When Dr. Montessori began developing the elementary curriculum, she knew it had to be vastly different from the work of younger children. Not only were the academic skills to be more challenging, but the manner in which content was to be delivered shouldn’t be the same. This was because she understood that in the second plane of development (ages 6-12), children’s needs are very different from the needs of their younger selves.
She coined the term cosmic education to describe the work done in the elementary years. Around age 6, a child’s scope of vision tends to expand beyond themselves. Social connections are suddenly far more important, they develop vivid imaginations, and they become curious about their world, their universe, and how they fit into the big picture. Our task is to provide a framework in which they can explore those areas.
One way we tap into the wonder of the elementary mind is via what we call the Great Lessons. The five Great Lessons are not synonymous with cosmic education, but rather they are a springboard from which the work can begin. These lessons are dramatic and impressionistic. They open doors in the child’s imagination from which a wide scope of learning can begin.
These five lessons are given each year, although some schools may divide them between lower and upper elementary levels. Over the course of three years in a classroom, a child will receive a lesson three times, with a different level of deepening understanding each time. The weeks and months that follow will include many related lessons, though these may vary from year to year in order to cover a range of topics and student interests.
The Beginning/The Creation of the Universe
Typically given near the beginning of the school year, this lesson is a delight for children. The guide prepares materials while the children are elsewhere: a long series of “experiments” and other props that will be used during the telling of the story. The blinds are drawn, lights turned off, and perhaps there is some soft music playing as the students arrive and take their seats facing the guide.
The story begins with a description of the time before our universe began: how it was colder and darker than we can even imagine, and how in an instant [a black balloon filled with glitter and confetti is popped] it came into being. A soft candle is lit, and the guide launches into storytelling about how different particles came together and moved apart. They talk about the immense number of stars in our universe, states of matter, how quickly light travels, and how the solar system and the surface of the Earth formed over time. The lesson culminates with the explosion of a model volcano and setting the stage for the life that was to come in Earth’s future.
Follow-up lessons and work are often related to the study of space, chemistry, physics, geology, and geography. The lesson is also a great prequel to teaching children about the scientific method and how to conduct experiments.
The Coming of Life
A bit later in the school year, the children will begin to learn about the evolution of life on Earth. Two materials: the Long Black Strip and the Clock of Eras give children a visual idea of the amount of time Earth has been in existence compared to how long humans (and other living beings) have been here. It’s often shocking for children (and adults!) to see a long black strip of fabric (Earth’s lifespan) running the length of a long hallway, with a tiny strip of white at one end to represent all of humanity. These types of lessons are humbling to children, and they begin to give them a sense of connection to those that have come before us.
The main event of this great lesson, however, is the Timeline of Life. This gorgeous, colorful, illustrated material shows children just how life has evolved throughout history. From early one-celled organisms to the first plants, and invertebrates, through the various vertebrates throughout time, children in the elementary years adore this work. They learn about how fossils are our records of the past, and how our understanding of the past changes with each new discovery. (The Timeline of Life has been revised several times!)
Follow-up work includes plenty of biology content. Children learn about the five kingdoms of life on Earth. They take a close look at the five classes of vertebrates, their external features, and internal body functions. They learn about the biology of plants as well, from algae and mosses to flowering and fruiting plants, and so many more.
The Coming of Humans
This lesson includes a beautiful timeline as well that displays dates and evidence of our evolution from the earliest hominids to the present day. Children learn about what makes humans special, and how our ability to think, feel, and work has let us make developments that are unique to our species. They learn about the migration humans have made across the globe and how we have used various tools and technologies to make our lives easier.
Montessori guides introduce children to the concept of the fundamental needs of humans. We discuss what those needs are and how we meet them today. One material allows children to explore how these same needs have been met by various civilizations throughout history. Learning about our past as a species is important for children in the second plane of development. It helps them develop a sense of self and a sense of belonging in the bigger picture.
The History of Mathematics
Simply put, children are fascinated to learn about the origins of math and numbers. This focus allows them to take a peek at how math has transformed over time, and to learn which people have made significant contributions to our mathematical understanding.
This comes at a perfect time, as they are simultaneously learning the foundational math skills that will take them through the rest of their lives. When a child is working on their subtraction problems and they are able to relate it back to the beginnings of subtraction, the work is so much more meaningful and exciting for them.
The History of Language
Similar to the previous lesson, the history of language gives children a framework in which they might place their own learning of language. By this time in their lives, they have mastered the oral language, but they are still very much engaged in the development of their own reading and writing skills. To learn about the origins of such things is empowering and fascinating, and makes their work more special than it otherwise would be.
We hope this has been an interesting topic to read about. If you have any questions or would like to observe in our elementary program to see cosmic education at work, please let us know! We think you will find the experience enlightening and rewarding.