To inspire academic excellence; nurture curiosity, creativity, and imagination; and awaken the human spirit
As children near the end of their kindergarten year in Montessori, many parents struggle with the question of whether or not to keep their children in Montessori for the elementary program.
On the one hand, the typical Montessori five-year-old’s self-confidence and love of learning lead many families to ask: Why tamper with something that is clearly working?
Other parents feel that, since their kindergarten graduate will be moving on to another class one way or the other, next year might be the logical time to make the transition from Montessori.
A major consideration for many families will be the opportunity to save the cost of private school tuition by taking advantage of the local public schools. Some will wonder if a more highly structured and competitive independent school will give their child a better preparation for college.
If you are facing this choice, I encourage you to take a good look at your school’s elementary program. Although you will, of course, want to gain an impression of the teachers, focus your attention on the students themselves. Elementary students are often the best spokespeople for the value of a Montessori education!
There are four aspects of the elementary program:
Inspiring Children To Work Hard and AchieveAcademic Excellence
Let’s begin by being very clear. Montessori is one of the most sophisticated pre-collegiate programs available anywhere in North America. It has been described as the ultimate gifted-and-talented program that is offered to a very wide range of students. However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. What makes Montessori special is its ability to nurture talent without needless competition and stress. In a nutshell, Montessori children never lose the joy of learning.
Montessori is, first and foremost, concerned with a child’s character and emotional development, rather than academics for grades and test scores alone. We inspire children toward academic excellence and nurture the curiosity, creativity, and imagination hidden within every human being.
Many Parents Worry That Montessori Will Not Prepare Their Children For The ‘Real World.’
Hearing that we do not give children letter grades (at least until high school), assign hours of nightly homework, give children weekly tests, or expect students to compete for the highest rank in the class, some parents wonder if we’ve lost our minds! After all, who wants to run the risk that Montessori, which was so charmingly right when they were young, doesn’t work in the elementary years or prepare children for the Real World?
Montessori Elementary Education Is Distinctly Different
First, let’s talk about highly selective programs for ‘gifted’ children.
Montessori demonstrated that intelligence is common among human beings. Most schools assume that giftedness is statistically rare and that, given half a chance, children will accomplish little without external structure, extrinsic rewards, and the fear of being embarrassed.
Many of us attended challenging elementary schools. Do you remember what happened in your highly disciplined classrooms when your teacher left the room? In many cases, it was disorder. What use is it to earn high grades, keep your notebook neat, pass every test, and hate your schoolwork? Many children in many good schools are bored, apathetic, or overwhelmed. They do only what must be done to get along. That is not a sound foundation for a real education. In truly wonderful schools, classrooms are filled with students who retain a sense of wonder, curiosity, and eagerness to learn. Those qualities are the almost universal description of elementary Montessori children.
I find the difference between the way many of us think about gifted children in this country and the attitudes we find abroad quite interesting. Americans unconsciously assume that intellectual ability and scholastic success is inborn, i.e. a child is born with special talents and abilities. Many parents in other countries assume that success is more the result of hard work, self-discipline, and high personal motivation.
In writing this, I don’t mean to suggest that truly gifted children (and adults) can’t be found. They are simply uncommon. What we focus on is the human potential hidden within young children.
Montessori demonstrated that intelligence has many forms and that children learn in different ways at different paces. Anyone who has worked with children knows this is true, but traditional schools normally follow a pre-established curriculum.
Montessori felt it was illogical to dismiss a child who finds it difficult to memorize facts without understanding or to remember what the teacher covers in a lecture. She also understood the powerful connection between a child’s inner emotional life, self-confidence, self-esteem, and the ability to learn.
A Montessori elementary program is based on warmth, kindness, and respect. There is a strong sense of community among the children. The classes are more like little villages, with powerful friendships and a clear sense of group identity. Teachers are normally seen as mentors and friends.
