Developing Better Montessori Curriculum
Going beyond 3 part cards
by Aki Margaritis
Due to a previous article I had written, regarding the four pillars of education in the Montessori Middle School, I was recently asked to define the characteristics of quality Montessori curriculum. What is it that we do, at ETC Montessori, in order to create and ensure that the curriculum we produce is of the absolute highest quality, both in materials and content. A curriculum that meets standards, and more importantly not only meets the needs of students, but also staff and even the administration.
With the launch of ETC Montessori Digital this year, it has become even more important to understand what needs to be done in order to establish and meet such standards. Yes, colors, fonts, pictures, wording, they all matter. Africa Green should be Africa Green whether it is in printed form or viewed on a screen, or that the RGB values of 0,134,65 are consistent whether you are printing on paper, fabric or wood.
Based on Dr. Montessori’s view, there are four planes of development. The first, covers the ages of 0-6 years and it is often defined as the pursuit of physical independence. The second, covers the ages of 6-12 years and is characterized as a stage of intellectual independence. The third, covers the ages of 12-18 years and is characterized as the social stage. The fourth plane of development covers the ages of 18-24 and even through Dr. Montessori identified it, she did not elaborate on its characteristics. However, we can essentially agree that people in this plane are seeking financial independence.
Our emphasis, in this article, will be on the second and third planes, because I believe that this is where we need to place a significant amount of energy. As a pedagogy, Montessori has grown exponentially during the past fifteen years. All indications point to this continued expansion and growth. The concept of Montessori has, and is becoming, more accepted into mainstream education. Yet, we still have curriculum publishers who are functioning out of the basement of a house, a loft, or the back room of their house, with no consistency in product, color, theme, or standards of any sort. Today, MACTE exists to set standards for training, and another organization exists to house the official blueprints for the designs of the hardwood materials. Yet, we continue to fall short in the publishing of Montessori curricula. I believe it is time that we stopped looking at just the quality of the paper that something is printed on, and begin understanding the finer points of what makes good curriculum, good. We need to applaud consistency, quality research, design calibration, and intellectual innovation.
With this in mind, we at ETC Montessori have identified and implemented a three prong approach to developing suitable Montessori curricula. They are as follows:
1. Artistic Beauty
As a visual learner myself, I believe that the artistic beauty that goes into creating every single piece of material, every card, and even every label, is of the utmost importance. I understand that this is a personal bias, but if the material doesn’t call to the child then it will not be used. Instead, it becomes something that the teacher must suggest, and that defeats the idea of the material calling to the child. Beauty invites, yet it must not overstimulate. There is a balance that needs to be maintained. Cards, are enticing at a subconscious level, while the concepts remain obvious and are easily understood.
If you look at ETC’s Timeline of the History of Mathematics, you will notice that the background is subdued, clean, and open. Compare that to the Timeline of the Eras, where the background is a stark, yet muted background. Each one of these backgrounds has exactly the same function; to allow the timeline elements to be the center of attention. Yet, each one is designed using a very different approach, and point of view. The Timeline of Numbers is intended to give a lot of information, introduce significant discoveries in mathematics, and present a great number of people. It does this through words, and a clear, minimalist background serves it best. The purpose of the Timeline of the Eras’, on the other hand, is to bring ideas together. By making the background dark, it allows the elements on the timeline to become emphasized, if not over-emphasized and allowing them to shine through.
As a curriculum and publishing company it became obvious from the start that it was imperative that we not remain static. We ourselves keep learning, we listen to our customers, and we keep searching for new ways of making the materials approachable. Often we take the ideas we have, or are presented to us, and we alchemize new techniques; new ways of presenting ideas that ultimately make them far richer and far more enjoyable. To us this is one of the definitions of bringing tradition and innovation together.
A picture is worth a thousand words, to us, this means we need to look at what needs to be said. We employ a group approach so we can identify not only what needs to be said, but how it needs to be said, who is best suited to say it and finally, is there anybody else who can say this better? One of the easiest traps to fall into, if one is working in isolation, is to create the same thing over and over again. Therefore, we think it’s important to surround ourselves with people who will take what we have and make something more out of it. People who will take a concept to a different level.
2. Full Development of Thought
Isolation of difficulty in the true sense of the phrase is problematic in Montessori curriculum that is aimed at the second and third developmental planes. In seeking isolation of difficulty, at these levels, we need to look at the full concepts that we are trying to present. Montessori curriculum is cyclical and interrelated and the materials should reflect this. Once a concept has been identified, a series of activities and lessons are designed to support that concept. What we do is design our curriculum to provide a three-year cycle, which in turn, takes full advantage of the full development of thought. On more than one occasion, customers will ask us to purchase only part of the curriculum that we sell. “But I only need the booklets,” or “I only need the layers of the ocean”. So many Montessori publishers, fail or miss this concept of “Full Development of Thought”, and so they trade off the method for the few extra dollars they can fetch by splitting things up. Creating nomenclature for human anatomy based on a one to one association of picture and object, is not considered curriculum; it's considered an activity. If publishers continue to tackle subjects by isolating them, the real losers will be the children since they only see each individual part and lack the opportunity to make the connection of how these individual parts work as a whole.
3. Supplementation and Relevance
This third part of our approach builds on “The Full Development of Thought” that I mentioned earlier. In a curriculum, there should be opportunities for multiple extensions of the same activity providing repetition and additional exploration. Doing this allows for similar materials, to be split between a variety of multi-disciplinary concepts. In turn, this approach allows children to explore all areas of the concept in a way that works for them. Each child knows how to do something in each of the curriculum areas, whether its math, cultural, science, or language. There is something that is familiar in each one of these areas. Creating appropriate, and well thought out extensions, means that each child has the opportunity to learn in any given area. An example of this structure is our Historical Numeral Overview materials. A student can explore six different number systems used in ancient times, while at the same time study the gods related to that same ancient civilization. In addition, a student can take one of these civilizations and study it in the context of the Timeline of Numbers, the Timeline of Ancient Civilizations, the History of Language, or as part of the study of different numerical and mathematical bases.
It’s the concept of relevance, interconnection, consistency and calibration that makes the difference. Having a timeline that is 30” wide as opposed to 18” doesn’t’ make it a better timeline. Having a consistent time scale that matches and corresponds to other timelines so that students can understand cause and effect relationships, makes the difference.
If we are going to call ourselves publishers, we need to begin acting as professional publishers that meet the broader needs of a movement. We need to stop looking at what we produce as isolated successes that might apply to the broader community. Montessori, as a methodology, a movement, a way of living and learning, deserves better than what is currently being offered by many so called publishers. As we continue to educate the children of tomorrow it is becoming more evident that we not only seek standards, but the deeper understanding that comes through providing well designed curricula that encourage children to think, explore, and understand.