Brocha and I never get tired of telling the story. Of how we met, how we first collaborated, and how it all took off from there. It was August of 2017 and I got a call from a dear friend, Khurram, the owner of Alisons Montessori. He had received a call from Brocha Baum, the owner and head of school for Darchei Noam Montessori near Baltimore. Could I help her with launching a new elementary program? Work with her new teachers? Support a new Montessori classroom? “She’s good people. Help her if you possibly can”. I thought ahead to what the Fall had in store for me by way of obligations and felt that I could probably manage a trip down from Maine sometime in October, and said, “Sure, give her my contact information and we’ll go from there”. In the ensuing conversation, I quickly learned two things: one, Brocha wanted someone to come down over Labor Day weekend (!) , and two, it saves a lot of time if you just agree with what she needs to get done in the first place. Brocha must mean “relentless energy towards a goal” in Hebrew. Consulting turned into workshops, turned into in-house teacher-training, turned into a full-blown course with 12+ adult learners coming from five different Montessori programs three years later. Mazel Tov!
While I never had illusions of creating a best seller, I wanted to write a book that was useful, meaningful, enjoyable, and accessible. I think I accomplished that based on reader reviews and was happy to see that sales have gone over 1250 copies sold. Big thanks for everyone that bought the book and gratitude for all the kind words!
Cosmic education can generally be described as the unifying element in the Montessori pedagogy. Simply stated, it avers that all things are interdependent, that humans have a role in the universe, and that each of us have a “cosmic task.” Cosmic education states, grandly, that a human developmental process underlies all growth and, further that education has a role to play in this development. It is the overarching theme of a Montessori classroom, a concept that is unique to the pedagogy, and the thread that holds the fabric of a Montessori experience together. It is a belief that theoretical structures, in all areas of study, should find practical use within our classrooms.
Cosmic education has four main aims. The first is to lead to the development of a whole human being. Academic achievement is not the only goal; rather, the goal is the realization of each child’s natural potential. Learning involves the physical and emotional being, not just the intellect. The second aim is the formation of several types of relationships. These include the relationship between the child and the universe, a sense of marvel and respect for the vast scale of things, and an appreciation of the dignity of all things; the relationship between the child and the processes of life, creating a sense of the process of growth, an understanding of the role of cycles, and the perception of death as a continuation of natural law; and the relationship between the child and humanity, a realization of common needs, a celebration of diversity of culture, and the perception of oneself as a reflection of one’s own culture. The third aim is the realization of responsibility, to all life, to the human species (through family, community, country, and society), and to self, through movement and reflection. Lastly, cosmic education endeavors to create a sense of independent action in the child, teaching him or her to take but give in return, to share willingly and with compassion, and to appreciate conscious and unconscious service.
And how is this implemented? A Montessori education leads children from the whole to the specific, displays the positive aspects of culture and history, employs concrete activities in the curriculum that lead to abstract concepts, uses impressionistic elements and emotions in lessons, and challenges students with ideas, while still providing reflective space towards the process.
Cosmic education, then, is not a singular area of study but rather a connective web that unifies the curriculum, providing both respect and responsibility to the child throughout the school years.
The term “three-period lesson” can refer to two aspects of Montessori pedagogy. Directly, it refers to the basic structure of a Montessori lesson, with each period corresponding to a section of the presentation. In short, the three periods are often illustrated as follows: “This is…” (first period), “Show me…” (second period), and “What is…?” (third period). A Lower Elementary teacher, for example, in giving a lesson on types of triangles, may present three different wooden triangles: a scalene, an isosceles, and an equilateral triangle. The first period of the lesson would consist of the giving of information and nomenclature. “This is a scalene triangle. All of its sides are of different lengths. This is an isosceles triangle. Two of its sides are the same, and one is different. This is an equilateral triangle; all of its sides are equal.” The second period gives the child a reference point. “Show me the equilateral triangle. Show me the scalene triangle. Show me the triangle with three different sides. Show me the triangle whose name means ‘same sides.’” The third period of the lesson removes that reference. “What is this? Which is this one?”
We can take the concept of the three-period lesson a bit further. We can identify experiences and activities that are giving information as the first period, activities that allow the children to work with the concept as the second period, and the presentation of work as the third period. In traditional classrooms, emphasis is placed on the first and third periods. “Here are the names and dates. In two weeks you will have a test and be asked to give back these names and dates.” Seen in this expanded view, we can see that the vast majority of work in a Montessori classroom is much more meaningful second-period work, such as the activities of children working with the materials, finding similar concepts in the environment, making small booklets, creating timelines, or determining the areas of rugs in the classroom. The child ultimately arrives at “third-period” comprehension, but it is a more profound, internalized understanding.
