Montessori Great Lessons in the Washington Post

This one is a little complicated but worth following.

It starts with an New York education blogger at @TheChalkFace posting a 1st grade vocabulary list from the NY Common Core website—70 words from cuneiform to synagogue and all points in between.  Outrage ensues in the comments, mostly about how the list goes way over the heads of most 6 year olds.  Well.  I don’t know about that, but there’s a list of 81 goals from the same website that’s pretty over the top:

  • Explain the importance of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the use of canals to support farming and the development of the city of Babylon.
  • Explain the ways in which a leader is important to the development of a civilization.
  • Explain the significance of gods/goddesses, ziggurats, temples, and priests in Mesopotamia.

Next up: acclaimed cognitive psychologist, author, and widely published researcher Daniel Willingham picks up the post on his own blog, arguing that the material can’t be developmentally inappropriate for a 1st grader because stages of development don’t really exist.  (Willingham has made this argument at greater length in this Scientific American article.)

He goes on to offer evidence that ancient civilizations can so be taught to first graders, giving two examples: the Core Knowledge curriculum (full disclosure: Willingham is on the board of Core Knowledge), and his daughter’s Montessori elementary class.  His post gets picked up by Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss, and that’s how Montessori elementary and the five Great Lessons make it into the Washington Post.

But here’s the twist. Willingham is no stranger to Montessori—his wife is a Montessori teacher, his daughter goes to Montessori school, and he has presented at a national Montessori conference.  So it’s a little surprising that he cites Montessori in an argument against stages of development. Take away the Montessori’s stages of development (she called them “planes”), and the whole thing sort of falls to pieces, as the fundamental insight of Montessori education is that children have innate drives towards education through interaction with the environment, and those drives function very differently at different stages of life!  In fact, the very reason the Great Lessons he cites are given to six-year olds, and not before, is that they appeal to the powers of reason and imagination that become active around six or seven, and not before.

Now, blog posts are not exhaustively footnoted dissertations, and I’m sure Willingham knows that Montessori is a developmental model.  (If he didn’t before, I bet his wife has filled him in on it by now. If he still has questions, this page on TMO, the Wikipedia article, or the Washington Montessori Institute at Loyola in Baltimore, not far from the Willingham’s home university, the University of Virignia, are excellent sources of info.  Or he could check with his colleague Angelline Lillard.)  And we always appreciate a prominent mention.  They’re spelling our name right these days—they’re just still a little fuzzy on the details.

3 responses to “Montessori Great Lessons in the Washington Post

  1. Marianne Giannis

    I’m not exactly sure what point Daniel Willingham is trying to make by connecting the Montessori Great Lessons to Common Core Standards and that vocabulary list. Here is my explanation that I posted in the Answer Sheet comments: Daniel, I am a teacher in a 1st-6th grade class. Your explanation and sequence of the Montessori lessons is incomplete. The Montessori Great Lessons as described in the above article are meant to strike the imagination of the 1st-3rd grade students. They are typically presented in large group lessons which utilize pictures, discussion, and activities to explain the big picture (or “Cosmic Idea”) of the origins of each of the academic areas. The lessons aren’t really about a study of ancient civilizations. That is part of the 4th-6th grade Montessori curriculum.

    In 4th-6th grade, Montessori students do in-depth research of these topics. The materials and lessons are different than the 1st-3rd grade levels. The vocabulary listed above is indicative of work done by 4th-6th graders in a Montessori classroom. Using these lessons to somehow make a point about Common Core and Montessori is misleading to say the least.


    • Montessori Observer

      Thanks for the comment.

      I think Willingham’s point was that young children can actually understand the vocabulary referenced in his post, because he’s seen it happen in his child’school. And I would argue that he’s on solid ground there. The AMI Elementary training (which is what I’m most familiar with) doesn’t make that big a distinction between 1st-3rd and 4th-6th. In fact, as you may know, it’s given as one course, not separate certificates as is done in other organizations. I’ve certainly seen plenty of “lower el” children get excited about ancient civilizations, and access vocabulary such as what’s listed here.

      What struck me was Montessori advanced as evidence against developmental stage theory, since that’s such a core feature of our philosophy. I followed up with Willingham, and his sense is that the empirical research for stages is not strong, and that Montessori, as a scientist, might have come to some different conclusions had she lived to see more data come in.


  2. Marianne Giannis

    Yes, I am basing my comments on my AMS training where the lower elementary and upper elementary training is separate. While separate, it still follows Montessori’s theory of child development. Young children may get excited about ancient civilizations but most of the vocabulary list (and the text that it would be part of) intended for 1st graders probably too abstract for most children that age to really comprehend. 6 year olds are pretty concrete beings. Montessori students do tend to have a great vocabulary and ability to discuss but it is a result of the whole Montessori method. You can’t take bits and pieces of it, or certain lessons, to make such a statement about child development, curriculum, etc.


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