Building Character and Teaching Universal Values
There is an old saying that if you abandon a garden, the weeds will run wild. Abandon a child’s moral and spiritual education, and the weeds of confusion, materialism, self-centeredness, and spiritual emptiness will take hold.
Dr. Montessori observed that the elementary years are a sensitive period for moral reasoning. The elementary program integrates character development and family involvement throughout the curriculum.
The teaching of kindness and courtesy, self-discipline and self-respect, and fundamental values is crucial in a child’s moral development, sense of dignity, and academic success. With proper guidance from parents and educators, children can and will excel.
Montessori Schools Strive to Create Global Understanding
They tend to attract teachers from all over the world.
It is normal to find an international student body in a Montessori school anywhere in the world.
Montessori schools generally teach at least one foreign language and often offer programs in several.
World geography, international cultural studies, and world history are central to the elementary Montessori curriculum.
Elementary Montessori students begin to understand the global economy.
As more Montessori schools develop strong upper elementary and middle school programs, many are beginning to sponsor travel-study programs. Some participate in the Montessori Model United Nations and foreign exchange programs.
Children must be inspired to contribute to the betterment of the world. They often begin with projects that care for the environment: planting trees and flowers; composting garbage; controlling erosion around the campus; recycling; and cleaning up litter and debris in the local community. It is quite common for elementary classes to adopt an acre of rainforest in Costa Rica or work to support an environmental organization, such as the Wildlife Federation.
They will normally progress to projects that provide direct help to the needy. Younger children commonly collect canned goods, clothing, and toys for the homeless or needy families. As they are ready, most Montessori schools will take children out into the community.
As they reach the upper elementary class, Montessori children become quite concerned about issues of social justice and human rights. The rights of the poor, homeless, and hungry are of real concern. Some children will begin to explore the possibilities of supporting causes that are meaningful to them.
Elementary Classes Are Multi-Age Group Communities
Elementary Montessori classes continue to bring children of different age levels together. Classes span three age/grade levels, with the common divisions being ages 6 to 9 (grades 1-3) and ages 9 to 12 (grades 4-6). Some schools may follow a somewhat different scheme of grouping their children.
Elementary Montessori Educators Serve As Mentors, Guides, and Friends
The best elementary Montessori teachers tend to be renaissance men and women; individuals who are equally interested in mathematics, the sciences, the arts, architecture, literature, poetry, psychology, economics, technology, and philosophy. Elementary Montessori teachers are generalists rather than a single subject-matter instructor. They provide a blend of structure to ensure that the ‘basics’ are mastered while encouraging and guiding children to explore topics and ideas that capture their imagination.
The elementary Montessori curriculum is very demanding, and requires teachers to have a broad and thorough education of their own. With lessons that range from the history of mathematics to the physics of flight, mineralogy, chemistry, algebra, geometry, linguistics, and literature, to name just a few, the average teacher would be lost.
But beyond this, elementary Montessori educators need patience, understanding, respect, enthusiasm, and a profound ability to inspire a sense of wonder and imagination. Such teachers are very rare but absolutely magical!
Becoming an elementary Montessori teacher requires almost two years of graduate study and student teaching, and many hours of hard work to gather or create the curriculum materials that constitute a fully authentic elementary Montessori environment.
The Montessori Materials And The Passage To Abstraction
At the elementary level, learning continues to be a hands-on experience, as students learn by trial, error, and discovery.
The advanced elementary Montessori materials move on to more complex and abstract concepts in mathematics, geometry, and pre-algebra. The goal is to lead students away from a dependency on concrete models that visually represent abstract concepts towards the ability to solve problems with pen and paper alone.
Part of this is made possible by the growing child’s brain’s ability to grasp abstractions, but it has been greatly enhanced over the years by countless hours of work with the concrete materials that made the abstract real, and helped him visualize the abstraction.
Similar hands-on Montessori materials help students understand grammar, sentence analysis, geographical facts, and concepts in science.
