A Sense of Purpose
Montessori education arose from its namesake’s detailed observations of children at different stages of their development. Its essence is to create an environment that allows children to exercise, to the fullest extent possible, those strengths and interests most prominent at each particular stage of life. The Montessori teacher guides and inspires children to experience the rich environment of the classroom, which had been specially designed and prepared, to encourage self-directed learning.
The Peace Montessori School elementary program is based on developmental needs common to 6 to 12 year old children and is also highly individualized. Our goal is to help the child become an independent, inquiring, and confident person. We see each child as a whole person, not a vessel into which we pour measured amounts of knowledge. By working to understand and support the developmental characteristics of the age level and the unique personality of each child, we follow Dr. Maria Montessori’s plea to “follow the child.”
One consequence of this attitude is a curriculum that is open-ended and essentially creative. Children work with concepts they have learned by developing their own projects, both large and small, rather than by feeding back the information in test and workbook style. Children who work at school with autonomy and dignity usually learn with more significant and long-lasting results than children who work primarily to meet the daily demands of an external system. It is the comment of almost every observer of Montessori elementary programs that the children seem especially busy and productive, despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of external rewards and punishments so popular now in most schools. Since the teacher knows each child well and keeps detailed records of their work, testing is rare. Test taking is taught as a skill, but is not a means by which children regularly “prove” their teaming to others.
Our curriculum for the elementary child–Dr. Montessori called it a “Cosmic Education”– emphasizes the interconnectedness of the many things children observe and learn. It avoids, as much as possible, artificial division of knowledge and experience into distinct pigeonholes. Connections that excite the child, stimulate his imagination, and give him a sense that he already knows a great deal and can easily master new topics. The Montessori child feels that it is all accessible to him, this infinite, fascinating world of things and ideas. Above all, he is not dependent upon a teacher to give him all the information; he learns both the habit and methods of finding out more on his own.
The Montessori elementary curriculum helps children appreciate the wonder and beauty of the natural world and also the historic accomplishments of mankind. From this, they develop a sense of their place in the Universe, their responsibility, and their potential to enhance both the natural and cultural environments in which they live. Their studies of nature and Man emphasize the tremendous diversity that abounds in the world which is nonetheless united by certain profound principles and relationships. This framework not only offers a key to understanding complex subjects, but it leads to an attitude of tolerance and respect.
In Harmony with the Child’s Needs and Tendencies
The characteristics of elementary age children are, of course, very different from those of the preschool child. These characteristics invite approaches that are very different from and yet consistent with that used in the Montessori preschool. The elementary teacher introduces an area of study with a presentation of key information or material and then guides the children while they develop individual or small group projects to explore varied facets of the subject. Unlike the preschool children-whose need is to experience, order, name and classify the immediate world around them through the use of their senses – elementary children are driven most strongly by an innate curiosity directed at the much larger world, which includes their universe, culture and community. They stretch to imagine the nearly unimaginably big, and the extremely ancient. Their curiosity is directed not just at the basic facts, but also to the “why” and the “how.” Their explorations are aided by their fresh powers of reason and imagination. Elementary work frequently involves research, discussion, large-scale projects, or simply imagining and reflecting.
Dr. Montessori wrote that at this age, “the closed school can no longer be sufficient” for the children. We thus incorporate the experience of “going out” as a regular occurrence for the children. Their preparation in the practical requirements of going out–whether it is a simple walk to gather seeds or an excursion to the art museum–is an important consideration in the classroom.
In the Montessori elementary classroom, the children are given opportunities to learn to set their own goals, budget their own time, and appraise their own results. They become “self-starters” and work more because of interest and enthusiasm rather than external incentives and sanctions. The expectations that society (e.g., the State of North Carolina) holds for their academic achievement are, nevertheless, of natural interest to the elementary-age child. They very much want to belong, to begin to participate in society’s rules, so we let them know what is required of children their age. Experience teaches us patience and respect for individual differences in learning, but there are occasional cases where a child has not acquired a certain necessary skill or knowledge of which he is capable. We then enlist that child’s cooperation in a planned effort to catch up as quickly as possible to the recognized standard. The fact is, however, that most children in Montessori are well ahead of the basic public school requirements after several years. This fact is substantiated by Montessori school standardized test results.