Towards Responsible Independence

Introduction and Definition of Cosmic Education

Dr. Montessori’s own words best describe the method of education in the elementary which she called the Cosmic Plan. To understand cosmic education one has to know Dr. Montessori’s ideas on educating children in the broad field of ecology. In her day this was a new science, the dangers of pollution prompt modern man to study it more closely. Thus the modern child has a greater need for awareness of his natural world and the role man plays in preserving it or destroying it.

“The Cosmic theory recognizes in all creation a unifying plan upon which depend not only the different forms of living beings, but also the evolution of the earth itself. This idea, although it includes the foundation of evolutionary theory, differs upon the causes and finality of the progressive changes of the species. The progress of life through its struggles is not due to change. Life progresses according to a cosmic plan and the purpose of life is not to achieve perfection along an unlimited line of progress but to exercise influence and achieve a definite aim upon the environment.” 1

In her study of the development of man she identified the key period in which the child seeks to understanding his position in society and the world of nature. During this period an important acquisition of culture and intellectual achievement takes place, and under the right conditions the species as a whole benefits. Together the needs of mankind are met by the children of this era. Upon their healthy growth relies the preservation of Nature and the upliftment of culture. It is then keenly important to expose children of this age to a holistic overview so they might develop their role as a healthy and constructive member of society. This Montessori described as each child’s cosmic task, to fulfill his potential in the work of bettering mankind.

“A cosmic task is that which contributes to keeping nature in a harmonious state of purity. Each kind works for the whole and upon the work of each depends the possibility of life for the whole. These cosmic tasks have been widely distributed among all the behavior which urges it irresistibly to some task which is useful for the community.” 2

Dr. Montessori goes on to say in this lecture that man must have a definite part in this contribution to creation. That this cosmic task must be explored and chosen for each individual of the human species is critical to the survival of life, for humans makes more impact then whole species of other living creatures.

All of nature but man is fulfilling its cosmic task as predetermined by instinct and the natural order. Man alone holds will power and imagination enough to go beyond his natural position and live in a “supernatural” environment completely man-made.

This creates a unique responsibility and opportunity for educators. We must now educate for the human potential. We must provide the conditions under which the child can exercise his free will and gain practice in making choices, which is the process of developing the moral character of the man the child will be. The child’s work is to actualize his social awareness and integrate his full personality. Interests are developed but can not be forced, a genuine model must be put forth without imposing the interests or needs of the adult.

Content of Cosmic Education

“In the universal syllabus of studies to which the new generations must apply themselves, all of the items of culture must be concerned as different aspects of the knowledge of the world and the cosmos. Astronomy, geography, geology, biology, physics, chemistry are all but details of the whole. It is their relationship to one another that urges interest from a centre towards its ramifications. The cosmic construction must be the core of the study of history and sociology. How can we appreciate humanity if we do not consider first all of its merits, its creative efforts, its obedience to cosmic laws that have unconsciously urged society towards an effective union that today unites the whole of humanity in one vital aspect?” 3

It is necessary that the child understands that every man is dependent on others and each must make a contribution to the existence of all. Each individual’s adaptation to society takes the highest form in what special contribution he can make to his fellow man. This is no new idea, for Aristotle challenged his students by telling them that: Where the world’s needs and your talents intersect, there lies your vocation. The special content of cosmic education is the means by which children gain an admiration towards their culture. Our goal is to inspire pride and a sense of privilege in belonging to humanity. This sentiment is aroused in the child by showing him the interrelatedness of all things, especially in the world of man. “No object must be made use of without the thought that some unknown man produced it.” 4

Cosmic Education for the Child 6 to 12 Years of Age

Based on observation and the psychological characteristics of the child from 6 to 12 years old, cosmic education appeals to the curiosity of the child. It stimulates his intellect, and provides a context for socialization and moral development. This method goes beyond the senses and gives aid to the imagination. It is appropriate because the timing is right to meet the insatiable need for knowledge on this plane of development.

By using history as the core of cosmic education, the child sees the unfolding of all life from creation to the modern day. He studies the vastness of space as well as a drop of water, finding his position in it. He travels through time with his imagination and walks the sands of ancient Egypt to the mountains of the moon. He’s there when man discovers fire and rolls the first wheel. He studies current events and compares them. All of which brings an understanding of the great order of nature and ecology.

Order is the Base for Cosmic Education

It is in the awareness and study of the intrinsic order of Nature that the child discovers the harmony of interrelatedness. Cosmic education brings this awareness to the child’s attention. He realizes the universal relationship of all things.

” This is a different approach from the one usually found in schools. The idea, as mentioned above, is to try to awaken the imagination of the child, to give it a vision of the order of things. The inner order of the personality must be constructed through experiences in the structured world. Thus the child must have a coherent picture, on the broadest possible scale, of the ambience in which he is growing. Chaos will never stimulate it to real participation.” 5

Outcome of Cosmic Education

The outcome of cosmic education is the safety that the child finds in the knowledge which helps him adapt to society and find a stable place for his own personality within it. By allowing freedom of activity the child activates his sense of independence to the extent that he can look beyond his own needs and see those of others and the world around him. He ponders the cosmic task of all things with enough imagination to explore his part in the universal order . He discovers that knowledge unlocks the keys to the universe and his mind expands. He learns to respect and admire the achievements of others, both around him and in history. All of this leads to a naturally well developed child attune to his culture and the ecology of life.

