In order to understand the Montessori curriculum, one must understand a bit of Montessori philosophy. Through her observations, Maria Montessori identified “sensitive periods” during a child’s life during which time a child is exquisitely sensitive to the development of certain skills. (Today’s scientists call these times “windows of opportunity”.) She also observed that a child learns each skill best in isolation of other skills, with real-life applications, with increasing difficulty and with much repetition. Finally, she advocated “following the child”; that is, giving the right lesson at the right time and allowing the child to participate in his/her own progress. Maria Montessori added a specific continuum of lessons (organized in a spiral fashion from level to level) and specific learning materials to the basic philosophy and instruction that she advocated.
During their training, Montessori Guides compile binders for each curricular subject. These binders contain all of the lessons that he/she would ever give in the three-year span of time during which he/she has each child in class. The lessons are arranged in sequential order around a central concept and are detailed descriptions of procedures to be followed and specific concrete learning materials to be used when teaching that lesson. For any one concept, there is a series of “works” to be completed. The materials and the concepts become more and more abstract in nature as the child progresses through the series. Once the child has had a lesson, he/she can choose a particular work over and over as many times as s/he desires; in fact, practice is strongly encouraged. At some point, the concept “passes into abstraction” which means that the child can now demonstrate the skill without the need for concrete materials. Since each “work” must be demonstrated by the child to the Guide (performance assessment), mastery becomes the natural outcome of each “work” performed. This mastery is defined as the mastery of a specific skill relative to its level and applicable materials. Mastery in the traditional sense happens when materials are no longer necessary.
The foundation for most concepts and skills is laid in the Primary years (Children’s House, ages 3-6) which is only the first stage of a spiraling process that takes years to mature. Until the children can think at a high level of abstraction, they depend upon concrete materials offering concrete “proof” and practice over a number of years. They work with the materials and review lessons repeatedly until knowledge of them becomes fully absorbed into their unconscious minds.
Finally, the Montessori curriculum is integrated: concepts are presented across the curriculum. One outcome of this approach is that children have repeated opportunities within different contexts to practice the skills; another is that this approach emphasizes the interconnectedness of disciplines.
TMS uses as its curricular base, the Montessori Scope and Sequence from The Montessori Foundation written by Tim Seldin. This curriculum meets the requirements of the Pennsylvania Academic Standards.
The culture curriculum is a subset of what Maria Montessori called “the Cosmic Curriculum”. In its broadest sense, the study of culture in a Montessori classroom integrates the traditional subjects of science, history, economics, civics and geography. In order to understand why these subjects are taught under the same umbrella, one needs to understand the main concepts of “cosmic education”.
Maria Montessori firmly believed that there was a purpose and an order to the universe. It was a “gift” to mankind to be treasured and protected. Each individual’s “cosmic task” is to render service to and protect the environment on which he/she is dependent for existence. She believed that the work of mankind is not accidental, but fulfills a mission which is the completion of the natural scheme. The purpose of the culture section of the curriculum is to provide children with an awareness of how their world came to be and their place in the continuum that is life.
The main areas of focus in the culture curriculum are the history of the universe, the coming of life, the evolution of plants and animals, the coming of humans and the development of civilizations throughout which geography, botany, zoology and earth sciences are woven and in which mathematics and language had their origins. We begin with “The Beginnings”, sharing different story myths from various world cultures as well as the scientific theories about the origin of our universe. We study the solar system, our planet, the components of our physical world, geology and history, and geography. As we move through history, we begin studies of the five Kingdoms, from the first forms of life on earth (bacteria) to the most complex-celled animals (humans). Botany and zoology are central components of the science studies. We explore basic human needs and how those needs led to the development of language, math and inventions and then to settlements and cultures. As the students progress, the depth and breadth of these studies increase.
In addition to the acquisition of content knowledge, specific skills are developed through culture studies. Geography study helps children develop spatial awareness and orientation skills. Children become aware that at any given time there are people all over the world and not simply in one’s own corner of it. History study builds in the child a clear sense of time passage which is the foundation of a well-developed historical perspective. It makes real to the child the humans of the past and allows for the recognition that they were people just like us in the most basic sense, living in the way humans do with the similar needs and desires. Finally, science allows them to look at phenomena with a curiosity and a theory, then through observation and research to test for validity. This pursuit has merit for children today as they learn to differentiate between theory and fact, and maintain a healthy interest in figuring out how and why things work.
Elementary Art builds on the foundation provided in the Children’s House Practical Life curriculum. Children’s House students display a reasonable control of movement, fine motor skills and eye/hand coordination, having been encouraged to express themselves in artistic ways. These same students have also studied famous artists. Elementary Art instruction seeks to strike a balance between skill instruction and free exploration and to encourage a child’s natural desire for self-expression. It also seeks to build a child’s art vocabulary; awareness of artists and their techniques and knowledge of the various forms of art expression, from architecture to painting to sculpture to computer graphics.
