Science in the Elementary Montessori Classroom
We approach science in the Montessori classroom quite differently from a traditional setting. Students gain hands on experiences involving science and much of their knowledge stems from their own individual research. We have few actual Science materials provided to us in the Montessori classroom compared to Math; however, most of what the students require for the science curriculum we can provide with three part cards and non-fiction literature.
At the primary level, students have been exposed to basic scientific concepts and nomenclature and are ready to delve deeper into the subject. Maria Montessori described the 6-9 age group as the age of the “reasoning mind” in which students are asking the “How’s” and the “What if’s.” This innate curiosity drives the exploration of science throughout the elementary years. Science is part of the Cultural Studies Areas of culture, alongside history and geography. “An integrated curriculum of history, geography, biology, and physical sciences is the heart and soul of an authentic Montessori elementary classroom” (Duffy, 2013, p. 3). These cultural subjects support each other and overlap creating an all-encompassing curriculum Maria Montessori called “Cosmic Education.” At the root of Cosmic Education is the goal for the student to understand his cosmic task and to understand his place in his immediate environment as well as the universe. They approach these subjects from the beginning of history of the universe and work inward to end with the child. This contrasts the traditional approach of starting with the child and building outward. Cosmic Education provides children with a backdrop for the whole story of the universe and their life and gives them a beginning from which to build.
The Cultural Studies follow the studies of math and language, as the ability to read, write, and calculate is necessary for exploration and research. Mastery of these subjects are not required to begin, but basic competency is required for progression. “In Cosmic Education, children learn through the history of language and math how important these two gifts are and how we should be grateful to the inventors of each. Language and math are the tools children use to explore their cultural heritage” (Duffy, 2013, p. 3). As students begin their studies of science and history, the literacy they employ for their research doubles as their language curriculum. In order for the child to wish to do research, he must first have an interest. “The child really learns only when he can exercise his own energies according to the mental procedure of nature, and this sometimes works very differently from what is ordinarily supposed” (Formation, 1955, p. 39). This interest is sparked by the teacher through key experiences, experiments and the telling of the Five Great Lessons. The Great Lessons are at the heart of Cosmic Education and give students a glimpse at some of the most important moments in the history of our universe. The Great Lessons include the Coming of the Universe, Coming of Life, Coming of Human Beings, History of Language and the History of Numbers. These lessons are stories which are told to ignite the imagination and curiosity of the child and inspire them to begin research. Less is more, and not all information should be provided by the instructor; the child should be left to wonder and to explore to reach the answer on their own.
Scientific experiments such as mixing chemicals and comparing solids to liquids are another way of engaging students. We show students an experiment and allow them to participate in them and recreate them in order to provide hands on experiences with the concepts they are studying. At this age, the children have reached a higher level of abstraction and can make more assumptions about things that might be or might occur. This curiosity combined with the practices of performing experiments is laying the early framework for the scientific method. Key experiences, like experiments, are attention grabbers and can be something as simple as using real specimens and examples of plants and animals to explain the parts rather than just a photograph. Students learn the correct nomenclature from the very beginning, eliminating confusion and giving them a way to communicate appropriately about the knowledge they are acquiring.
Now that the students are beginning their scientific thought and are interested in individual research, they still need lessons at appropriate times. Science encompasses many fields, such as Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and Geography; however, in the Montessori classroom these are integrated and are all approached during the Elementary years. There is a natural order and progression which follows the same idea as History, beginning with the larger picture and working to the details. Science has many categories and classifications and this appeals to the child’s natural love of order. In the study of Biology, the child begins by discriminating between living and non-living objects, moving step by step from Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species and beyond that to the parts of the particular species, their habits, needs, adaptations, life cycle, etc. The child can explore all of these areas once his curiosity has been sparked, and once a child is interested, he will explore for long periods of time. “When children are interested in a subject they tend to spend a long time studying it, or in other words, trying to find their own experience. After that an acquisition has not only been made, but it tends to extend itself even further” (Formation, 1955, p. 40-41).
By learning and exploring different aspects as the child naturally encounters them, it creates an integrated curriculum with minimal effort, except that of the child. Opportunities for expanding and extending to new and different concepts pop up all along the way as the child is doing her research. We approach science in a natural and exciting way for the child. Learning in the Cultural Areas in the Montessori classroom is primarily student led, but the role of the teacher to keep the interest of the child is of great importance. The teacher must not only have a love of the child, but a love for knowledge considering they will need to acquire a great deal of knowledge of the Cultural Areas to appropriately engage the children and keep them moving forward. With the inspiration provided by the Great Lessons and key experiences, the students create their own ways of exploring their world and the results are beautiful. You can find the schedule of presentation of Great Lessons in the school calendar.