“The common intelligence we all share has, for all practical purposes, no limits. Man can go on finding new possibilities forever. It is to this common intelligence, a dynamic communal entity that is created by the individual personalities forming the community, that cosmic education is directed. The progress, or lack of it, of the human community is determined by the concerted efforts of the individuals in it. If we merely add to ad hoc happenings and crises, our progress will be poor and our actions will be shortsighted. If we are inspired by vision and creative imagination, our progress can be great and our actions future oriented. Cosmic education seeks to offer the young, at the appropriate sensitive period, the stimulation and help they need to develop their minds, their vision, and their creative power, whatever the level or range of their personal contributions.” 6

Role of the Adult

The adult acts as a dynamic link between the child and specially designed materials and presentations which provide opportunities for him to explore and order knowledge thereby orienting and adapting his personality to the wider world. By allowing freedom of activity and choice within a balanced curriculum the child gains a vision of the vast scope of human knowledge. The adult must be careful to time and guide her charges with respect to their individual needs and interests.

Mario Montessori Jr. warns that “Generally, in elementary education one finds an endeavor to teach facts as clearly as possible, starting with the most simple and elementary and proceeding to the complex and abstract. The students find this boring and must force themselves to learn by an act of will. To arouse their interest they must first be shown the interrelation of all things in the world- the different aspects of knowledge that can be studied, how they can be studied, how they relate to each other or how they come about.” 6

Our task as teachers is to avoid the pitfall of teaching things, and educate the human potential.

Conclusion

Cosmic Education is a preparation for the individual who must live in society. We must be adapted to live, but this can come without conformity, with freedom to make choices. This is only possible with knowledge, and cosmic education is based on helping children realize their human potential.

“It is then not so important what facts one teaches the student, because very often these facts become obsolete by the time they can be used. It is more important to help him to develop his potentialities so that he can rely on his own ability to cope with the unexpected and solve whatever problems crop up. In other words, he must be helped to be independent in his own world and to develop the vision that will help him as an adult to maintain his environment in such a way that the unending, creative, and gigantic cosmic task of man can continue.” 7

References

1. Maria Montessori, (1946) Cosmic Education. Lecture at the First All-Indian Montessori Conference in Pilani, India. Published in The Child, Society and the World, Oxford, England: Clio Press, (1989) p 106

2. Maria Montessori, op. cit. p 107

3. Maria Montessori, op. cit. p 111

4. Maria Montessori, op. cit. p 112

5. Mario M. Montessori, Jr. (1976) Education for Human Development. New York: Schocken. p 103

6. Mario M. Montessori, Jr. op cit. p 106

7. Mario M. Montessori, Jr. op cit.

Middle School Occupations 

When we first moved into the schoolhouse, the middle schoolers immediately began cooking the daily meal, and while it served to feed and nourish the whole community, more importantly it served as one of many “occupations” within the curriculum that led to progressive levels of community involvement and a fuller understanding of civilization and place.

These occupations, at another developmental level in the Montessori school, are better known as the exercises of “Practical Life”. They provide the child with activities that have intelligent purpose and build skills of independence. These activities teach the everyday living skills necessary to do things for oneself and to interact with others in a manner which is socially acceptable. For the younger child they serve to build a bridge from home to school by providing the child with the necessary tools proportioned to his size and the thoughtful means to do work done by adults in the home.

Dr. Montessori recognized that children not only require skills to care for themselves but utilize activity as the means for development. She sought to build into her practical activities movement that is orderly and directed by the mind to an intelligent purpose. While the work the children practice builds their abilities, they also subtly learn to concentrate, sustain their attention for long periods of time, and control and coordinate their movements.

The benefits derived from this productive real work lie in what Montessori termed as “normalization”. This state of activity is characterized by four key observable behaviors:

1) Love of work, a kind of spontaneous enjoyment derived from the work itself

2) Concentration, a special absorption of genuine interest in the activity

3) Self-discipline, demonstrated by a responsible perseverance to completion

4) Sociability, characterized by a harmonious working relationship with others towards a common goal

At all ages these fundamental benefits aid in the healthy development of the personality and have a positive impact on the child’s ability to achieve academically. Yet of equal benefit is the development of the individual’s self esteem and his social relations with his peers.

For adolescents these occupations are the point of engagement in the collective work of the community. Adolescents begin to fuse the heart and the mind, thinking from the heart. The work of the hand, the mind and the heart come together in these occupations. The adolescent comes to know that participation is what makes their community work, that their mission starts here, in this place. So these occupations are not only a source of meaningful work, but is work that can be valued by all the members of the community, work that challenges the mind and the body, work that is recognized as legitimate by the culture, work that has economic validity, work that is made noble by being done with integrity and passion. These occupations provide the means for the adolescent to belong and be valued.

As an occupation, cooking is the ultimate interdisciplinary exercise which builds the bridge between the individual and their community. Cooking for the community provides meaningful practical work that is engaging, experiential and collaborative. It provides challenges that are both social and intellectual. It engages the body in movements that are refined and intelligently directed. It requires a high level of coordination and a sense of timing. It constantly applies skills in mathematics and the sciences, as well as connecting us with our own culture and history.