I think cousins are underrated. We devote entire days to mothers and fathers. Hallmark would have us also do the same for grandmothers and grandfathers, though honestly, did that ever really catch on? Has anyone or anyone you know ever received or sent a Happy Grandparents Day card? I didn’t think so. Our children are told that “every day is children’s day” but they know a crock when they hear it, but we do celebrate them on their birthdays in any number of lovely and/or over-the-top ways. Where’s the love for cousins?
Last week I got to spend a few days with my cousin Lori and her wonderful husband Lou in downtown Philly. As trips like these are wont to evolve there were “mini-events”, a dinner here, a photo album sesh there, a group photo at the beer garden, a chance to catch up, but also reminisce. To tell stories of our growing kids’ childhoods and relate stories of our own. It’s special with cousins because you have a shared personal history – “I remember once when you came to the Cape…”, “Your mom always made the best…”. More than a few “I’ll never forgets…” and “Did I ever tell you….”. But you also have a shared family history. We can look at a sepia and coffee-stained photo of my grandfather standing in front of a farmhouse in 1900’s Europe and that’s your grandfather too! A shared history that dates back decades, centuries, millenia.
Anyway, as much as the time spent with Uncle Freddie and poring over a family tree with Aunt Doris is treasured, and how dear it was to have dinner with cousins Mariann and share a pint with Al and Joe, it was such a treat to have time to just hang out over coffee with Lori during the in-betweens. Lori’s a bit ahead of me when it comes to grandchildren with three, so she has experiences I’ve yet to had, namely playing this new role. It seems to be glorious, a time to re-kindle that visceral love we can really only feel for our children. But at the same time, there was an acknowledgement that what parenting looked like 50 years ago for our moms and dads, 25 years ago when it was our responsibility, and today has changed. Grandparents tread carefully with advice, and I would guess that’s no different than ever. Same as it always was. I told Lori one of my favorite articles over the last few years was entitled, “I’ll Tell Grandma You Don’t Like Chicken” (though ten Google Search pages is yielding no results) which highlighted the misguided efforts some parents undertake to make sure their children are never put in a position that’s outside their comfort zone. I think at this point the term “helicopter parenting” is cliche and being replaced by newer terms such as “lawn mower parenting” (the removal of obstacles in front of your child) which will be passe next month. Lori relayed a story of a day-care center she had heard of that sent live updates to parents of what the child had consumed for food and drink during their day. “Four ounces milk, half-slice cheese, three maybe four, no definitely three Cheezits, etc…” Note: I am not making this up. I was curious to know if there was a concomitant diaper-change livestream but was afraid to ask. But even as these shenanigans may point to the nadir of bad parenting, supported by indulgent day-care centers, there are encouraging signs of growth. I hear the term “resilient children” trending more and more. Raising a strong and capable person who reacts to a setback with grit and determination, not a nervous glance for an adult is emerging as a priority. When the conversation turned to the best environment to support those more positive attributes, Montessori was of course our final destination. For well over a century now, our environments have had as their prime directive the development of children to adulthood. A classroom that holds the dignity of the child in highest regard and consequently puts strength and grace as a centerpiece, not a special “unit” taught over a few days, but inherent and daily; it’s baked into what we provide. It’s a form of trust in the end, isn’t it? Our own confidence in our students, in our children, that given the opportunity, these qualities will emerge naturally.
Certainly the conversations I have during the Admissions process at the Cornerstone School increasingly include more and more questions about independence and self-reliance and how those qualities can be nurtured at home and at school. The hype of how bad parents are “these days” is just that. We’ll move on. The kids are all right.
I spent time the last few weeks presenting geometry in Bluffton, South Carolina, using the same materials I’ve presented to teachers in different parts of the world over the last few decades. From public charter schools in the Low Country, to a village in Ghana where pencils are shared, in Indonesia, Korea, Shanghai.
To say that this all impressed upon me the universality of Montessori would be an understatement. And so I’ve spent some time thinking about what it is about this method of education that is so adaptable across time, over a hundred years, and space. I think part of the answer is that at its core, Montessori is a reflection of humanity’s most essential components.
It is rooted in movement. We see this clearly in the materials and the nature of the environments. Ours is a dynamic space. Movement is engaged, both gross motor, as works are chosen and replaced, and fine motor, exchanging one stamp for ten, one bead for ten, forming quadrilaterals from triangles. “Children”, Montessori reminds us, “learn through their hands”. Movement is also rooted in our humanity. When we need to express our deepest emotions, are words ever adequate? What conveys comfort better than an embrace? What communicates affection more clearly than the stroke of a cheek? We are born to movement. Our first breath is movement. Movement makes us human.
