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The Montessori Developmental Continuum

My vision of the future is no longer people taking exams and proceeding then on that certification . . . but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher [one], by means of their own activity through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual.
~ Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence ~

Introduction

Montessori education is a flow experience; it builds on the continuing self-construction of the child—daily, weekly, yearly—for the duration of the program. Although Montessori schools are divided into multi-age classrooms—parent infant (ages 0 to 3), preschool (ages 3 to 6), lower and upper elementary (ages 6 to 9 and 9 to 12), and middle school (ages 12 to 14)—the prepared environments introduce an uninterrupted series of learning passages, a continuum.

The prepared environments described in this section, along with their physical dimensions, desired outcomes, and documented results, carefully reflect the natural learning characteristics of the child at each stage of development. In Maria Montessori’s metaphorical language, “the successive levels of education must conform to the successive personalities of the child.”

The prepared environments and the role of the teacher in the classroom distinguish Montessori from other educational approaches. For example, independent activity constitutes about 80% of the work while teacher-directed activity accounts for the remaining 20%. The reverse percentages are generally true for traditional education. The special environments enable children to perform various tasks which induce thinking about relationships. The prepared environment also offers practical occasions for introducing social relationships through free interaction. The logical, sequential nature of the environment provides orderly structures that guide discovery: Theorems are discovered, not presented; spelling rules are derived through recognition of patterns, not merely memorized. Every aspect of the curriculum involves creative invention and careful, thoughtful analysis. In viewing learning outcomes at each Montessori level, it must be emphasized that why and how students arrive at what they know is just as important as what they know.

The Montessori Preschool Program

The Montessori preschool classroom is a “living room” for children. Children choose their work from among the self-correcting materials displayed on open shelves, and they work in specific work areas. Over a period of time, the children develop into a “normalized community,” working with high concentration and few interruptions. Normalization is the process whereby a child moves from being undisciplined to self-disciplined, from disordered to ordered, from distracted to focused, through work in the environment. The process occurs though repeated work with materials that captivate the child’s attention. For some children this inner change may take place quite suddenly, leading to deep concentration. In the Montessori preschool, academic competency is a means to an end, and the manipulatives are viewed as “materials for development.”

In the Montessori preschool, five distinct areas constitute the prepared environment:

Practical Life enhances the development of task organization and cognitive order through care of self, care of the environment, exercises of grace and courtesy, and coordination of physical movement.

The Sensorial Area enables the child to order, classify, and describe sensory impressions in relation to length, width, temperature, mass, color, pitch, etc.

Mathematics makes use of manipulative materials to enable the child to internalize concepts of number, symbol, sequence, operations, and memorization of basic facts.

Language arts includes oral language development, written expression, reading, the study of grammar, creative dramatics, and children’s literature. Basic skills in writing and reading are developed through the use of sandpaper letters, alphabet cut-outs, and various presentations allowing children to link sounds and letter symbols effortlessly and to express their thoughts through writing.

Cultural activities expose the child to basics in geography, history, and life sciences. Music, art, and movement education are part of the integrated cultural curriculum.

The preschool environment unifies the psycho-social, physical, and academic functioning of the child. Its important task is to provide students with an early and general foundation that includes a positive attitude toward school, inner security and a sense of order, pride in the physical environment, abiding curiosity, a habit of concentration, habits of initiative and persistence, the ability to make decisions, self-discipline, and a sense of responsibility to other members of the class, school, and community. This foundation will enable them to acquire more specialized knowledge and skills throughout their school career.

The Montessori Elementary Program

The elementary program offers a continuum built on the preschool experience. The environment reflects a new stage of development and offers the following:

Integration of the arts, sciences, geography, history, and language that evokes the native imagination and abstraction of the elementary child.

Presentation of knowledge as part of a large-scale narrative that unfolds the origins of the earth, life, human communities, and modern history, always in the context of the wholeness of life.

Presentation of the formal scientific language of zoology, botany, anthropology, geography, geology, etc., exposing the child to accurate, organized information and respecting the child’s intelligence and interests.

The use of timelines, pictures, charts, and other visual aids to provide a linguistic and visual overview of the first principles of each discipline.

A mathematics curriculum presented with concrete materials that simultaneously reveal arithmetic, geometric, and algebraic correlations.

Montessori-trained adults who are “enlightened generalists” (teachers who are able to integrate the teaching of all subjects, not as isolated disciplines, but as part of a whole intellectual tradition).