In these ways the daily meal not only nourishes the body, but serves the collective needs of the whole community. Each student may benefit from the activities that lead up to the meal, but the coming together of the community for a common meal strengthens us all each day.

Paul Raymond

The Mathematical Mind

Introduction to Mathematics

Mathematics is the study of relationships as formulated by the abstract mind. Certain logical patterns emerge and provide avenues of learning.

The origins of mathematics began long ago, when humans bound together, and with a unity of communal effort they invented new ways to relate to the environment and meet their fundamental needs. Humans’ earliest efforts came in the measurement of the earth. The advent of agriculture brought this earth measurement into the accumulated science of geometry. Concrete numbers emerged out of this new science of the relationships of shapes in space. The power of concrete numeration inspired man to invent arithmetic, with operations of numbers and with symbols. This new arithmetic came in handy as commerce and trade became a part of human culture.

With a deeper understanding of the laws of arithmetic, algebra was created. As early as 1650 BC an unknown writer set out to create a handbook of everyday mathematics that would be useful for merchants for purposes of business, paying taxes and measuring things. This is our first known record of algebra. Algebra is the science of treating the properties of numbers by means of general symbols. The use of the variable came into being with this new avenue of mathematics.

Higher levels of geometry were also attained by the early Greeks as they expressed number relationships in geometrical form. The human mind, free to contemplate, went beyond the physical world and took relationships of form and numbers to a science called analytical geometry.

Set theory is also a branch of mathematics which studies the interrelationships of sets of objects. Calculus looks at the infinitesimally small and the relationships of the unseen. Finally, statistics is the study of frequency and probabilities.

A Human Tendency

Dr. Montessori realized that the work of the child in ordering perceptions differed greatly than other creatures because only the human had the power to order and abstract. Unless man could imagine and make abstractions, he would not be intelligent; or his intelligence would be like that of higher animals, that is to say, it would be rigid and restricted to some particular form of behavior, and this would prevent its expansion.

The mind of the human makes inferences extracted from the physical world around them but these impressions generalize in the mind then go beyond physical reality. The process of the intellect creates abstractions based on inference. This action is the mathematical mind at work, creating concepts beyond reality and ordering them into relationships. These perceptions are the true work of mathematics, to stimulate the imagination to create order from abstract thought. The communal wealth of each human’s ideas in the ordering of relationships of abstract thought create the science of mathematics.

This formal thinking that we call mathematics is not the only form it takes. A great unconscious power is at work in the developing child which aids him in adapting to his world. The child must order his own impressions into relationships to create the construction of his personality. This informal mathematics is the work of the unconscious mind in classifying, categorizing perceptual impressions. What Dr. Montessori discovered was that young children have a mind that is mathematical in its approach to ordering perceptions. She called this aspect of the human the mathematical mind.

The Role of Language

The outward manifestation of this inner work is the child’s ability to classify his experiences with language. The myriad of impressions absorbed by the child are only that, unless he can sort and classify these with a special abstract tool that only man was given, the tools of language. These then are the final abstractions of real experience. This allows the child to share in the communal process of accumulated knowledge, for without language man would have no base for passing on his learning. The child utilizes the inner powers of imagination and abstraction to put the final ordering on perception and materialize it with language. These two powers of the mind (imagination and abstraction), which go beyond the simple perception of things actually present, play a mutual part in the construction of the mind’s content. … For words, if they are to be utilized and enrich the language , must be capable of taking their place in the ground work of sounds and grammatical order. And what happens in the construction of language happens in the construction of the mind.

The Role of Imagination

The power of the mind to imagine takes man beyond the real experience and provides the ability to abstract and change experience to meet his needs. With imagination man can take the orderly and exact perceptions in his mind as a starting point and utilize them to create something new. This ability to interrelate isolated perceptions and manipulate them into new constructs is the true power of the mathematical mind.

The true basis of knowledge is the real experience which the mind configures with the imagination. The imagination uses real experience to alter impressions to develop possibilities beyond reality.

The Role of Reasoning

The power of reasoning utilizes abstractions through imagination and generalizes them, allowing the mind to go beyond simple conclusions to complex relationships. Reasoning and imagination work together, for imagination without it is idle fantasy unconnected to the real world. The exercise of intelligence, reasoning within sharply defined limits, and distinguishing one thing from another, prepares a cement for imaginative constructions; because these are the more beautiful the more closely they are united in form, and the more logical they are in the association of individual images. The fancy that exaggerates and invents coarsely does not put the child on the right road. 3 Reasoning draws upon the mathematical mind’s ability to order perceptions and utilizes the imagination to take the impressions beyond the real experience. Yet the key aspect of the reasoning mind is the ability to ground this imaginative configuration by relating it to other real experience, distinguishing it from fantasy, and giving it the substance of intelligence.

