I have spent the past four days wearing the same pair of pajamas, holed up in my basement, staring at a computer screen 12 inches from my face. Occasionally, on emerging, my children ask if I'm the real mother or just the virtual reality. Tim, my muscled other half, has somehow kept an eye on the house and kids in between his myriad of business tasks. Any veteran homeschooler knows this is a picture of lesson planning time. So how do I plan in the Montessori way?
Sensitive Periods and Planes of Development
"The education of our day is rich in methods, aims, and social ends, but one must still say that it takes no account of life itself," said Maria Montessori.
We see this in children who are learning to read. Presented with the right teaching at the right time, a child will learn to read. Forced to read before he is ready, and then crushed under loads of remedial work, a child becomes an adult with poor reading skills. Why? Because the myelin sheath development needed for optimum brain connections must first be in place.
Children naturally gravitate to those activities that follow their brain development. They have an urge to exercise those new brain connections, much as a child who is teething has an urge to chew. Forced laborious reading with unformed or partially-formed brain connections results in a mental habit that destroys reading enjoyment for life.
How do we know when it's the right time for our child to learn to read? When he begins to notice and show interest in print . . . when she begins to ask questions about reading . . . when he grabs onto learning the sounds and tries to build words . . . when she tries to read road signs and enjoys following your finger under a line of print while you read.
The first "plane of development" in Montessori-speak (other writers usually call these "stages of development") is the period from ages 0 to 6, where the infant develops into the child. In the first half of this plane, from ages 0 to 3, the child transforms from a baby to a young child. His random movements become coordinated and controlled: grasping, touching, turning, balancing, walking. In the second half of the plane, from ages 3 to 6, he will classify and categorize his sense impressions.
Each specific skill area develops quickly during its sensitive period, almost to the exclusion of other skills during that time. As Jane Healy, author of Endangered Minds, says, "The child actually changes the physiology of the brain through interaction with the environment at specific stages of development." If your child misses the opportunity to develop a skill during its sensitive periods, he can learn it later on, but it will be much harder.
More detailed information on these sensitive periods is presented in Montessori's books, or can be found searching the web under that topic.
During the second plane of development, from ages 6 to 12, the child's physical state is stable. While he is still growing, there are no major hormonal changes. It is an intellectual period, so the child's appetite for knowledge is big. Children of this age want to grasp the big picture of facts and ideas in relation to each other.
The third plane of development is from ages 12 to 18. During the first half, ages 12 to 15, these young teens are unstable intellectually because of the great physical changes they are experiencing. They need extra sleep, and are interested mostly in practical work related to supplying food, shelter, transportation, etc. Intellectual work during this plane is best when it follows the student's interests without pressure. I try to limit the amount of coursework and encourage more work and social time.
In the second half of this plane, from age 15 to age 18 and up, I say, "Their brains come back into their bodies." Older teens are ready for more rigorous intellectual work along with ministry and apprenticeships in the work world. I introduce standard high-school curriculum at this point, due to its efficiency in preparing the student for college.
In the fourth and final plane, the child has fully transformed to an adult. The years from age 18 to 24 are a time of specialization and preparation for careers. Parents often feel their job is completed by age 18, but great parental energy is still needed to support our young adults as they make many life-long decisions. Good mentors who help the student find his way into the right field of specialized learning are also important.
Dr. Montessori thought universities should have students find work experiences in the community so they could achieve their financial independence while still in college, even if it means taking a few more years to complete their studies. An interesting thought for our debt-ridden day!
Teaching to Each Plane
At ages 3 to 6 it's important to give your child lots of practical activities to do, with the steps broken down for the sake of mastery. You can find many good source of Montessori activities on the web for this period. I might make substitutions, like using Cuisenaire Jumbo Rods instead of Montessori materials, but I make sure I understand how to use the new materials to teach the desired skill in a similar fashion.
For ages 6 to 12, I have found a few products that are like Montessori's original ideas. Music Mind Games and the Shurley Grammar method come immediately to mind. I modify such programs by creating a wall chart that shows the big ideas and adding home-made vocabulary cards, color coding, symbols, and hands-on activities as needed. I also rely less on auditory mnemonics than these programs ask me to.