It is rooted in imagination. Our children place a thousand stamp and see, in their mind’s eye, a thousand cube. A piece of string becomes a line that never ends, moving to infinity in either direction. Globes become worlds. Look around you, for worse but mostly for the better, everything we have created as humans was created through imagination. Montessori likened us to Robinson Crusoe, wresting material from the Earth to meet our needs, using our greatest tool, our imagination. It is what moves us forward with hope, envisioning a future better than the present, better than our past. “If there is to be change in the world”, Montessori reminds us, “it will begin with children.”
It is rooted in love. There is no greater lesson in a Montessori classroom than the value of compassion. The care of our environment comes from a love of order. The care of each other comes from our love of community. We could even say that the child’s inner drive to refine, to learn, to grow, is derived from love, because isn’t self-respect and esteem a loving and caring process of our future self?
And we have all chosen to make this our life’s work. Now think of the circumstances that have led to this moment. My parents, one from Germany, the other from America, had to meet for me to be born, and their parents and their parents parents and so on, from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Austria, Germany. We are all, then at the apex of a great triangle. The circumstances and events that led to this moment, repeated for all of us, then gives us the idea, not of a triangle, of a great cone, stretching out behind this moment, and focused right here, right now. If we look ahead, doesn’t the same shape appear to us? The events in our lives, planned and unplanned, woven with others, expand out away from us as will our descendants. A cone behind, cone ahead. That’s what makes these weeks, our work, in each passing moment, so important.
One of the strongest associations many people make with Maria Montessori is her development of hands-on learning materials. These are perhaps the most recognizable and prominent component of the “prepared environment,” and they represent a powerful instrument of the pedagogy. The phrase “Montessori materials” refers to the beautiful hands-on manipulatives on the shelves of our classrooms. And while early educational theorists had developed didactic learning materials, it was Maria Montessori who realized and implemented their use with the greatest insight and success.
If you have heard your child talk about the Pink Tower, the Stamp Game, the Checkerboard, or the Trinomial Cube, these are all examples of Montessori materials. Likewise, puzzle maps, pin maps, grammar boxes, sentence analysis layouts, the Geometry Cabinet, and the Pegboard are Montessori materials. Specifically in Primary classrooms, your child is referring to the Metal Inset work (a material for the development and refinement of the hand), not what is sometimes misheard as the “Metal Insect” work!
Montessori materials have two main characteristics we can identify. First, the material represents an “isolation of difficulty.” Simply put, the material does not attempt too much. For example, the Knobbed Cylinder material teaches discrimination of shape and size by using circumference and depth, but each set shows only one dimension. The second characteristic is the “control of error.” An important aspect of the Montessori pedagogy is its support of independence in the child. By designing materials that are self-correcting, the work becomes more exploratory and more meaningful to the student. The use of bead chains, which are series of bead bars, each with the same number of beads, strung together, with corresponding arrows to label the multiples, illustrates this aspect. If a child mistakenly lays out a “48” label in the wrong position on the 8-chain, the error will eventually reveal itself, as only the multiples of 8 are present in the work.
Maria Montessori used the phrase “sensitive periods” to describe the child’s development within each plane. A sensitive period refers to a time when a child is especially in tune, especially ready, especially compelled to work on activities that satisfy the need of that developmental stage. It is temporary and, if missed, cannot be reacquired. A commonly understood example we can use to illustrate this concept is the acquisition of language. A child in the first plane of development is “wired” to acquire language in much the same way that a plant is “wired” to send out roots or begin to form a bloom. A child who is not provided an environment that supports this sensitive period for speech and communication will have a much more difficult task in attempting to acquire these skills at a later age. In the same way, Montessori identified 11 separate sensitive periods. When we speak of children being “inner directed,” it is to these sensitive periods, a term borrowed from botany, to which we refer. Starting in the first plane of development, they include a sensitivity to movement, music, grace, courtesy, and order. During the second plane of development, from 6 to 12 years of age, the child develops a sensitive period for the use of imagination, for acquisition of culture, and for a strong sense of the social realm. There also exists a strong motivation for the learning of facts and nomenclature, as well as a sensitive period for the study of morality, right and wrong, and justice. A child in the third plane of development, from 12 to 18 years of age, is in a sensitive period for tremendous abstract thought, for delving into great detail on specific topics, for thinking in global terms, and for taking on adult roles.
