One of the strengths of environments like the Montessori classroom is the combination of free choice and time. Children’s curiosity is satisfied by being able to select those materials that are most appealing to them. Children’s intellect is satisfied by being able to spend as much time with the materials as they choose, in extended concentrated engagement. There is no schedule of class periods or specific times each day when a child needs to do math or language or social studies, and in the open-ended nature of choice, children are able to discover the integration of these content areas. We don’t study math because it’s time to study math. We study math because, by understanding math, we understand more about the human experience. We have the ability to measure and quantify, to compare and combine. We don’t study reading solely to be able to say that we know how to read, but because it is through reading that we can explore the world, communicate new ideas with other people, and consider profound connections across time and space.
Montessori frames this integration not only as a keystone to our curriculum, but as a quality of human development, and she offers us here a specific recommendation for which “subject” trumps all the others. In our contemporary standardization, we emphasize math and science, then language arts, then, somewhere farther down the list and if there is enough time, social studies and the cultural subjects. Montessori flips this sequence on its head, reminding us that the other content areas lack meaning if they are not presented through a history of the development of humanity.
We need these other areas, to be sure. We need to know how to read and how to calculate, the principles of scientific thinking and an understanding of the laws of geometry and physics and chemistry and biology. But look to the ways young children question. Those endless follow-up questions your child asks, with each new answer leading to a new question? They’re rarely separated into concrete, discrete packets of “Language Arts questions” or “Math questions” or “Science questions.” Quite the opposite: a line of questions that starts with what “Fahrenheit” means leads to questions about temperature in the summer or the migration of penguins during mating season or a comparison between the Robin Williams and Frank Sinatra versions of “My Way.”
And so the Montessori classroom, drawn from observations of children’s natural development, moves seamlessly between questions and answers. A right-angled triangle, retrieved for the Adjective game, might come as easily from the Geometry drawers as it does from a dish in practical life.
Discrete content areas suggest to the child that the world fits into equally discrete boxes, and the child’s curiosity pushes back, insisting, within their own lives as we have demonstrated across the development of humanity, that there is a union of purpose, of impact, of stewardship. The child doesn’t need a lesson in wanting to change the world. They arrive to use as intrinsically motivated agents of change, pushing toward stronger communities, seeking to fill in the empty spaces between us with empathy, compassion and kindness. Montessori models for us how we can support them: not by parsing out content standards into seemingly unrelated blocks of time, but by beginning with the stories of human ingenuity, accomplishment, creativity and community. Think about the way children pretend: rarely do they pretend to be mundane. They choose to emulate the heroes, the artists, and the people they love. Children know they are a part of a noble heritage of humans who have sought to make the world better. They want to know those stories, to find their community across history with great thinkers, courageous reformers, the ones who stood up for what is right and the ones who knelt down to care for the weak.
In Montessori, we start with great questions and personally relevant stories: how the world was made, yes, but also, what bread tastes like when it’s made in their own kitchens. Children need the aspirational and the pedestrian, a horizon toward which to strive and the practical skills to walk step by step in that direction. By beginning with their questions, and by finding in ourselves the creative means of integrating all the skills they need without squelching their curiosity to ask more, we fit them horizons and pathways. It is our work to support them in their questioning in noble ways, to connect them to the narrative so that they can begin to see themselves in it, and then to get out of their way as they lead us forward.
* A response to To Educate the Human Potential Chapter 12: Man the Creator and Revealer, M. Montessori