Three Elements Of The Elementary Montessori Curriculum
1. Mastery of Fundamental Skills and Basic Core Knowledge
Montessori’s international curriculum evolved out of a tradition of academic excellence and offers a rigorous course of study even in the elementary years. Elementary Montessori students explore the realm of mathematics; science and technology; the world of myth; great literature; history; world geography; civics; economics; anthropology; and the basic organization of human societies. Their studies also cover the basics found in the traditional curriculum: the memorization of math facts; spelling lessons; the study of vocabulary, grammar, sentence analysis, creative and expository writing; and research skills.
2. Montessori’s Great Lessons
The Great Lessons are five key areas of interconnected studies traditionally presented to all elementary Montessori students in the form of inspiring stories, related experiences, and research projects.
The Great Lessons include the story of how the world came to be: the development of life on Earth; the story of humankind; the development of language and writing; and the development of mathematics. They are intended to give children a ‘cosmic’ perspective of the Earth and humanity’s (and their own) place within the cosmos.
3. Individually Chosen Research
Elementary students are encouraged to explore topics that capture their imagination. Most former Montessori students look back on this aspect of the elementary program with particular fondness in later years.
Montessori curriculum guides students to become proficient at research and inquiry. Elementary Montessori students rarely use textbooks. The approach is largely based on library research, with children gathering information, assembling reports, teaching what they have learned to their fellows, and assembling portfolios and handmade books of their own. Students are taught how to use reference materials, libraries, and the Internet to gather information and uncover the facts. Their oral presentations and written research reports tend to grow in sophistication and complexity every year.
Is Montessori Opposed To Competition?
No. Dr. Montessori simply observed that competition is an ineffective tool to motivate children to learn and work hard in school.
Traditionally, schools challenge students to compete with each other for grades, class rankings, and special awards. In Montessori schools, students learn to collaborate rather than mindlessly compete. In an atmosphere in which children learn at their own pace and compete only against themselves, they learn to not be afraid of making mistakes. They quickly find that few things in life come easily, and they can try again without fear of embarrassment.
Dr. Montessori, herself an extraordinary student and a very high achiever, was never opposed to competition on principle. Her objection was to using competition to create an artificial motivation to get students to achieve.
Homework, Tests, And Grades
Many parents have heard that Montessori schools do not believe in homework, grades, and tests. This is a misunderstanding. Because Montessori believes in individually paced academic progress and encourages children to explore their interests, rather than simply complete work assigned by their teachers, we don’t assign grades or rank students within each class according to their achievement.
Whenever students voluntarily decide to learn something, they tend to engage in their work with a passion and attention that few students will ever invest in tasks that have been assigned.
Providing Structure: Setting High, But Individually Tailored, Expectations
Montessori children normally work with a written study plan for the day or week. It lists the basic tasks that they need to complete while allowing them to decide how long to spend on each and what order they would like to follow. Beyond these basic individually tailored assignments, children explore topics that capture their interest and imagination, and share them with their classmates.
Montessori children usually don’t think of our assessment techniques as tests so much as challenges. Most elementary teachers will give their students informal, individual oral exams or have the children demonstrate what they have learned by either teaching a lesson to another child or by giving a formal presentation.
Montessori educators frequently argue that standardized testing is inaccurate, misleading, and stressful for children. Many feel that standardized tests are unnecessary, since any good teacher who works with the same children for three years and carefully observes their work, knows far more about their progress than a typical paper and pencil test reveals.
However, in our culture, test-taking skills are just another practical life lesson that children need to master. Most Montessori schools regularly give students quizzes on the concepts and skills that they have been studying, and many schools use standardized tests of one sort or another, with students over first grade. Often these may be formative tests that measure each student’s progress over the course of each year, and these will be only part of a comprehensive system of monitoring and documenting learning within the school.
When tests (formal and informal) are used as a feedback loop, at times indicating that a student needs a new lesson and more practice, instead of a mark of shame and failure, then they can be quite useful. Children will face tests throughout their education, and they certainly need to develop good test-taking skills.
