Cosmic Education: The Montessori Elementary Curriculum
Maria Montessori called her plan for the elementary child the "Cosmic Curriculum." "Cosmic" in this context means comprehensive, holistic, and purposeful. The goals of Cosmic Education go far beyond the usual goals of skill development and knowledge acquisition to address the development of the whole person. Children who complete the Cosmic Curriculum have a clear understanding of the natural world, of human knowledge, and of themselves. These children are prepared to leave childhood behind and to enter adolescence as independent, confident, responsible, emotionally intelligent individuals, balanced in physical, intellectual and social achievements. They are academically and practically prepared to pursue self-education in many areas; to make responsible decisions and act on them in a responsible way; to recognize limits and give, ask for, and receive help, as needed.
The Broader Goals of Cosmic Education
Cosmic Education must be understood within the context of Montessori's overarching vision of human development. Montessori believed that the world was, in fact, a highly purposeful and ordered place - a place where all things worked in harmony to evolve to higher and higher states of consciousness and spiritual perfection. The world of war, ignorance, injustice and economic deprivation was a world that had very seriously deviated from its intended purpose and its normal path of development. Montessori also believed that the way back to a better world was to follow the clues she had found in the development of the child. "The secret of childhood" was that even in a deviated world, children still carried within them the blueprint of normal, healthy development - and that blueprint, amplified by many individuals and projected outward into manifestations of culture, was also a blueprint for a healthy world
Montessori considered two things to be necessary for the creation of a peaceful human being: an awareness of interdependence and a sense of gratitude that comes from it. Throughout the many lessons in the elementary curriculum echoes a message: be grateful to those of previous generations who have faithfully, lovingly, and expertly done their work in the world so that you may have life and the benefit of their knowledge! This looking back in gratitude to all the participants in the drama of cosmic evolution is a subtext that plays constantly in the background of the elementary classroom.
In the children's ongoing experiments with community, gratitude is one of the antidotes to aggression, overweening pride, and ostracism of those different from oneself. Moreover, Montessori is careful not to limit this gratitude to human beings alone, but extends it to all the elements and forces of nature, the plants, the animals (extant and extinct), the rocks, the oceans, the forests - even the molecules and atomic particles. The child who comes to see him/herself as the beneficiary of such cosmic largesse cannot but feel, as an adult, both a rightful sense of importance and purpose as well as a sense of responsibility to find and live joyfully into his/her own vocation.
Montessori also believed that human beings were only able to wage modern warfare and cling to outmoded, oppressive forms of government because they failed to understand the economic, cultural, and spiritual interdependence of all peoples - indeed of all things on the planet. Cosmic Education constantly stresses the interconnections between all content areas and, in the study of history and culture, seeks to delve beyond superficial racial and cultural differences to show how all human beings are driven by the same set of Fundamental Needs.
Montessori saw the second plane as the time to open up the world to the child, and she was determined to do so in a way that did not reproduce the intellectual fragmentation of traditional curricula - the practical consequence of which she believed to be the obscuring of interdependencies and interconnectedness, leading to an inability to truly understand the political and cultural reality of the modern world. Instead, Cosmic Education presents the world as a beloved place, a place where the children through inspired academic work also come to appreciate the ongoing story of humanity because they can begin to orient themselves in it.
"Presenting the Universe to the Child"
Building on her insight into the importance of imagination in the elementary years, Montessori proposed to "present the universe to the child" in the form of an epic story. All elements of the curriculum would then be related to this story of the universe. In practice, this narrative is told as a set of five stories, the Great Stories of Cosmic Education.
Rather than following the traditional "structure of knowledge" by presenting facts as belonging to biology, zoology, botany, history, geography, physics, chemistry, religion, etc., the Great Stories present a holistic vision of knowledge, drawing on material from the various disciplines as needed.
Characteristically, Montessori takes the children from the whole to the parts and back to the whole again. In this way, each academic area emerges naturally from the whole narrative and
continually refers back to it.
