Montessori Today, Chapter 4: The Key Lessons That Follow the Great Lessons

NAMC Montessori Key Lessons child looking at butterfly
It should be realized that genuine interest cannot be forced. Therefore, all methods of education based on centers of interest which have been chosen by adults are wrong.
—Maria Montessori
University of Amsterdam Lecture, 1950.

The purpose of Montessori’s Five Great Lessons is to awaken a sense of wonder within students and serve as a catalyst to learning. By giving a story that leaves students asking “What happens next?” we open the door to the imagination. What comes next are the Key Lessons, lessons that allow the child to learn more. Where the Five Great Lessons present a whole, big picture, the Key Lessons provide topical details.

Montessori Today, Chapter 4: The Key Lessons That Follow the Great Lessons

NAMC Montessori Key Lessons teacher in library with children

New Montessori teachers, especially those that come from a conventional school background, often ask why the Five Great Lessons are so sparse on details. They want to bring in charts, graphs, PowerPoints, and technology. But when introducing something to students, less is more. Lillard says that “There are many interesting facts and variations that could be offered to the children but, if they are not absolutely essential to understanding, they can become obstacles to initiative and independent thinking.” (Lillard, p. 71)

Key Lessons derived from the First Great Lesson

The First Great Lesson is about the beginning of the universe. However, it is about more than just planets and stars. The First Great Lesson offers opportunities for Key Lessons, or follow-up studies, about:

  • The universe
  • The solar system
  • The composition of the earth
  • Volcanoes
  • Rocks
  • Chemistry: the three states of matter
  • Gravity
  • Magnetism
  • Creation stories

It is important to understand that not all lessons are given at the same time or to all students at the same time. It is for this reason that we leave the materials on the shelves. Some students may be immediately drawn to volcanoes while others will want to explore the planets. By offering variety, we allow for spontaneous exploration of multiple topics.

Students are free to select materials as their curiosity demands. Montessori teachers give lessons on key topics to small groups when they observe student interest.

As students see their classmates working with different materials, they will become curious about the topic or materials, and they will want to explore those as well. Teachers do not have to worry about a syllabus or course of study; the students are the ones who drive the curriculum and lessons presented. Rest assured, student curiosity fosters more learning than any syllabus created by a teacher!

NAMC Montessori Key Lessons boys working with plants and microscope

Some worry that if students are not given textbooks, worksheets, or tests, they are not learning. However, the Montessori cultural shelves offer much more physical and sensorial exploration than any textbook could provide. The classroom is the students’ laboratory — a place where they can explore, ask questions, and test hypotheses to their hearts content. The students are able and encouraged to repeat activities, which allows them to test and retest ideas and work, so they can confirm their data is correct and consistent. The control of error in the materials leaves little room for error, and what there is, can be quickly and independently corrected by the students.

In essence the students are able to teach themselves. The teacher functions as a guide on their journey.

The follow-up work to the lessons also gives students the opportunity to build their language skills. Using nomenclature cards and booklets, students develop and increase their vocabulary. When creating their own nomenclature books, students practice their handwriting and build retention through muscle memory. The cultural material is full of charts, graphs, and timelines that also increase literacy skills. As they are learning, students want to share their newly acquired knowledge with others. They may write a report, create new charts, or write stories or plays. In turn, the written word becomes the spoken word as students present their information orally, sharing their new knowledge amongst themselves and with their greater community. Through these presentations, students demonstrate mastery of their studied topic. Montessori teachers are able to assess the students’ learning far more thoroughly and accurately from these presentations than they would ever be able to do using written tests.

The Great Lessons present the whole universe to Montessori elementary students. Through the Key Lessons, students are invited to look at and develop an appreciation for the parts within the whole and how the parts function together to make up the whole.

Works Cited
Lillard, Paula Polk. Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from Birth to Childhood. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1996.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate


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