  • Number itself cannot be defined and understand
  • The concept of number grows from experience with real objects but eventually they become abstract ideas.
  • It is one of the most abstract concepts that the human mind has encountered. No physical aspects of objects can ever suggest the idea of number. The ability to count, to compute, and to use numerical relationships are among the most significant among human achievements.
  • The concept of number is not the contribution of a single individual but is the product of a gradual, social evolution. The number system which has been created over thousands of years is an abstract invention. It began with the realization of one and then more than one. It is marvelous to see the readiness of the child’s understanding of this same concept.
  • Arithmetic deals with shape, space, numbers, and their relationships and attributes by the use of numbers and symbols. It is a study of the science of pattern and includes patterns of all kinds, such as numerical patterns, abstract patterns, patterns of shape and motion.
  • Little children are naturally attracted to the science of number. Mathematics, like language, is the product of the human intellect.
  • The concepts covered in the Primary class are numeration, the decimal system, computation, the arithmetic tables, whole numbers, fractions, and positive numbers.
  • Arithmetic is the science of computing using positive real numbers. It is specifically the process of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The materials of the Primary Montessori classroom also present sensorial experiences in geometry and algebra.

Mathematics in the Children’s House

The mathematical mind plays a key role in the preparation of the environment in the Children’s House. Experiences are structured to appeal to the child’s natural urges to explore with his perceptions the immediate world of the here and now. Sensorial activities provide the opportunity to hone discrimination and appeal to the mathematical mind in their orderly isolation of sense experiences. This builds impressions which provide the grist for language to develop and express the abstractions of the physical properties the child has generalized from his experiences. As the child masters language he is able to manipulate symbols, and discovers the process of writing. This leads him to early understandings of the mechanics of reading.

In his mathematical exposure he comes on the quantities and symbols of base ten, and learns the operations of these. He explores the decimal system and the regular progressions of math facts necessary to accomplish arithmetic.

In all this work in the Children’s House there is a benefit for the mathematical mind. From the sequential activities of practical life, the seriated and graded activities of sensorial, through the exploration of the mechanics of reading and writing, to the early work in geometry and arithmetic, the Children’s House experience lays a mathematical foundation for the elementary child.

The key to this benefit lies in what Dr. Montessori called “materialized abstractions”. Her concrete materials presented relationships for higher thinking later in life by creating impressions for abstraction. She saw that the child used his hands as the tools of the mind, and provided for this natural activity in a systematic way. From spontaneous individual work the child gains what formal education could never teach later, the physical manipulation of abstract concepts.

Elementary Mathematics

  • No longer the perceptual explorer, the elementary child still needs to explore with his hands and his senses the concepts of mathematics.
  • He explores with a reasoning mind and discovers mathematical implications.
  • The powers of imagination and the vigor of the age allow the elementary student to engage in “great works”, where he integrates concepts on a wider scale then ever before.
  • He discovers that abstractions are shared imaginations growing from human history.
  • His perceptual experiences with Montessori materials build the basis for more materialized abstractions in the elementary. He learns to draw conclusions from simple to complex relationships.
  • These processes in the elementary help the child to infer, abstract, relate and recognize theorems.
  • Through repetition and variety the child internalizes concepts and develops a growing ability to represent them in abstract work.

Conclusion

Montessori stresses the importance of manipulating materials to discover answers, rather than merely memorizing math techniques. How much richer to arrange colored strips on a board to see the sum of two addends, instead of reading a flash card!  It is fundamentally different to use your hands to compare fractional pieces, instead of just learning rules for comparing numbers.  Who among us really understood why it worked to invert the second number when dividing fractions? Our children do!

There are several reasons that Montessori math materials promote optimal psychological development.  First, multi-sensory learning allows students to use various parts of their brains to learn.   Hands-on manipulations encourage active, discovery learning. Second, materials encourage children to work together, and these collaborations involve lots of discussion and rationalization.  Third, Montessori students learn to strive for accuracy because the materials provide feedback.  They see their math work as puzzles to be solved, instead of assignments to be corrected.  Finally, Montessori math materials are elegantly designed to use geometric relationships to show algebraic ones.

Montessori math constitutes superb brain-based learning. Robert Sylvester (A Biological Brain in a Cultural Classroom) states, “It is not the number of neurons itself that determines our mental characteristics; it is how they are connected;” and Eric Jensen (Teaching with the Brain in Mind), “The key to getting smarter is growing more synaptic connections between brain cells and not losing existing connections…The single best way to grow a better brain is through challenging  problem solving.”  Michael explained that unused connections are pruned, so the neurological rule is, “Use it or lose it.”  All of this suggests that the best way to learn is to engage all the lobes of cerebrum, activating visual and auditory memory, along with controlled movement and problem-solving.  Activities that cross hemispheres force interactions of logic and creativity.

Parents need to “trust the benefits of Montessori mathematics and support the school, the teachers and your child.” Parents need to be dissuaded from “helping” their children by teaching number tricks or doing lots of drills, because those short cuts can short circuit deeper learning.  We ask that parents avoid judging their child’s mathematics progress only by standardized test scores or the ability to answer correctly when quizzed.  We advocate for our children’s mathematical “heart and soul.”

The Montessori Way – From Consumption of Knowledge to Construction of Meaning

In traditional schools teachers and text books too often fail to use meaningful contexts for imparting new information. Children sometimes learn without understanding how their learning applies to anything besides the school test. Many curricula use isolated “hands-on” activities and trivialized “school-type” word problems. The next day’s activity might be unrelated or, even if related, fail to support progressive development. Failure to transfer from a particular school context to other contexts has been described as an almost universal phenomenon;

Students who are capable of performing symbolic operations in a classroom context, demonstrating “mastery” of a certain subject matter, often fail to map the results of the symbolic operations they have performed to the systems that have been described symbolically. They fail to connect their formal symbol manipulation procedures with the “real-world” objects represented by the symbols constitutes a dramatic failure of instruction.

