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.