Above all, Cosmic Education does not present the universe as random and objectified -- as something that has "just happened." Instead, the Great Stories tell of how each particle, each substance, each species, each event has a purpose and a contribution to make to the development of all others. Montessori also wants the child to understand the debt of gratitude that human beings owe to all other parts of the universe; for without them and their special contributions to the interconnected whole, we could not live.
Areas of Study The Great Stories are told near the beginning of each school year, and each one serves to introduce a major branch of human knowledge from which the teacher will be presenting formal lessons. These areas include geography and physical science, biology, history and anthropology language and the arts, and mathematics.
Geography and Physical Science
Geography and the physical sciences are introduced by the first Great Story. This is the story of the creation of theuniverse and the discovery by each part of the physical universe that it has certain specific laws of nature that it must obey. The story gives impressions of important concepts that will play a role in the children's studies of geology, physics, and chemistry in Upper Elementary, Middle School and beyond. At the end of the story, the earth is formed but life has not yet appeared.
Biology is introduced by the second Great Story, the storyof the coming of life. In further studies the child learns to describe and classify the many varieties of living things according to the classical morphological taxonomies. Studies of botany and zoology begin with nature walks, gardening, and caring for indoor plants and animals, then proceed to a more analytical study of the functional anatomy of plants and animals. Older children explore the ecological interdependencies between plants and animals, as well as the "hidden kingdoms" of life: the bacteria and other microscopic organisms. Studies of the human body and its major systems lead the children to a new understanding of themselves and the importance of exercise, nutritious food, and other healthy habits. NOMENCLATURE---RESEARCH, DETAILS, REPORTS, ILLUSTRATIONS, GOING OUT.
History and Social Studies
The third Great Story tells of the coming of human beings. It introduces both human history, including the development of a concept of linear time and the study of important civilizations of the past; and anthropology, including studies of the Fundamental Needs of Humans and how satisfaction of these needs has shaped all human cultures. History is not presented in strict chronological order but given as a series of engaging stories together with timelines that give a broad framework for understanding. Throughout their elementary years, the children are engaged in research and other activities that bring alive for them different periods of time and their relationships.
WRITING, ILLUSTRATING, GOING OUT
The arts are presented as one of the Fundamental Needs. Art is integrated into every area of study as free expression, technical illustration, design, and decoration. The organization of the classroom environment and the beauty of the handmade Montessori materials constantly convey to the children a sense of esthetic order and an appreciation of the skill of the human hand. WORK IN DIFFERENT MEDIA, WITH DIFFERENT TECHNIQUES, STYLES
The lessons in history - understood as the ongoing story of the cosmos -- and the Fundamental Needs of Human Beings play a particularly important role in developing in the child the sense of gratitude to past generations and the awareness of interdependence between all peoples. In Cosmic Education, history is more than dates and facts and timelines. Although there are certain lessons that are specifically designed to give the child concepts and tools for the study of history, history is actually distributed throughout the entire curriculum. The child encounters new subjects and new knowledge as the products of human imagination and labor, and the little stories of how these things came to be part of our storehouse of knowledge are seen as sub-plots in the grander story of cosmic history that is going on in parallel.
CHOICE OF FURTHER STUDIES, FOLLOW-UP, GOING OUT
Language and Mathematics
Montessori saw the development of human consciousness as part of the grand story being told. The fourth and fifth Great Stories tell of the most important inventions of the human mind: language (especially writing) and mathematics. Although much of the subsequent academic work of the children in these two areas overlaps with traditional elementary curricula, the manner of presentation, the presence of the unique Montessori materials, and the integration of these topics with the rest of Cosmic Education give the children a completely different experience of them.
Working in mathematics with concrete, manipulative materials rather than textbooks or workbooks, the children extract arithmetic, geometric, and algebraic facts, functions, and interrelationships. The children render visual expressions of mathematical realities with colored pencils, scissors, glue, and graph paper. Progressing from concrete to abstract at their own rate, the children sustain interest, gain solid understanding, and build confidence in math.