If you are a Montessori parent, teacher or administrator, you are a part of the community at arguably the best time in its 100 plus history. There were two significant periods of growth that came previously. The first, in the 1920’s was largely sensationalized, “Montessori Children Read at Age Two!! sort of thing. You may have heard that at the World’s Fair in California back then, there was a model working classroom WITH CHILDREN enclosed in glass, that visitors could walk past or stop and gawk at. If this is sounding “zoo-like”- creepy to you, I agree completely. Montessori ran afoul of some of the educational establishment, who perhaps were not ready for a woman, and Italian woman no less, to tell them how to change the current pedagogy in use. That she was confident to the point of some arrogance was probably of little help. A thirty or so lull of significant innovation in American education followed. A second wave of interest emerged in the 1960’s and 70’s, when educators and parents experimented with alternative education, and non-traditional schools, and Montessori rode this wave. In fact there are many Montessori schools who are now celebrating their 40th and 50th year anniversaries, dating their establishment back to that time period. It is a THIRD wave, that has now propelled Montessori to its arguably greatest impact. The growth of Montessori since THIS turn of the century involves the convergence of two movements, one directly related and a second that capitalized on the first.
The first was the emergence was research, meaning real research. For many years there did not appear to be any pressing need to “prove” the efficacy of Montessori. Parents sent their children to a Montessori school and they, the children, that is, were happy and seemed to be learning. That’s all the proof they needed. Later, when research WAS done, it was done by Montessorians themselves, admirably, and with integrity, but which, by any measure, is just bad statistical science. But as we moved into the late 1990’s, an increasing number of studies began to appear, initiated by people, who, pardon me, actually knew what they were doing and had no bias, conscious or not.
At the same time this research was being done, and reported on, the emergence of social media made it easy to disseminate and share these studies, and reactions to studies. Made it easier for major media outlets to pick them up, and led to the creation of specific websites and social media groups devoted to Montessori research. AMS has a section devoted to research on their website. Montessori Research Interest Group, Kansas University Center for Montessori Research, and the Journal of Montessori Education and Research are all groups that have 10,000 members between them. It seems that every month there is a new study, there is new research.
Those studies and that research are now a mouse-click away. And what does it show? That children that go to Montessori schools are, wait for it, happy and seem to be learning. I know, right? But seriously, the overwhelming and growing body of evidence suggests that the Montessori pedagogy is a very effective manner of education. Studies show children in Montessori environments have as good as if not better outcomes in both academic and non-academic domains. Non-academic domains including executive function, focus, creativity, and yes, happiness, or at least satisfaction during and after the school day.
Specifically, longitudinal studies performed in Connecticut, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida showed a marked improvement for children on Language, Math, Executive Function and Behavior, Social Skills, Creativity
The creativity piece was replicated in a study done in France, showing Montessori classrooms led to increased abilities and imagination in such activities as story-telling, drawing, and toy improvement.
Further, there are studies that compare two Montessori environments one being “Classic” Montessori and one being “Supplemented”. The amount of child-use and availability of Montessori materials was used as an index of Montessori fidelity. In these studies, while children gained in both environments, those children in classic Montessori classrooms, and we could probably substitute the word “pure” or “traditional Montessori” here, made greater gains than “supplemented” in terms of executive function, reading, math, vocabulary, social, and problem-solving. Removing the supplementary materials, or the non-Montessori materials, improved student growth, especially in early reading and executive function. There were no differences, we should note, in vocabulary or social knowledge.
And of course last year, a seminal study was done in South Carolina. I say “of course” because I’m hoping that it was publicized enough for you to have heard of it. And seminal because it was a large “mega” study, a compilation of many studies, and so it carried more weight. It showed that, and I’m quoting from an article:
“Montessori public school students exhibited significantly more achievement growth on state standardized tests than demographically similar non-Montessori students in math, English language arts (ELA), and social studies. The results for science were mixed, as Montessori students demonstrated significantly less growth than non-Montessori students in one year (2013-14) and significantly more growth in another year (2015-16).”
Ginny Riga, a Montessori consultant for the S.C. Department of Education who contributed to the study, stated, “The Montessori method pulls together many solid classroom strategies, all guided by the Montessori philosophy of how children develop and learn. This method stands out among other education approaches by combining multi-age classes, a hands-on curriculum and individualized learning, making the classroom ‘success oriented’ for all students.”