Through artistic adventures children also become aware of and develop a respect for the contributions of the arts and artists to societies and cultures, past and present. They gain a lasting appreciation of art from the dual vantage points of participant and audience. They gain insight into the way that art is a non-verbal method of expressing opinions, perceptions, feeling and history. Finally, they begin to realize the connections between art and their daily lives in areas such as math, nature, cooking and sports. TMS encourages every child to “find and nourish the artist within him/herself”.
The Montessori language arts curriculum is presented to the children from a psycholinguistic perspective. Just as infants and toddlers spontaneously learn to speak, so they have a natural propensity to learn to read and write. As with all Montessori educational practices, early literacy learning is presented from concrete to abstract, in a spiral fashion and at the child’s individual pace.
Listening to stories begins the awareness that spoken words have a written representation; that we read from left to right, top to bottom; that words convey meaning and that there is a structure to our language. Children’s House students begin learning letters by their sound, not by the name of the letter. They move on to forming words with the “moveable alphabet” and then to forming simple sentences, reading these as well as creating them. Only after he/she is able to do this easily does the child begin to write “stories” with a pencil and learn proper letter formation. In the same way, once the child can easily identify/decode simple words and “read” his/her created sentences, he/she jumps into phonetic readers and then into trade books carefully chosen for their literary value. Once decoding becomes facile, the focus changes to developing comprehension and inference skills. At this point, too, children begin to read in many different subject areas.
Learning to write, both creatively and expositionally, is strongly emphasized in Montessori instruction. Through the use of the writing process, a strong grammar and sentence analysis program, spelling instruction and an inquiry-based research curriculum, elementary students are able to express themselves clearly, creatively and correctly in writing. Practical applications in the forms of a published poetry magazine, a self-made book for their Reading Buddies and the Upper El newspaper give the students a reason for writing and taking pride in their work.
Finally, from early on, students begin honing their “public speaking” skills as they explain to other children how to complete a work or share what they are learning. By the lower elementary grades, they begin to deliver oral reports to their peers or to share first drafts of written pieces with their classmates in order to receive helpful feedback. The finale of this process is the written speech that each sixth grader delivers at graduation.
Maria Montessori felt that our whole civilization is based on mathematics. We use math in such diverse areas as architecture, space flight, research, data interpretation, statistical analysis, music, quilting, garden planning and many more. Mathematics leads to the discovery of natural laws and patterns and thus, to the power to control the environment. It has been suggested that human intelligence is naturally mathematical.
Montessori identified a specific “sensitive period” during the years 3-6 for the development of concepts such as quantity, size, counting and measurement. In addition, just as children are beginning to associate sounds with letters and letters with words during these years, they are primed to understand the symbolic nature of numbers. As in all Montessori curriculum areas, mathematics instruction proceeds from concrete to abstract as the children move through the Children’s House years and then through the Elementary years. Montessori’s process employs concrete materials and carefully constructed “works” to aid in the child’s development of an inner picture and awareness of mathematics and mathematical thinking until such time as the child’s developmental level allows each concept to be absorbed into his/her unconscious mind and “pass into abstraction”. At this point, the concrete materials cease to be necessary, and the child now truly has internalized the concept, the “why” of the algorithm. The child’s ability to think at a high level of abstraction rarely fully develops until early adolescence, though; thus, the “highway” leading toward this destination is paved with concrete experiences and extensive practice. Knowledge is displayed through performance and through the child’s ability to explain process and concept. Also consistent during this time are opportunities for children to apply their knowledge to real life tasks. From graphing the daily temperature, to cooking, to computing the height of a tree to measuring the school building, these experiences not only contribute to the understanding of the concept, they also provide a practical reason for its mastery. Finally, consistent with Montessori practice, the child proceeds at his/her own pace through the curriculum.
The Montessori science curriculum seeks to cultivate children’s natural curiosity and to allow them to discover the answers to their “why” questions. As with the other areas of the curriculum, science study concentrates on process, in this case, the scientific process of question, hypothesis, procedure, observation, data analysis and conclusion. The use of this process paves the way for children to think about something that is easily translatable outside the science arena. It teaches them to think before deciding, to use a logical method of discovery or testing and to use data to evaluate results and arrive at a thoughtful conclusion. Einstein said that science isn’t the thing being studied but the way it is being studied. It is the process of discovering reliable information about what is probably true and what is probably not.
Along with process, however, the science curriculum aims to provide each child with a basic knowledge of: zoology, botany, matter, energy, earth science, astronomy, human development and personal health. Firsthand experience with the natural world and with scientific materials and apparatus is a guiding principle. As with other Montessori pursuits, observing and doing are methods of learning, and safety at all times is emphasized. As always, the children use the real scientific materials and learn the proper nomenclature for such things as animal classification, chemical processes, earth forces, botanical components and rock types.
Finally, the Montessori curriculum aims to fill a child with wonder at the complexity and grandeur of the universe, the simplicity of physical laws and the miracle of life in all of its forms. It encourages respect for the world that we have been given and an understanding of our place in the natural order of things. The ultimate goal is the development of an ecological view of life and a feeling of responsibility for the earth.