Homework in an elementary Montessori class rarely involves busywork assignments; instead, they are extensions and enrichment of the curriculum. Some classes will allow the children to freely pursue projects that interest them at home, while others prefer to give children a number of optional assignments or challenges. In either case, the Montessori version of homework will rarely be boring and will normally challenge students to think, explore, and pursue tangible projects that give them a sense of satisfaction.
An Integrated Curriculum
Literature, art, music, dance, drama, history, social issues, political science, economics, architecture, science, and the study of technology all complement one another in the elementary curriculum. This integrated approach is one of the elementary Montessori program’s great strengths.
An Exceptional Curriculum In Language Arts And The Humanities
The elementary Montessori language arts program places great stress on the development of strong skills in composition and creative writing. Students are asked to write continuously, emphasizing, at first, the development of an enjoyment of the writing process, rather than the strict use of correct grammar and spelling. However, formal grammar, spelling, and sentence analysis are systematically taught.
Elementary children are normally very interested in words and sentences. They like to parse and analyze; for, in this way, they are clarifying their understanding of the structure of language that they absorbed unconsciously in the primary class. Montessori takes advantage of children’s natural interest and gives them a rich assembly of learning material; for while they study the theory of grammar, spelling, and sentence analysis, they are also perfecting their knowledge of written language.
Creative writing continues to be equally important, and students are encouraged to write and share with others their stories, plays, poetry, and class newspapers.
Finally, and most importantly, the key to the elementary language arts curriculum is the quality of the material Montessori gives children to read. They are introduced, from an early age to first-rate children’s books and fascinating works on science, history, geography, and the arts. Many elementary classes follow the Junior Great Books program, with formal literary studies continuing every year through graduation. By introducing students to the very best literature available for young people, Montessori cultivates a deep love for the world of books.
Montessori math is based on the European “Unified Math” model, which introduces elementary students to the study of the fundamentals of algebra, geometry, logic, and statistics, along with the principles of arithmetic.
Montessori students learn to recognize complex geometric shapes and figures. They learn to define, calculate, and draw all sorts of geometric relationships: angles; polygons; circumference; area; volume; squares and square root, cubes of polynomials, to name just a few. In Montessori, arithmetic, algebra, and geometry are interrelated.
Elementary Montessori students gain hands-on experience by applying math in a wide range of projects, activities, and challenges, such as graphing the daily temperature and computing the average for each month or adjusting the quantities called for in a recipe for a larger number of people. Because children love to work outdoors, we try to prepare tasks that use the school grounds whenever possible.
History And Culture Come Alive In The Elementary Class
One of Montessori’s key objectives is to develop a global perspective, and the study of history and world cultures forms the cornerstone of the curriculum.
Physical geography begins in the elementary program with the study of the formation of the Earth, the emergence of the oceans and atmosphere, and the evolution of life. Students learn about the world’s rivers, lakes, deserts, mountain ranges, and natural resources. Elementary students study the customs, housing, diet, government, industry, arts, history, and dress of countries around the world. They also study the emergence of the first civilizations and the universal needs of humankind. In the upper elementary class, the focus is usually placed on early man, ancient civilizations, and American history.
International studies continue throughout the elementary years, integrating art, music, dance, drama, cooking, geography, literature, and science. The children learn to prepare and enjoy dishes from all over the world. They learn the traditional folk songs and dances in music and explore traditional folk crafts in art. They read traditional folk tales, literature, and reference materials about the cultures under study and prepare reports about them. Units often culminate in marvelous international festivals.
Montessori’s Hands-On Approach to Science
The Montessori science curriculum is focused on the study of life, the laws and structure of the universe, and how humanity has struggled throughout history to put our understanding to practical use.
Much of Montessori science takes place out of doors. Classes grow flowers and vegetables in small gardens. They often raise class pets and sometimes even small farm animals.
