenting these foundational lessons through stories allows us to speak directly to their very active imaginations and helps them visualize and understand the information we’re conveying to them.

We also use stories as a way of expanding their learning beyond what is available to them in person. There’s no way to touch or see the Big Bang. There’s also no way to easily picture the story of how we developed the alphabet. It’s all just a bit too far removed, a bit too abstract, but when we present them as stories, our elementary students get it.

The Five Great Lessons

There are five stories we tell as part of The Great Lessons. Here they are, in order.

The Story of the Universe

We start at the beginning – and I mean the very beginning. Our first Great Lesson covers how our planet came to be.

That story starts with the expansion of the universe and the formation of the building blocks of our world (the elements that make up our periodic table). From there, we walk students through the way planets are formed, including our own.

The Coming of Life

After telling our students how the Earth came to be, we tell them how it became populated. Where does this incredible array of plants, insects, and animals come from?

We begin with the single-celled organisms and their evolution into multi-cellular beings. From there, we take them through the different geological eras and the different kinds of life forms that were on the planet during them.

The Coming of Humans

Next, we fit ourselves into this picture. The universe has been populated by a wide swath of prehistoric plants and animals, but when do we arrive on the scene?

We tell the story of early humans and their ways of life, followed by the formation of ancient civilizations and the emergence of different cultures.

The Story of Language

Our last two stories focus on what are perhaps our greatest achievements.

This Great Lesson tells the story of the most important technology we ever invented: language.

How did we begin representing things verbally? And how did we eventually start representing those words through symbols?

To make the narrative even more concrete, we trace the specific story of how the alphabet evolved from early Phoenician markings to the written languages of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

The Story of Mathematics

Language is our most powerful way of representing the world around us. But on its own, it’s limited. We had to develop a separate but related system to represent quantity and facilitate measurement.

Numbers seem like they’ve been with us forever, but they have a history just like everything else. Even our familiar friend, the number zero, hasn’t been with us for as long as the other numbers we rely on for most of our everyday calculations.

This final Great Lesson shows the students that discovery is often a form of problem-solving, and numerals are no exception. We didn’t begin with negative numbers, astronomically high quantities (think billions and trillions), or the concept and symbol of infinity; we discovered them when we needed them to understand new discoveries or make sense of scientific and mathematical hypotheses.

The Great Lessons Set the Stage for Learning

These stories aren’t just fascinating and captivating – they also set the stage for everything the students learn while they’re with us.

The point of The Great Lessons isn’t to give our students a complete picture of where they are in the world and how everything came to be. It gives them the basic outlines and encourages them to fill in the details on their own, by reading and doing research on the topics that interest them the most. These stories, in other words, satisfy a child’s curiosity about the world they live in, but not so much that it keeps them from asking more questions.

It’s also an introduction to all the subject matter they’ll be learning from elementary school all the way through college:

  • The Story of the Universe is the backdrop for physics, astronomy, and geology
  • The Coming of Life introduces students to biology, botany, and geography
  • The Coming of Humans leads into the study of history and anthropology
  • The Story of Language and The Story of Mathematics prepare the ground for the arts and literature, for science and mathematics, and for engineering and technology

These stories don’t just introduce the students to each subject area. It also shows them why these topics are important. Doing this motivates them to learn by giving them context for each lesson we present them and for all the subjects they look into on their own.

“Hey Honey, It’s Time to Play Outside.” Outdoor activities build healthy minds and bodies.

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