Schoefeld, A.H. (1988) When good teaching leads to bad results: The disasters of “well-taught” mathematics courses. Educational Psychologist, 55(1)

Directed knowledge that is structured and systematically imparted by a teacher or a textbook is very different then knowledge discovered through exploration or inferred from constructs or models use to question and examine available information. Therein lies the rub, consumption of knowledge may not transfer to construction of meaning. While learning basic facts is important, learning without understanding is inert, resulting in an inability to apply knowledge, even in the classroom setting.

Rather than learn what the teacher or the text says, children in a Montessori school construct meaning from experiential learning activities. The Montessori learning materials are designed explicitly to create context for children by linking ideas to what they know and helping children see the meaning. The Montessori materials engage the children constantly in their own learning, allowing each to learn — and to understand — by doing. There is time for process, and the fixing of one’s attention on a key experience that engages a unique concentration and promotes the necessary repetition to imprint the experience within the intellect. In this way knowledge is learned with enthusiasm and guided through hands-on experience. Inspiration and motivation is intrinsic in the educational process.

Children in Montessori schools learn largely by doing. Rather than merely hearing and writing, their learning is situated in the context of actions and objects. They learn through the actual, practical experience with a subject rather than just its mere theoretical parts. The learning materials designed for the youngest are applicable in advanced learning right through to Middle School. Embedded in their design is a passage from the explicit and concrete to the abstract and applicable. The process of schematizing, structuring, and modeling concepts with concrete learning materials makes abstraction not only possible, but resulting with depth of understanding.

Montessori education makes meaningful connections between ideas and applications, and has real value in making learning both understandable and lasting. Ultimately it is all about promoting curiosity and making learning exciting because of the inherent utility that capitalize on the students’ prior learning. You can give them a fish or teach them to fish.

And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but by virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.

Maria Montessori

The Montessori Way – From Teacher Centered to Student Centered

As the Greek philosopher Sophocles observed in the fifth century B.C. “One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try.”

In the “Teacher-Centered” conventional approach, the child is a passive learner. The teacher has a dominant, active role in classroom activity and typically the child is a submissive participant. The teacher controls what the students learn and at what pace they learn.

In the “Child-Centered” Montessori Way the teacher has an unobtrusive role in classroom activity; the child is the active participant in learning. Teachers focus less on what they do and more on what the student does. By observing the children’s activity teachers are aware of how motivated the student is and how much time and energy the student devotes to the learning process. Instruction, both individual and group, is personalized to each student’s learning style.

Dr. Montessori believed that “the hands are the tools of the mind” and created an approach to learning which engages each child in the two-fold process of purposeful activity and intellectual development. In Education for a New World, Dr. Montessori recognized that,

” Mind and movement are two parts of a single cycle; and movement is the superior expression. Scientific observation shows that intelligence is developed through movement; …”

In this age of educational accountability there is an ever-increasing parent population who measure school success by test scores and advanced placement. This has been answered by a growing trend in conventional schools toward reallocating time in school to focus more academic subjects. This inherently means more time indoors, more time passive without physical activity, and less emphasis placed on a healthy amount of movement and experiential learning.

In schools across the nation homework has increased, curriculums have become more rigid, there are widespread cutbacks in physical education and sports programs and even recess has become a thing of the past. Recess always served as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. Outdoor time offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. The importance is so great that the American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.

The Gender Impact – Boys Behind, Girls Ahead

We have aligned the conventional educational system to emphasize the natural skills of girls and reduced the aspects of that education which capitalized on the skills of boys. These differences are more non-cognitive skills like attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently. Girls tend to develop certain skills earlier than boys, like the ability to sit still and stay attentive. Our traditional school day now demands that students do just that — sit for long periods of time and listen attentively — or else suffer a lower grade or disciplinary action. In elementary-school classrooms, where teachers increasingly put an emphasis on language and a premium on sitting quietly and speaking in turn, the mismatch between boys and school can become painfully obvious. The result is girls are outperforming boys at all levels of the educational ladder, from kindergarten to graduate school.

The gender impact is borne out in the statistics. Women today are more likely than men to complete college and attend graduate school, and make up nearly half of the country’s total workforce. Between 2009 and 2013 women, ages 24 and up, earned four-year degrees 64 percent faster than men. More shocking is that, also in that five-year window, the number of professional and graduate degree-holders grew 120 percent faster for women, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That increase also can be seen in professional degree programs – women now account for almost half of students in law, medical and business administration graduate programs. During the 1960s, women accounted for about 10 percent of students in those programs.

Michael Gurian, author of The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and in Life, and many other authors and educational experts proclaim that we have a crisis in the education of boys in this country. Gurian’s book presents statistics that boys get the majority of D’s and F’s in most schools, create 90 percent of the discipline problems, are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD and be medicated, account for three out of four children diagnosed learning disabilities, become 80 percent of the high school dropouts, and now make up less than 45 percent of the college population.

“Girl behavior becomes the gold standard,” says Raising Cain coauthor Michael Thompson. “Boys are treated like defective girls.” These new pressures are undermining the strengths and underscoring the limitations of what psychologists call the “boy brain”, the kinetic, disorganized, maddening and sometimes brilliant behaviors that scientists now believe are not learned but hard-wired.