Students are encouraged to learn to recognize and name local trees, flowers, birds, and animals.
Older children begin to keep journals of their observations of classroom animals and write poems and stories that attempt to capture the sense of wonder and beauty all around us. Back in the classroom, they pursue their investigations using a wide variety of charts and displays, research materials, and reference books.
More formal elements of biology are taught as well, particularly at the upper elementary levels. Dr. Montessori found that systematic knowledge allows one to discriminate details among species, literally to see on a whole new level; therefore, we introduce the student to the classification of the plant and animal kingdom. The study of the internal and external anatomy of plants and animals likewise gives children a new level of awareness and sensitivity in their observation and study of life. They compare different anatomical systems among species, such as the eyes, teeth, hooves, and claws of various animals.
Elementary students also learn a wide range of important basic concepts of physics and chemistry, such as: the structure of atoms and molecules; the difference between elements and compounds; the chemical composition of familiar compounds; the three states of matter; and chemical and physical change. Students also enjoy doing research about the elements and have a first exposure to the Table of Elements.
Elementary children love to work with scientific apparatus and delight in seeing mixtures change color, testing liquids with litmus paper, experimenting with small electrical circuits, or building models of atomic compounds. Students learn to observe and record what takes place during their experiment. The goal is to teach both the scientific method and techniques for safely working with science equipment.
As part of the international studies program, most Montessori schools offer a second language. The primary goal in a foreign language program is to develop conversational skills, vocabulary, the ability to understand basic written information in the second language, and an appreciation for the culture of the countries where the language is spoken.
The Arts Are Integrated Into Every Subject
In Montessori schools, the arts are normally integrated into the rest of the curriculum. They are modes of exploring and expanding lessons that have been introduced in science, history, geography, language arts, and mathematics. For example, students might make a replica of a Grecian vase; study calligraphy and decorative writing; sculpt dinosaurs for science; create dioramas for history; construct geometric designs and solids for math; and express their feelings about a musical composition through painting.
Students participate in singing, dancing, and creative movement with teachers and music specialists. Students’ dramatic productions make other times and cultures come alive.
The ideal elementary Montessori health and physical education program challenges students to develop a personal program of lifelong exercise, recreation, and health management.
The Montessori approach to health and fitness helps children to understand and appreciate how their bodies work and the care and feeding of a healthy human body.
Field trips are often an integral part of elementary Montessori programs. Students take all sorts of trips over the years to planetariums, art galleries, the zoo, museums, and many other destinations. They visit the centers of local government, colleges, hospitals, veterinary clinics, wildlife refuges, libraries, laboratories, factories, and businesses.
Social Skills, Character, And Community Service
The elementary classroom is not only a community of close friends, it is a source of countless life lessons in social skills, everyday courtesy, and ethics. Montessori noted that elementary children not only enjoy each other’s company, they naturally form little social groups of friends, each with its own internal hierarchy and rules of conduct.
The elementary classroom takes advantage of this tendency by operating as a small social community in which children learn to work together, resolve conflicts peacefully, encourage and acknowledge each other, and work as committees to complete complex tasks. Dr. Montessori also noted that the elementary years are a time when children are developing their sense of justice and moral reasoning.
Most classes go beyond simple lessons in grace and courtesy to begin a serious exploration of moral philosophy. It is common to find elementary Montessori students discussing questions, such as: Why are some things considered a sin? What happens to us when we die? Why is it important for the fortunate to lend a hand to the poor? If kindness is so important, what can I do when I am feeling angry?
During the elementary years, Montessori children begin to seriously address the question of aid to the elderly, handicapped, critically ill, and economically disadvantaged. They explore international issues from the perspective of building bridges toward world peace. They study ecology, wildlife preservation, and conservation of natural resources.
Through these and many other efforts, we begin to introduce Montessori children to moral questions in personal relationships to encourage the awakening of their social conscience. n
Tomorrow’s Child/ November 2017/ Pg 18