The Five Great Lessons
The Five Great Lessons of the Montessori curriculum are broad, inspiring experiences shared by Lower Elementary students as they are introduced to new, abstract concepts. These lessons are narrative, impressionistic, stories that put the student right at the center of the awe-inspiring concepts being covered.
These lessons are generally presented by a team of Montessori educators; using visuals, physical props, easily grasped analogies, and a spoken narrative. These lessons come alive for the students as they scaffold their own active imaginings around the truly amazing notions and explanations they are internalizing.
In the Preschool years, students generally engage with new concepts by starting on the smallest details—dexterity skills before letter-tracing, for instance—and building up to the more expansive concepts. As students transition to their elementary years, the Great Lessons invert that process, presenting the grand overview of the concepts as a backdrop and an inspiration. Even the progression of the Great Lessons themselves start with the most physically encompassing, and dive deeper into specifics as they go.
Creation of the Universe
The First of the Five Great Lessons concerns the Creation of the Universe. It doesn't get much more all-encompassing than that.
This lesson is generally presented early in the year to the Lower Elementary students. Teachers work together to deliver an immersive experience that spans a variety of complex topics. This lesson touches on the origins and scale of our universe; basic properties of physics and chemistry, like density and states of matter; geological and geological concepts, including the composition of Earth and how various bodies of land and water formed.
This lesson has evolved since its initial delivery in Maria Montessori's classrooms. With new, scientifically-backed explanations for some of these concepts being developed since the advent of this lesson, it's important to make sure all of your information is accurate and up-to-date. The core of this lesson, and the reasons it resonates so deeply, remain the same through the years.
Coming of Life
The Second installment of the Five Great Lessons delves into the creation of living beings, and the evolution that brought us to our current life forms. As part of the lesson, students explore the Timeline of Life, observing the relative appearances of different species in cosmic history. Students actually interact with a massive timeline, rolled out onto the floor, that depicts major events in the evolution of life.
This lesson serves as a backdrop for the cultural and scientific work that these students are undertaking in zoology, anatomy, ecology, and biology—to name a few. The Coming of Life lesson picks up where the Creation lesson left off, and extends the story so that the interconnection of these topics is reinforced within the student. This helps further ground the student in their work, and understand its relevance to their life.
The Coming of Life story is an exciting part of the Lower Elementary curriculum. Students are enthralled by the drastic changes in life forms, the impressively sized timeline, and the feeling of belonging when they realize, at the conclusion of the lesson, that they too are part of this story.
Coming of Humans
The Third Great Lesson in the Montessori tradition is known as the Coming of Humans, or the Timeline of Man. This lesson always enthralls students as they truly begin to see their own role and place within the larger story of the universe.
This lesson focuses on the skills and gifts that set humans apart from other animals in the world. The Timeline of Man is generally presented to students in their third year of Lower Elementary, and carries over as the foundation of Cultural Studies in the Upper Elementary program.
Students utilize a physical timeline to scaffold their understanding of the development and evolution of human life. Beyond the fundamental abilities and characteristics that define humans, students also explore the history of many of the more recent developments that set humans apart; transitioning from foraging to agriculture, developing tools, and forming societies with specialized roles. Students are also invited to compare the scale of the timeline of human development, against the coming of life timeline, and even the creation of the universe timeline, to understand the relatively tiny amount of time that humans have been contributing to the cosmic story.
Communication in Signs
When defining the characteristics that set humans apart, in the prior lesson, it's common to hear suggestions such as "talking," "writing," or "being able to communicate." While there is some debate around whether other animals are capable of these behaviors, it is undoubted that the development of communication through symbolic signs is one of the most important developments in human history. The Communication in Signs Lesson, or the Timeline of Writing, provides the backdrop for the Language work undertaken during Upper Elementary.
This lesson beautifully describes the development of written language. Through the timeline of Writing we touch on the needs that drove humans to create these systems; the different types of visual languages, and examples of each from the past or present; and advancements to communication such as writing utensils, and the printing press.
Students follow the history of writing in chronological order, changing focus from one culture to the next, as the story of writing evolves from pictographs, through hieroglyphics, to a variety of alphabets. Students learn how some languages evolved and changed, while others died out before they had the chance. Students also learn the importance of being able to decipher these languages, and why discoveries like the Rosetta Stone were so culturally significant.
The Story of Numbers
Logically following the history of written communication is the History of Mathematics. This lesson starts by describing the ways in which ancient cultures communicated numbers, before more modern number systems were invented. Through this exploration, students tend to realize the limitations that these ancient number systems were subject to, and begin to realize the progression that lead to more scientific systems for number recording.
Students also learn about the functions of numbers, and why the ability to define large sums was becoming a necessary skill in the ancient world at the time. An important concept introduced in this lesson is the idea of "zero" and how it affects our ability to do complex math. This lesson also touches on the vocabulary of numbers and mathematics, and how language and math interconnect. Students explore the difference between count nouns and non-count nouns, as well as what is meant by a "base-ten" number system (as compared to a base-two, and so on).
The Five Great Lessons: A Framework
These lessons are generally presented at the beginning of each year of the Elementary cycles, building through the lessons from First Grade through Fifth Grade. Each lesson provides an accessible framework for the classroom work that the students will be undertaking as the year goes on. These Great Lessons are the guiding lights for the Montessori curriculum. They help the student orient him or herself within the subject matter, they align the various aspects of the curriculum around a common theme, and they provide a jumping off point for deep, complex thinking. Students seem to remember these Great Lessons, even years later, which helps them to internalize and recall the other, more detailed work, that supported these lessons.