Children experience a profound intellectual change around the time they turn 6, a change that accompanies the great changes that take place in their body. Their ‘milk’ teeth drop away and are replaced by permanent teeth, their body proportions change, their hair grows rougher. The scars that brought tears and a cry for mummy are now war wounds to be paraded before friends. Their relationship with the world starts to shift too: their mind begins to replace their senses as their tool of engagement. It is an extraordinary shift that marks a new stage in the development of the human being.
A new educational approach
This ‘new child’ requires a new educational approach. They still need the love and nurturing that they experienced in the younger communities, but the scale and scope of their environment must now match the explosion that is taking place in their mind, an explosion that can only be compared to that first great explosion – the Big Bang. The parallel runs deeper – the Montessori Elementary curriculum is characterised by a vision of what is known as ‘Cosmic Education’. The single central idea of this vision is that all things in the Universe are connected, and that the appreciation of the relationship between all things is what fuels the child’s desire to acquire knowledge.
And so facts are never presented in isolation, and subjects are not contained within silos. Instead, the 5 Great Lessons (The Story of the Beginning of the Universe, The Story of the Coming of Life, The Story of the Coming of Humans, The Story of Communication Through Signs, The Story of Numbers) are dramatised stories, performances even, that run through the thread of the Montessori Elementary, and which give each child the gift of a framework for all the knowledge they will ever acquire. And within this framework, each child is invited to investigate the details that are of interest to them, always relating them back to the whole. Each child pursues their own individual journey of discovery and exploration, mirroring their individual journeys in the Children’s House below, but now on an abstract plane, the plane of thought, that great architect of human civilization.
School as ‘basecamp’ for individual exploration
Just as children between birth to six had an extraordinary capacity to learn any language and to acquire the customs and ways of being of their people, children between six to twelve have an extraordinary capacity to master large bodies of information. The Montessori Elementary harnesses this urge towards expertise by throwing open the doors to the whole of human knowledge: the history of ancient civilizations, the mechanics of language, biological and geological classification, the intricacies of physical and political geography, the methods of mathematics from basic operations through cube roots and algebra. The ‘classroom’ becomes like a ‘basecamp’ from which they climb the peaks of human knowledge – both metaphorically and literally, as they organise their own field trips to the museum, the recycling centre, a local potter’s studio, a structural engineer on site.
The Elementary curriculum is vast: it is the whole of human knowledge. But it is the format within which it is delivered and its emphasis on the interconnectedness of knowledge that makes it possible for children to master areas of interest. For instance, integral to the structure of this mixed-age environment are ‘research projects’ conducted by individuals and small groups. These individuals and groups then report their findings to the rest of the community. The elegant design of education that proceeds from interest and is built on independent research means children experience ‘school’ as a precious place, full of the nurturing and love that young children need and cannot do without, while also an intellectual hot-house, a place imbued with a rich culture of exploration and discovery.
Skills for life
Children of this age also develop a strong interest in the question of ethics and what constitutes ‘fair play’. The impulse towards physical independence in the first six years is replaced by an impulse towards social independence – being able to judge for oneself what is appropriate and what is not in a group. Their questions shift from “What is that?” to “Why is that?” – and it is a genuine curiousity, rather than the “Why” of the 3 year old who often just wants to continue a conversation and has discovered that the magical word “Why” always brings a response! The Elementary curriculum draws on this interest in cause and effect, connections and consequences, by studying the relationships between things in any ecosystem: the give and take that allows for a balance between plant and animal, predator and prey, farmer and merchant.
As in the Infant Community and Children’s House environments, the children still learn by doing. So the community holds regular meetings, not only as opportunities to share work and research but also as a chance to work out social problems in a fair and reasonable fashion. The Guides act as moderators and facilitators, helping students learn how to negotiate solutions that respect everyone’s thoughts and feelings to maintain a smoothly functioning community—and develop real-world skills of compromise, of tact, and of diplomacy – basic life-skills that will serve them well for years to come.