Elementary Music builds on the foundation provided in the Children’s House Sensorial curriculum. Children’s House students have developed reasonable control of movement, have honed their listening skills and have had experiences in singing, making music and moving to music. In addition, they have been encouraged to express themselves rhythmically and have studied famous composers and musicians. Elementary Music instruction seeks to strike a balance between skill development and free exploration and to encourage a child’s natural desire for self-expression. It also seeks to build a child’s musical vocabulary and awareness of all kinds of musical expression. Music has the potential to develop the intellect and also social skills. Many of the skills involved in music study have been proven to develop cognitive functioning. TMS encourages each child to “find and nourish the artist within him/herself”.
TMS believes that foreign language instruction fits the overall aims of Montessori pedagogy. A crucial aspect of Montessori education involves guiding children to see themselves as members of the fabric of the world through their engagement in intensive geography and culture study. Maria Montessori was quite a peace activist who was convinced that peace could begin with children. Foreign language study is but one way to humanize another culture and extend the process of peace.
In grades 1-3 the aim is to expose the children to the sounds of Spanish in an effort to give them a degree of comfort listening to it, repeating it and speaking it in simple words and sentences. In grades 4-6, we aim to build students’ vocabulary and grammar base such that they can begin to manipulate and use the language. In addition, they begin to read and write Spanish, both in class and at home. In this way they are prepared for more serious study of a language in Middle School.
Elementary physical education builds on the balance and motor skills that were practiced in Children’s House. We seek to build in the children a love for physical activity, a healthy interest in keeping fit and an appreciation of the emotional well being that regular physical activity can provide. In addition, this program aims to help students attain the basic skills of the most common team and individual sports for children. Finally, the elementary physical education program gives children necessary experience with the basic tenets of good sportsmanship. Competition is kept to a healthy level, with team play and cooperation receiving the most emphasis. The program emphasizes physical activity, maintenance of a positive attitude, development of good sportsmanship and movement competency. This happens in an atmosphere of attention to the individual and emphasis on “personal best”. The overarching goal is one of wellness for life.
The Practical Life segment of the Montessori curriculum is unique to this philosophy. Practical Life exercises were designed as crucial components of the overall development of the young child (Toddler through K) in preparation for what is to come. They capitalize on the young child’s “sensitive period” for order, movement, purposeful activity and social relations. Practical Life “works” establish early within the child, the concept of a cycle of activity, the period of concentration needed to complete a task from beginning to end. They allow the child to realize that he/she is part of a community and that his/her actions matter to the functioning of the whole. Children develop self-esteem; inner discipline; confidence; control of movement and the unity of thought, action and will. These outcomes are enhanced through the use of the “real” tools such as glass pitchers, real drills, real pruning shears, etc. Finally, the lessons in grace and courtesy serve to establish a social conscience and an understanding of the functioning of a healthy community. Lessons are varied to meet the needs of the classroom. It is not expected that every work will be offered in every classroom or in exactly the same way. The purpose is not to master these works for their own sake but rather for the developmental benefits they offer. Mastery, therefore, is evaluated on a continuum of child development rather than as the attainment of a specific level of achievement.
The Sensorial segment of the Montessori curriculum is also unique to the philosophy and builds on the Practical Life curriculum. It capitalizes on the young child’s (Toddler through K) “sensitive period” for development and refinement of the senses and development of fine motor skills. Anyone who has ever watched a young child “explore” an object knows how thoroughly this process is carried out. The Sensorial curriculum offers the child this experience in the context of a variety of “works” to be repeated as often as the child desires, building and reinforcing sensory data that will play an important role in what comes next in the child’s development.
Hallmarks of the Sensorial works are as follows:
- Design characteristics of beauty, control of error (works are self-correcting), isolation of stimulus (color, size, shape, etc), order and exactness
- The key concepts to be reinforced are identities, contrasts and gradations
- The materials assist cognitive development from the simple to the complex and the concrete to the abstract
- The materials provide concrete examples of abstract concepts
- What cannot be explained in words, the child learns by experience working with the sensorial materials
- The materials encourage exploration, expression, creativity, ingenuity, concentration, reason and observation skills
- The materials prepare a child for math and language skill acquisition
- They reinforce left to right progression
As with the Practical Life curriculum, lessons are varied to meet the needs of the classroom. It is not expected that every work will be offered in every classroom or in exactly the same way. The purpose is not to master these works for their own sake but rather for the developmental benefits they offer. Mastery, therefore, is evaluated on a continuum of child development rather that as the attainment of a specific level of achievement.
The library and computer rooms of old are gone, replaced by a technologically replete media center. While children can still browse and check out books and while there are still computers to use, the scope of information acquisition has changed dramatically. The mission of the Library/Technology program is to provide resources that support the teachers and the school’s curriculum, develop information skills to ensure that students become effective users of information and ideas, and nurture a lifelong love of reading and learning.