All Children Thrive When Engaged in Interactive Learning

William Pollack, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School stresses that changing teaching methods to accommodate boys does not mean hindering girls. Girls, he says, often enjoy the same hands-on activities. “We have the data about learning-style differences and behavior-style differences,” he says. “This is not a win-lose circumstance. It’s not teachers against parents, parents against schools, boys against girls. It’s a win-win. We recognize what we now know and use it.” 

He could easily be making a case for the method of teaching at a Montessori School. 

In the last two decades, the education system has become obsessed with a quantifiable and narrowly defined kind of academic success, experts say, and that myopic view is harming boys. Boys are biologically, developmentally and psychologically different from girls and teachers need to learn how to bring out the best in every one.

Our first born is a girl, relatively calm, consistent and at times contemplative. Our boy, on the other hand, is a bundle of kinetic energy who jumps from one thing to another effortlessly. I am a member of a growing body of parents that are concerned that boys are being forced to fit a failing approach to education that is better suited to girls.

In Montessori schools the children learn through interaction in the environment, learning environments that Dr. Montessori designed as “scientifically planned and methodically formed”. The teacher is a guide, and a part of the learning environment. The materials are not visual aids for the teacher, but rather tools for the students. In this same book cited above and written in 1946, Dr. Montessori was both prophetic and insightful, even for today. She said that activity in schools: … must form part of education, especially today, when people seldom walk but go in cars or vehicles of some sort, so that there is a tendency to paralysis and sloth. Life may not be cut in two, moving the limbs for sport, and then the mind for reading. Life must be one whole, especially at an early age, when the child is constructing himself.

The Montessori Way – From Knowing to Doing

Daniel Pink, author of the hugely popular best seller, A Whole New Mind, and Drive , boldly states, “Gone is the age of ‘left-brain’ dominance. The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers—creative and empathic ‘right-brain’ thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.”

In a world of instant content and rapidly changing information, the confines of discreet subject matter are blurred and lateral and integral knowledge is needed. It no longer matters what you know, what matters is what you do with what you know. The model for success in the 21st century is an aware global citizen, with good people skills, but most importantly, one who is able to manage new sources of information well to find the answers.

Have technological changes altered the intrinsic nature of the child? Who are today’s children? They are the one’s coming of age who have made the adaptation to the information and communication technology world of today. They have already made the shift from the one-way broadcast media that you and I grew up with (print, radio, television) that reflect the values of the producer to a new age interactive media that gives control to all users, and that is the very heart of the new generation.

Our kids have grown up with the internet. They spend time online, not as passive watchers but active participators. Whether its gaming, social networking or texting they are a generation who watches less television then their parents, treating it more like background, while simultaneously interacting through several different devices, listening to music, virtual chatting, doing homework, eating, and looking at a graphic novel. With their reflexes tuned to speed and in personal control they are right at home with the brisk and accelerated pace of technological change. From this platform they are in a unique position to impact modern society, replacing a culture of conformity with a culture of innovation.

The Montessori Way has always avoided the one-size-fits-all Industrial Age model. While core subjects at most schools in the United States continue to emphasize the memorization of large amounts of discrete and often isolated information, the Montessori Way has always stressed interdisciplinary study that connects content and consciously identifies the relationships between subject matter.

Emphasis on isolated and limited subject matter has long been driven by the emphasis on testing to determine performance. It is far easier to test what you know than what you create. A more authentic and personalized assessment in the Montessori classroom broadens students choices in the projects they pursue and the ways they demonstrate their learning. The emphasis in evaluation is on what you do.

Today’s schools are still severely limited in the response modes for the students. They are defined by structured classroom discussion, specific assignments, and tests based on content and not discovery. The Montessori Way allows students to take control of the decisions in how learning takes place. There are varied pathways to instructional goals. These new routes are intended to be more efficient and avoid barriers to success. The Montessori Way uses specially designed, concrete materials to constantly engage the children in their own learning, allowing each to learn — and to understand — by doing.

Even in the best schools knowledge is defined on learning objectives that only allow the use of pre-set methods and materials. These may be realized in a syllabus, a textbook, curriculum guides, or increasingly, online learning modules. In The Montessori Way, learning takes place by an original and personal process of discovery. Children are able to choose their own work, direct their own progress, set their own learning pace to internalize information, and seek help from other children and adults when they need it.

Education for a new world can ironically be found in an innovative education approach invented by Maria Montessori in the 20th century. It’s a school where kids know what to work on and kids are showing kids how to master difficult skills. It’s a place where instruction, both individual and group, is personalized to each student’s learning style. It’s a place where satisfaction comes from doing, and doing is learning. It’s a place where teacher is more mentor and guide then “sage on the stage”. It’s our place, a Montessori School.

Cursive First : The Montessori Approach

“Must one begin with strokes? The logical answer is “No.” These require too much effort on the part of the child to make them. If he is to begin with the stroke, it should be the easiest thing to execute. But, if we note carefully, a straight stroke is the most difficult to make. Only an accomplished writer can fill out a page with regular strokes, whereas a person who is only moderately proficient can cover a page with presentable  writing.”