It irritates me that I still have to sing the alphabet song to find my files. It would have been better if I had spent more time as a child laying the alphabet out and comparing it to a model instead of just singing it when I was in the sensitive period for learning the order of things.
From ages 6 to 12 I teach my children the "content areas" (subjects such as history, science, and geography) through key lessons. Each area of study is on a list that spans three years, so we have no pressure to complete it all in one year. The skills in each area move from concrete objects, to the more abstract labels and cards, to the more abstract still: writing and research. I share these subject/skill lists with my elementary children so they can chart and monitor their progress. It is a way to give them the big picture of what they're learning, and a key to mastery.
When choosing materials for this age I often start by asking myself, "Is it fun?" If it doesn't appeal to me, it probably won't to them either. Then I ask, "Do they want to watch me demonstrate it or do it themselves?" If possible, I change the activity so they can do it themselves, making up a way to self-check, and adding question cards which include the main ideas I want them to learn. I want them to be able to fiddle with the material and gain their own sense of how it works, and I want them to know key ideas through the questions I ask them. I then think of a way to use the knowledge. Can they get out in the real world and use it/do it/collect it/sort it? I might keep an ongoing samples table. I present the big ideas in a chart, and have the children commit those ideas to memory. Finally, as the children become able to read and write, this is followed by simple research models and report writing.
To give a short example, in teaching the phases of the moon I will have them observe the moon for a month and record what they see. In a KONOS activity I found the suggestion to draw these on cards every other day, then flip the cards to watch the moon change at the end. This sounds likes fun. For "discovery learning," KONOS also suggests the students come up with a way to show how those moon changes are made, using a globe, a ball, and a flashlight. If the adventure becomes a frustration, I'm ready with the book, The Moon Seems to Change which describes how to do this activity. However, I let them struggle with the ideas first! A phases-of-the-moon poster, along with cards created to match the moon's appearance with its phase names, gives them practice with the vocabulary. When one of my children thinks he knows a topic, I have him come and show his mastery and check it off his list. If he is old enough to write, he will complete a research form on the moon asking four to five questions which he will need to look up.
Why do I hit the same topic so many different ways? Because as the great poet Lucille Clifton once said, "We cannot create what we cannot imagine." We needn't just wait for our kids to choose their own projects, hobbies, and interests; we can help them imagine possibilities for themselves. If we don't help our kids imagine additional possibilities, they are apt to follow only in the ruts worn by the simple and obvious. But when Mom and Dad are always throwing out ideas, the children learn almost by osmosis how the creative process of teaching, learning, and imagining works.
From ages 9 to 12, learning is more research driven. But I still provide research ideas so the children can imagine the possibilities. In the case of studying the moon, I might suggest researching manned space flights to the moon and giving a rocket-launching demonstration. In each stage of my student's work, I am there with suggestions and resources if he gets stuck.
Another way I can help my student develop into a better researcher is through helping him follow a research key, Bloom's Taxonomy. The taxonomy is: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. This is like the big picture of thinking. Once he's gotten the gist of this, he can follow any topic of study. He will have developed the mental tools for independent learning. Fortunately I don't have to come up with the research questions. Design-A-Study or Engine-Uity (a company that sells research packs tied to Blooms) provide ample resources for a research-driven curriculum.
Johannes Kepler, a Christian scientist who lived in the late 1500s, studied the planets' motions for nine years, making detailed mathematical notes. More accurately than anyone before, he plotted the orbits to within eight minutes of actual times. At that point, he let his theories go, and trusted a good God to let reality lead him to theory. He proved the planets revolve about the sun in spite of hundreds of years of the dogma of geocentricity.
Kepler said, "I believe . . . that our Creator has given us a spirit in addition to the senses, for another reason than merely to provide a living for ourselves . . . Man's soul is something quite different from the other parts of man, and the soul is kept alive, enriched and grows by that food called knowledge. I am eager to publish my observations in God's honor, who wishes to be recognized from the book of Nature. I am a Christian."
Montessori understood that a child's soul is fed when he discovers knowledge through his own efforts. When that happens, work and play are no longer separate. I want my children to have a passion for their work as Kepler did, and a wonder and joy in discovering the work their creator God has laid out for them to accomplish.