Montessori Today, Chapter 4: The Great Lessons

May 02, 2017
namc montessori great lessons happy children silhouettes in sunset
In the beginning, there was darkness.

Doesn’t that sound like a great opening to a great story? It is almost as good as “Once upon a time.” When we tell a story like Cinderella to a child, we don’t begin by saying “This is a story about the triumph of good and evil.” Or “The moral of this story is that hard work and good character will be rewarded.” We don’t discuss the dichotomy of the notion of romantic love and reality or the dangers of wearing glass slippers. We invite children to listen to a story and let the magic of the words capture their imaginations.

“In the beginning, there was darkness.” With these words, the Montessori teacher begins the First Great Lesson and introduces elementary students to the universe. Immediately, students are captivated. They understand this statement. They know darkness; they don’t need anyone to explain it. They have experienced it and can imagine what occurs there.

Montessori Today, Chapter 4: The Great Lessons

This powerful story about the beginning of the universe is the first of the Five Great Lessons — a series of impressionistic lessons that stir the elementary students’ imaginations and initiate their exploration of important questions. Through these compelling stories, students are introduced to the beginning of the universe, the beginning of life on earth, how humans came to earth, the beginning of writing, and the beginning of numbers.

Conventional education presents science, history, and geography in isolation. Each year, more and more pieces of information are added, assuming that the child will internalize the isolated facts and somehow understand that they are connected. Dr. Montessori disagreed with this approach. Instead, she believed that we should present children with the idea of the entire universe first through the telling of the Five Great Lessons. Presenting the whole universe first gives children a foundation upon which to build their understanding of the parts.

The Five Great Lessons are the foundation of the Montessori elementary cultural curriculum.

They provide the framework that guides the children’s studies, based on their interests. The Great Lessons are not detailed, fact-filled accounts. They are loosely woven stories that give just enough information to whet the children’s appetites and stir their imaginations. Detailed explanations and figures are purposely absent from the stories so the children’s imaginations and desire to learn are not unwittingly quenched.

namc montessori great lessons boy silhouette in sunset

The First Great Lesson is the story of the creation of the universe. From darkness comes light; from cold comes warmth. The children learn about the formation of the universe and galaxies far, far away, the formation of stars and the sun, the concept of matter, the attraction of gravity, and the laws of nature. They learn that the earth, when first formed, was a hot mass of molten rock, with no air to sustain life. They are presented with the idea that the elements that created the earth have different masses; some are extremely heavy and some are extremely light. They learn that as the earth cooled, a crust formed and volcanoes erupted. They are introduced to the properties of solids, liquids, and gases. They learn about condensation and precipitation. All of this information is presented without too many details. It is not classified or separated it into subjects. Instead, the children are presented with a great gift; they are given the keys to unlock the secrets of the universe.

The Montessori teacher then waits for the children to say “Tell me more.” The presentation of this simple yet rich story ignites the children’s imagination and curiosity to learn.

In a sense, the Five Great Lessons are also the foundation of the Montessori elementary prepared environment. By telling the Great Lessons, we prepare the path of interest. Stars, planets, matter, atomic weight, gravity, volcanoes — these are all fascinating! Conventionally, these topics are taught in isolation, one at a time. In Montessori, we present related topics together and whole, as they are found in nature, so the children can understand how everything fits together. At a later point, the children explore each topic separately. This is top-down thinking. Present the big picture or main idea, and then look at the parts.

namc montessori great lessons boy looking at flower

The Great Lessons are not followed by required reading, worksheets, or assessment-based tests. Work is not prescribed. Once a story is over, the teacher thanks the children and encourages them to go find their own work. After the children have had time to rest and process what they have learned, they spontaneously become curious about what they heard in the story.

This curiosity leads the children to the cultural work available on the classroom shelves. The Montessori cultural shelves are full of materials that assist in the exploration of the ideas that come from the Five Great Lessons. The hands-on materials encourage children to experiment and explore. Not only are they free to make discoveries but they are also free to work together and to talk about what they are doing and learning. Some children choose to work collaboratively, while others prefer to work independently. But always, the work is child-driven, with the teacher remaining in the background, careful not to squelch their enthusiasm with her own.

The Great Lessons are a catalyst for all learning in the elementary Montessori environment. Impressionistic in nature, they are the very core of the well-prepared environment.

Works Cited
Lillard, Paula Polk. Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from Birth to Childhood. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1996.
Montessori, Maria. To Educate the Human Potential. England: MPG Books Limited, 1989 (first published in 1947).

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate
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