– Dr. Maria Montessori, ‘The Discovery of the Child’, Clio Press Ltd, 193

Cursive handwriting was always the form taught by Dr Montessori because it was the script that adults communicated with in her day. When the tools for writing were pointed nibs affixed to the end of sticks and feathers cut to become quill pens, the cursive advantage was actually a necessity. These tools produced blotches instead of strokes when a little downward pressure was applied. Cursive shapes were produced by sliding the pen sideways. Our cursive alphabets were an ingenious design allowing us to take advantage of the writing tools of the time.

Writing with an ink pen took a certain degree of physical skill to form the letters neatly. The invention of the pencil changed things dramatically. Inkwells, blotters and nib pens disappeared and the effort for physical skill development was pretty much forgotten as teachers discovered that the pencil allowed kids to function with little physical training.

Prior to the 1940’s virtually all children in public and private schools were taught cursive in the first grade and virtually all learned to write very well. By the 1940’s, the preference for cursive slipped away, along with the physical skill for fluency, as penmanship training was slowly eliminated from the school curriculum.

There were, however, many benefits for cursive penmanship that were lost, not the least of which is the movements of cursive writing are more natural and easy to form. The hardest movements for the hand to make are a perfect circle and a perfectly vertically line. These are the components that make up printed script. Dr Montessori chose lower case cursive because the gentle curved lines are an extension of the natural movement of the child’s hand.

By requiring students to learn the ball-and-stick formation of letters first, we create obstacles to the development of a good cursive script. I believe that ball-and-stick handwriting approach has produced a huge handwriting challenge for our children. When schools finally get around to teaching cursive in 3rd grade it is too late.

Writing habits are so fixed that the children resent having to learn an entirely new way of writing. The 3rd grade teachers do not have the time to supervise the development of a good cursive script, and the students are usually unwilling to take the time and do the practice needed to develop a proficient cursive handwriting. The result is that many youngsters continue to print for the rest of their lives or develop a hybrid handwriting style consisting of a mixture of print and cursive.

The Cursive Advantage

✴ Cursive writing eliminates the necessity of picking up a pencil and deciding where to replace it after each letter. This continuous motion is related to all cursive letters except for the letters t and x, which require the child to remove his pencil from the paper twice. Even with these two letters the writing process does not involve relocating any given point to complete the letter.

✴ Cursive consists of only three movements: the undercurve, the overcurve, and the up and down.

✴ Each letter starts on the line, thus eliminating a potentially confusing decision for the writer.

✴ Cursive also has very few reversible letters, a typical source of trouble for young children learning to write. In cursive there is a big difference between a b and a d. In cursive writing a b starts like an l while a d begins like writing the letter a. In cursive handwriting children do not confuse b’s and d’s, because the movements of the hand make it impossible to confuse the two letters.

✴ The knowledge acquired by the hand is transferred to the reading process. Thus, learning to write cursive helps learning to read print, especially regarding letter recognition and avoiding letter reversals.

✴ Cursive handwriting eliminates word-spacing problems and gives words a flow and rhythm that enhances the writing and reading process.

✴ Children who learn to read cursive words first make a very quick transition to reading print. The cursive handwriting process offers a means of informing the child that certain parts form a whole. The blending of the sounds is made more apparent by the joining of the letters.

✴ Cursive helps the child learn to spell correctly since the hand acquires knowledge of spelling patterns through hand movements that are used again and again in spelling.

✴ Most children have an innate curiosity about all forms of lettering and an enjoyment in puzzling out the unusual alphabetical signs that are presented in cursive letter formation.

✴ Starting with cursive eliminates the traumatic transition from manuscript to cursive writing.

The Ball and Stick Disadvantage

✴ It is difficult, if not unnatural, for children to draw straight lines and perfect circles, which is required in ball-and-stick letter formation.

✴ When printing the letter A the child must use three different motions as well as relocate the starting point of the printed letter in order to complete it. In cursive writing the A can be formed in one continuous motion. When writing the printed alphabet, A to Z, one researcher found that the child has to remove his pencil from the paper and relocate the starting points no less than 55 times.

✴ When taught to print first, the writing instrument is held straight up with three or four fingers in a tight grip with great pressure being exerted downward on the paper placed in a straight position. When these children are then taught cursive in the third grade, they do not change the way they hold the writing instrument because a motor or muscular habit has been established that is not easy to alter. This is why so many children develop poor pencil grips.

✴ Print letters do not offer a means of informing the child that certain parts form a whole. The blending of the sounds is not made apparent by the joining of the letters.

✴ In ball-and-stick, some children write the letters backwards, and often the spacing is so erratic that you can’t tell where one word ends and another begins.

✴ Manuscript does not teach spatial discipline and makes it more difficult for the child to see each word as an integral unit.

✴ When writing ball-and-stick so many letters look alike (such as b’s and d’s; f’s and t‘s; g’s, q’s, and p’s ) that children become confused and make many reversals. This also promotes unnecessary reading errors based on poor letter recognition.

 

The Differences Between Cursive and Print

There is more to the actual difference between print and cursive then what most people think – joining versus not joining.

The difference between cursive and print styles lies in the movements used to create the forms, known in the lexicon as start-point and directionality. The difference is in the production process. When choosing between print and cursive the decision is not just a simple choice of letter shape. It is a decision to promote good writing process and fluency. We want our child to be able to use handwriting as a tool – put thoughts on paper quickly and easily. Cursive is the handwriting process that works the best.