As I mentioned before, the benefits of Montessori extend beyond academic achievement, as Montessori students also demonstrated better school attendance and behavior. Montessori students generally perform similar to or better than non-Montessori students on assessments of executive function, which encompasses abilities such as emotional control, planning and organization, and self-monitoring. The concept of “mastery orientation” is an interesting one. This refers to the tendency for children in Montessori classrooms to gain confidence through the successful completion of a task, repeatedly so, which leads to a difference in how they perceive themselves in a classroom. In short, the spiraling effect that we note in good students…. “The success I feel in one area gives me more confidence to attempt work in another”, and so on…. occurs with more frequency, just by the nature of our environments. As in the French study, Montessori students demonstrated significantly higher levels of creativity than non-Montessori students. Also, notable in this study, were results that indicated even in historically predictable factors in disparity, low-income, non-advantaged demographic groups, students were still performing well, in some cases, showing greater levels of improvement than their advantaged peers. So, in summary, children in Montessori environments show an increase in academic achievement, mastery orientation, social cognition, and school enjoyment.
It will also come as no surprise, at least I hope so, the researchers also surveyed Montessori teachers, public Montessori teachers, and found that they largely loved their jobs and planned on staying in them. I think we’ve always posited that Montessori schools experience less attrition amongst their faculty, at least anecdotally, but it’s nice to see that actually shown to be true. That level of satisfaction is important, for all of us in administration, because Montessori is an education model that appears to be good for students and teachers, and this helps retain talent.
Another class of research also supports aspects of Montessori environments that are shown to be effective in other environments. I would strongly recommend Paula Polk Lilliard book, “The Science Behind the Genius” for any teacher or administrator looking for data to support a family’s choice to enroll at your school. For instance, having a level of choice in your work, certainly a foundation in Montessori, facilitates learning regardless of your situation. Likewise, the use of manipulative materials and the spatial organization of a body of work, is efficacious to learning and also an accurate way of describing a Montessori classroom. Peer teaching, collaborative learning, learning in context, the list goes on and on. These are elements that are most beneficial to learning, that all happen to converge in a Montessori school.
Toddler and Primary environments serve the first plane of development, the Lower and Upper Elementary classrooms serve the second plane of development, and the Junior Class marks the beginning of adolescence and the third plane of development. The accuracy in this description is apparent if we look at the greater difference between Primary and Lower Elementary students or between Upper Elementary and Junior students. Conversely, the difference between Lower and Upper Elementary classrooms is much smaller.
Further, Montessori described the planes in broader terms. A strong sense of order marks the first plane. We certainly see this reflected in both the children’s activities (sorting, lining up objects, and differentiating items) and the curriculum (sensorial materials and practical life). The second plane is marked as an explosion into the social realm. The methodical 5-year-old morphs into the rambunctious 6-year-old. The Upper and Lower Elementary classrooms meet this need with more group work, more collaboration, and more opportunity for social interaction. The third plane in many ways mirrors the first, as an egocentric phase that is given to tremendous brain growth. Junior students are looking towards adulthood, and their classroom gives them every opportunity to try on new adult roles.
Central to Maria Montessori’s view of an educational system that is child centered and developmental by definition, the planes of development put a structure of common characteristics and tendencies around human growth from birth to 24 years of age. Thus, Montessori observed that children appeared to change into new individuals about every 6 years. She reasoned that if the child developed anew, then it followed that the learning environment and the adults’ approach should also change. She stressed two points. First, if the child reached his or her full potential in the present plane, this created a firm foundation for the successive plane. Second, if the child did NOT realize his or her full development in one plane, he or she would still move into the next plane, but without the requisite academic and social skills. The first plane of development encompasses the years from birth to 6 years of age. Children from 6 to 12 years of age are in the second plane of development. Early adolescence to young adulthood (12 to 18 years old) is identified as the third plane of development. Finally, the 6 years between the ages of 18 and 24 constitute the fourth plane of development. In general terms, Montessori noted that the first and third planes are periods of tremendous transformation and construction, while the second and fourth planes are years of stabilization and strengthening. Each plane is also divided into two subplanes, each of 3 years in length.
Montessori schools are constructed and organized to support the kind of growth and learning that occurs within these developmental planes and subplanes. Toddler and Primary classrooms (first plane) share many like materials, lessons, and emphases, while still being distinct environments. The Elementary classrooms (second plane) represent a large change from the Primary years. While there are also significant differences between the subplanes of Lower and Upper Elementary classrooms, they are fewer and less salient. The Junior Class represents the first 2 years of the third plane of development and is another big jump. Knowing your child’s developmental plane is an important step in understanding his or her needs and setting appropriate expectations.