Emphasis on open-ended research and in-depth study using primary and secondary sources (no textbooks or worksheets) as well as other materials.

“Going out” to make use of community resources beyond the four walls of the classroom.

As in the preschool, the Montessori materials are a means to an end. They are intended to evoke the imagination, to aid abstraction, to generate a world view about the human task and purpose. The child works within a philosophical system asking questions about the origins of the universe, the nature of life, people and their differences, and so on. On a factual basis, interdisciplinary studies combine geological, biological, and anthropological science in the study of natural history and world ecology.

The program is made up of connective narratives that provide an inspiring overview as the organizing, integrating “Great Lessons.” Great Lessons span the history of the universe from the big bang theory of the origin of the solar system, earth, and life forms to the emergence of human cultures and the rise of civilization. Aided by impressionistic charts and timelines, the child’s study of detail in reference to the Great Lessons leads to awe and respect for the totality of knowledge.

Studies are integrated not only in terms of subject matter but in terms of moral learning as well, resulting in appreciation and respect for life, moral empathy, and a fundamental belief in progress, the contribution of the individual, the universality of the human condition, and the meaning of true justice.

The Montessori Middle School Program

Unlike the other Montessori age levels, there is at present no international consensus defining Montessori secondary education. What follows is a composite of the programs of several existing Montessori middle schools.

Middle school ushers in a new level of independence which must be provided for in the Montessori environment by increasing activity from the point of view of work level, choices, and planning. In the middle school, the Great Lessons, timelines, and charts are replaced with overviews of general sequences of learning for which the student becomes responsible in the context of an integrated whole. Within this overview, the student has open time to collaborate on both self-initiated and instructor-initiated projects. Open time allows for individualized instruction, a natural pace for absorption of material presented for both mastery and emotional understanding, unlimited depth of pursuit based on student interest, and release time to study art, science, music, business, and other topics students choose.

The general premise for the adolescent program is that it must bring into consciousness the moral and world view of the elementary years. Philosophical ideas related to natural history and cultural history now come into play. Great Lessons evolve into great ideas derived from a serious approach to the humanities. For example, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” may be tied to a specific part of American history, but this ideal also has a life in the history of philosophy and literature.

Consistent with the moral relationships stressed in the elementary program, the adolescent can make great cognitive leaps while integrating ideas and values in conjunction with current events, home life, or community activities.

Service programs such as working in a soup kitchen, farming as a community venture, and apprenticeships or mentorships in the workplace are part of an advancing “going out” that gives the adolescent a combined vocational and liberal arts curriculum with a particular emphasis on economic enterprise.

Adolescent programs characteristically have discrete spaces for specialized activities: photo lab, science lab, stage, art room, and lesson rooms all adjacent to open space that unifies the siderooms.

The following curriculum areas are offered in the Montessori middle school:

Social sciences, science, and geography: The child integrates history utilizing themes from earlier studies in natural and cultural history, including interdependency, evolution, life cycles, matter and energy, behavior and culture, mental health, physical health, agriculture, government, manufacturing, communication, world systems, earth preservation, and so on, in the context of social responsibility and governance. Primary readings from each historical period are emphasized.

Language arts: The child develops confidence in self-expression utilizing the seminar, oral presentation, debates, drama, video, photography, essays, play-writing, poetry, and short stories; explores related accounts of historical and philosophical material through literature utilizing components of style, genre, characterization, interpretation, and the art of discussion.

Second language and grammar: The child revisits grammar through the study of a second language and reviews complex sentences and paragraph structure in English.

Mathematics: The child uses higher-order thinking skills to solve problems in relation to a variety of challenges, from practical money transactions to algebraic relationships; explores in-depth numbers, properties, simple equations, higher measurement, computer calculation and graphics, geometric proofs, and algebraic equations.

Practical management: The child manages reality-based operations in economic enterprises including agriculture, fund-raisers, travel, volunteerism and service, apprenticeship, and computer programming.

Fine arts: The child utilizes a discipline-based arts education plan which presents individual artistic areas of painting, acting, singing, composing, photography, dance, and sculpture, and includes a general education for aesthetic literacy which integrates the arts with other academic endeavors.

Farming (optional): The child engages in elements of farming as an economic enterprise through the care of plants and animals, the maintenance of simple machines, the understanding of land use, and the operations of accounting, sales, personnel records, and working relations in ongoing projects.

Content courtesy of the North American Montessori Teachers’ Association.
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