Montessori’s Narrative Curriculum framework


by Chris von Lersner

As thinking adults, there’s so much we want our children to know. In the past, adults who wanted to provide a rigorous education simply decided what children “should” learn, then hammered out a plan, and cracked the whip. But even before the information explosion, Maria Montessori recognized that it was far more important to help children learn how to learn … than to fill them with the facts that the previous generation deems most precious. 

Dr. Montessori used to say that traditional schools are like the well-meaning community that supplies a newly married couple with a generous collection of fine furniture, valuable tools, and beautiful artifacts – but no house to put them in. It was Montessori’s belief that adults must give children an intellectual house and let them choose and rearrange their furnishings freely, according to their needs and their emergent understandings. She said it’s more important to teach children to organize and classify new information than to fill them with lots of disconnected knowledge. 

Her revolutionary idea was to flip the traditional model of teaching children about the small and the local while they are young, and introducing more complex and more remote ideas when they are older  (e.g.: Traditional  K-6 Geography = self > neighborhood >  state > country >  world).  Instead, Montessori guides start with a dramatic story of the whole emerging and evolving cosmos … and the simple laws that govern its unfolding. Then, piece by piece, guided by the children’s interests, we introduce the parts within their systems … always recalling connections to the greater whole.

It’s understood by most people familiar with Montessori that the first Plane of Development, Birth to 6, the Absorbent Mind stage, is characterized by the concrete, the sensory, and the practical. Montessori environments, materials, and lessons for 3-6 year olds are prepared to serve the very tangible developmental tasks that build competence and independence in daily life. Then, about the time their milk teeth start falling out, children turn a corner. 

The elementary child is moving toward abstraction.  Whereas First Plane children accept everything they encounter as simple fact, the child in the Second Plane of Development is a child of boundless imagination and endless inquiry. (It’s the familiar  ”Who?  … What? … Where? …  When? … Why? Why? Why?”  stage). 

In the Primary environment, the children’s independence is fostered primarily by the didactic materials. This remains true in the elementary environment as well, but here’s where Montessori’s brilliant elementary plan comes in.

Montessori came to see that the  stories she loved to tell were helping children internalize broad frameworks within which they organized their emergent understandings of the world. She observed that her stories were spurring questions. The stories in all their amazing and colorful detail were launching massive, self-directed research projects in classes of children, who, with time, were becoming less and less dependent on adult-directed activity. The stories actually drove the work of the classroom, without the teachers having to direct the pace and sequence of the children’s studies. Inevitably, by supporting binge learning and community sharing, children eventually traverse the entire curriculum. Because everything’s interconnected!

To this day, one of Montessori’s most significant educational innovations at the elementary level is the idea of offering a narrative curriculum architecture instead of mountains of academic content that children in traditional environments are obliged to consume en masse so that everybody will be able to test proficient at their “grade level.” 

While most traditional curricula promise fixed knowledge sets to be administered in prescribed doses, the entire Montessori elementary curriculum is framed by a handful of interconnected stories. (Montessori herself never called them The Great Lessons. Her followers documented her stories and identified five “Great Lessons,” most of which many Montessori children hear every year. Lesser stories are designated as “Key Lessons,” and are given based on need and interest.)

Montessori guides tell stories whose details become familiar to the children – they become the intellectual house for the children.  By experiencing  awe and drama, stories about the unfolding universe, the formation of the earth, the evolution of life, the rise of humanity – about words and literature, numbers and mathematics, science, culture, societies, and civilizations.  

These framing stories, and the dozens of key lessons that are drawn from their details, free the teacher from having to pull all children at the same time through the same academic terrain. They help children make individual sense of the world. They create a commonly shared framework within which new learning can be organized and stored. They raise questions that invite more lessons and stories – in response to expressed interest. When children carry these narratives in their heads, everything else they learn takes a meaningful place in the system.

Many adults teach inquiry by asking questions, sometimes allowing children to choose which questions to pursue. In Montessori environments, inquiry is stimulated by dramatically opening up new worlds and seemingly impossible details that inspire wonder. When we give them the Universe, we leave them bubbling with questions and hypotheses. The lessons that follow, then, come not because a curriculum planning committee decided what should be next, but because the children want to know. In Montessori classrooms, children have the freedom to pursue what they want to know, and the opportunity to share their diverse learnings with each other regularly, enriching each other’s mastery of various topics – to furnish their intellectual  houses and fill in their frameworks in uniquely meaningful ways. 

Cosmic Education is the  term Montessori used to refer to this narrative curriculum plan. It sounds like hippie talk, but, iIn fact, it is a reference to the academic discipline  of Cosmology – the study of the universe – which was maturing during Montessori’s lifetime, along with many other scientific disciplines. 

In Montessori learning environments, the term serves three purposes. First, it is a direct reference to the fact that the entire elementary curriculum is rooted in the story of the unfolding universe. Second, it carries the connective tissue that brings coherence to all the work in all the classrooms and  across the entire age span of human life . Everything we can see and know about is meaningfully and purposefully connected to everything else. Third, it gives us all a clear sense of our role in the unfolding universe. Every living thing on the planet is serving purposes far beyond its own limited understanding, while simply going about the business it was hardwired to do. Simply by meeting their own needs, the corals remove lime from the oceans, clarifying the water and making it more habitable for other species. Nobody tells a bee to go to work in the morning, yet bees pollinate flowers just by going around sipping nectar to their hearts’ content. 

This idea that children are hardwired to grow to high functioning adulthood (just like every other living being) is a fundamental assumption of the Montessori educator. We do not need to motivate children to learn. We just need to get our good intentions out of their way. We need to observe and understand what they need for their natural development, and give them freedom to engage with the world in ways that satisfy the intellectual appetites that we awaken with our stories. 

The world is changing at a rate that is alarming to most conscious adults. We can’t pretend to know what knowledge or skills our children will need twenty years down the road. The Montessori imperative is to provide rich and alluring environments, an awe-inspiring intellectual architecture, and plenty of freedom to drink up the nectar of human knowledge. 

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