The esthetic expression of language found in plays, poems, and literature is considered systematically through exercises that advance levels of comprehension and deepen empathy. Through Montessori materials that exhibit qualities and manifest functions the children areintroduced to the logical and rational analysis of language, its structure, form, and grammar. Poetic forms and grammatical structures are offered to the children's reasoning mind and questing spirit as intellectual pursuits worthy of their hunger for knowledge. By preparing, practicing, and polishing presentations and then taking poems, stories, and reports on tour to other classes around the campus, the children develop natural ease, sophistication, and skill with language as expression and communication.
Early Elementary and Upper Elementary
The Montessori elementary curriculum is designed as an integrated whole serving the needs of children from age 6 to 12. The continuity of the curriculum allows individual children to move through the various subject areas at the pace that is best for them, building confidence and genuine self-esteem based on proven performance. The activities that follow the structured presentations given by the teacher include work choices that appeal to the full range of learning styles. Because the curriculum engages the children's deep interest and meets their need to learn through exploration in a variety of learning styles and rates, classroom assignments and extra school work assigned specifically to be done at home become unnecessary. The children work spontaneously on their interests both at home and at school when TELEVISION VIEWING, COMPUTER GAME PLAYING, AND MOVIE WATCHING ARE KEPT TO TWO HOURS PER WEEK.
In the Early Elementary Classes, the children work more concretely, with more reliance on the Montessori materials. As the ability to think abstractly matures in the Upper Elementary years, the sequences of lessons lead more and more into work on paper and into self-initiated research projects. The Montessori materials then become tools which the children can use to refresh their memories of earlier work or to explore creatively some advanced extension of an earlier study. For example, the material that younger children use to learn the rudiments of arithmetic are reinterpreted to learn algebra and extended to learn arithmetic in non-decimal bases.
As the child's mind, will, and self-discipline mature it becomes possible for the child to undertake ambitious projects requiring the integration of knowledge from across the curriculum and well-developed collaboration skills. The Upper Elementary guide then becomes more and more a consultant to the children, helping them organize and find resources to meet both the requirements of local curriculum standards and the challenges of their self-initiated projects.
Nowhere does the Montessori approach of providing developmentally appropriate materials at each stage bear more fruit than in the area of mathematics. Because the children's early work with the Montessori math manipulatives gives them such a firm grounding for later abstraction, Upper Elementary students can typically pursue studies of advanced topics not usually offered to elementary children.
Going Out of the Classroom
Children of elementary age develop interests in all directions. Their passionate pursuit of understanding naturally leads them out of the confined space of the classroom, its books and materials, and into the world itself to experience things first hand. Such organized forays into the world to pursue studies begun in the classroom are known as "Going Out."
The elementary age child must be given real situations in which to exercise will and judgment. Moreover, in order for the child to have a sufficiently rich experience of the world and a sufficiently rich body of experience, it is necessary that much of the child's learning take place outside the classroom. Going Out differs from traditional fieldtrips insofar as it is initiated, planned, and executed by the child, not the adult, and it arises spontaneously from the interest and work of the child, not from a plan of instruction made by the adult. ADULT INTERVENTION IS LIMITED TO REVIEWING THE CHILDREN'S SELF EVALUATION OF THE DETAILS OF THE PLAN IN ADVANCE OF LEAVING THE CAMPUS, THE CHAUFFER/CHAPERONE'S ASSURANCE OF SAFETY DURING THE TRIP, AND THE RECEIVING THE STUDENT'S AND CHAUFFER'S REPORTS OF ACCOUNTABILITY UPON THEIR RETURN.
A "going-out" for a young elementary child might be as simple (from the adult perspective) as a trip to the public library to look for books not available at school. An older child who is more experienced and able to take on more responsibility might organize a trip to a university to interview a zoologist or an astronomer, a trip to a hear concert of Indonesian music and dance, or a trip to a horse breeder STABLE to learn about trail rides for people with disabilities.