By giving attention to fluency through cursive handwriting, we provide a means for allowing children to not only learn how to draw letters more easily, but also develop reading skills, bring awareness to spelling patterns and provide physical training in penmanship that lasts a lifetime.

The Montessori Strategy for Teaching Concentration

The Montessori classroom activities for early childhood are designed to promote purposeful engagement, where the child is completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The benefits include increased focus and more energy, release from boredom and anxiety, and a path of self-direction to find new challenges and build new skills in order to find purposeful engagement again. The results are what Montessori termed “normalization”, a condition of freedom in which the child makes constructive choices and develops deep concentration and true engagement in the learning process.

“Now it is evident that the mind cannot concentrate except upon an object worthy of such an effort. It must contain the means of learning in the most rational way. A faulty or useless object could never attract the lively intellectual interest of the child. “

Montessori, Maria (1915) The Organization of Intellectual Work in School, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the National Education Association of the United States Annual Meeting, Volume 53, 1915

” The didactic material plays a most important part in this development. These objects are presented to the child; they are graded according to their difficulty, and correspond to the psychic needs of the child. And that is the reason they attract the child’s attention so strongly as to make him delight in his work and incite in him a marked power of concentration.”

Montessori, Maria (1915) The Organization of Intellectual Work in School, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the National Education Association of the United States Annual Meeting, Volume 53, 1915

Dr. Montessori recognized that the “means for development” needed to go beyond toys or games, the youngest children were attracted to real life experiences and were drawn to activities that engaged their senses. She went about designing and implementing purposeful and constructive activity in these two key areas. She then observed the impact of these experiences and how they benefited the intellectual development for the youngest children. In her earliest schools she saw that the impact of building engagement through practical skills and sense training ultimately advanced early academic outcomes.

She discovered that young children have a keen interest in practical activities that they see adults doing, notably the child wants “to do house, not play house”. She set about creating developmentally appropriate tools and activities that allowed the child to not just imitate the work of adults in the home but really do meaningful practical work. We call these activities “Practical Life”.

Dr. Montessori designed a curriculum around building attention, focus and concentration. These activities are ingeniously contrived to engage the child in sustained and purposeful activity that focuses mental activity, builds concentration and develops attention to detail. The results are what Montessori termed “normalization”, a condition that includes spontaneous discipline, concentration, and engagement.

” This interest, therefore, guides us in constructing in a perfect manner the means of learning and in obtaining that which in the regular schools would be called “the maximum efficiency of study.” It is only by a method which, in giving intellectual learning, concentrates the inner powers, that one observes the direct influence of the learning upon the character and the moral qualities.

In order that concentration may come about, it is necessary that the child should have at his disposal means of development which he is free to use—that is, it is necessary to organize intellectual work for him.

Only “normalized” children, aided by their environment, show in their subsequent development those wonderful powers that we describe: spontaneous discipline, continuous and happy work, social sentiments of help and sympathy for others….

Its principal feature never changes. It is “application to work.” An interesting piece of work, freely chosen, which has the virtue of inducing concentration rather than fatigue, adds to the child’s energies and mental capacities and leads him to self-mastery.”

Montessori, Maria (1915) The Organization of Intellectual Work in School, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the National Education Association of the United States Annual Meeting, Volume 53, 1915

In a modern definition of these same necessary skills in early childhood, scientists refer to these capacities as executive function and self-regulation—a set of skills that relies on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Children aren’t born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them. The Montessori learning approach provides concrete learning experiences that the young brain needs to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

The Montessori learning activities are designed to contain the essential features for training executive functioning and building concentration:

  1. Thoughtfully conceived to have clear and distinct steps, that while challenging, are still attainable by the child without assistance from an adult.
  2. Devised to engage the child with focused attention and sustained concentration.
  3. The motivation for the work comes from within and is rewarding in and of itself.
  4. Chosen because the child wants to do the purposeful work that they see adults do, but are unable due to the size of the tools or the lack of time in a child-centered environment to engage without interruption.
  5. This purposeful “work” creates feelings of satisfaction that lead to a sense of peace and purpose that is unique and very different then “play”.
  6. The work fascinates and the child becomes so absorbed in the process that they  lose the sense of time passing in the deep engagement of the work.
  7. The planning of the activity and its steps controlled through design by the adult offer immediate feedback throughout the process which controls the error on the part of the child and helps them develop skills of self-correction.

Unique in early childhood programs is a focus in he Montessori classroom on practical skills (Practical Life) and the development of the senses (Sensorial). This may appear at first to be counterintuitive in education, yet experience shows enormous benefits and reveals the distinctive impact that these activities have in comparison to the more open-ended pretend play activities in conventional early childhood programs.

Children learn to concentrate in Montessori classrooms. It is a phenomenon that startled Dr. Montessori in her original schools and continues to fascinate adults today. The levels of deep concentration attained in Montessori classrooms synchronizes well with modern research in cognitive psychology. The state of complete immersion in an activity that includes spontaneous discipline, concentration, and engagement is associated with high levels of creativity and optimal performance in a wide variety of activities

Academic success requires the ability for deep engagement in the learning process. This engagement is a combination of motivation, concentration, interest, and enjoyment derived from the process of learning itself.  The Montessori learning environment focuses all it’s attention on promoting the ideal conditions for the youngest to have the time, means and scope for this deep engagement.

Paul Raymond