Cosmic Education: The Heart of the Montessori Elementary Classroom
cos·mic 1. Of or relating to the universe, especially as distinct from Earth. 2. Infinitely or inconceivably extended; vast.
Dr. Montessori recognized that all of science and history tell portions of the same story: the continuing creation of the universe. Cosmic Education tells that story. In a uniquely Montessori way, the experience offers children context for, and reveals connections between, such subjects as astronomy, chemistry, geography, history, and biology, to name a few. "Learning" the academic subject matter, however, is secondary to a loftier educational goal.
In their book, Children of the Universe, Montessorians Michael and D'Neil Duffy sum up the purpose of Cosmic Education neatly: "This six-year Montessori experience gives elementary students opportunities to appreciate their roots in the universe, to sense their place in its context, and to embrace the role this defines for their lives."
To give parents a glimpse of the important role Cosmic Education plays in the Montessori Elementary classroom, we've answered key parent questions with brief explanations and related quotations from Children of the Universe: Cosmic Education in the Montessori Elementary Classroom. We recommend this very approachable resource as a valuable addition to any parent education library.
Q: What is Cosmic Education?
A: Cosmic Education is not itself "the curriculum" or a set of facts but rather a decompartmentalized way of presenting stories that open up lines of inquiry which roughly correspond to traditional elementary academic subjects.
"The purpose is not to create walking encyclopedias of knowledge... The "stuff" the students learn is almost incidental to the enrichment of the context they gain for understanding themselves and their place in the universe."
Cosmic Education launches youngsters into society practiced in thinking about who they are, as individuals, as part of the human species, as citizens of a nation, of members of a planetary ecology, and so on. Ultimately, it introduces the possibility that humanity might have a "cosmic" task, a meaningful purpose beyond consumption and procreation.
"Cosmic Education is intended to help each of us search for our cosmic task as a species and as individuals. To do this, we must understand ourselves in context. It is only against the background of our place in the universe, our relationships with other living organisms, and our understanding of human unity within cultural diversity, that we can attempt to answer the question, "Who am I?"
Q: Why is Cosmic Education ideally suited for children ages 6 to 12?
A: Maria Montessori recognized four major stages, or planes of development. From about age six to twelve, children are moving through the second plane. Some key characteristics of these children include a turning outward toward wider social experiences, a movement from the material level to the abstract, and a heightened engagement in moral development.
Turning Outward: Cosmic Education satisfies children's developing awareness of the larger community, offering them all of human history at a time in their development when they are preoccupied with "going out" to meet the world.
"Children in the second plane of development are no longer content to remain inside their homes and schools, or to limit their experiences to what they feel inside themselves... Cosmic Education addresses the broad scope of that outward journey into all of reality."
Material to Abstract: Designed first and foremost to inspire children's imaginations, the lessons of The Great Stories allow for cross-pollination between sensorial experience and abstract thinking. As children work with the activities to which the stories have led them, they discover such concepts as repeating patterns of life (biology), the laws of nature (physics, chemistry), people's common vital needs (cultural geography), and much more.
"The story part is the principal job of the teacher; the study part is primarily the job of the students... Once the impressionistic lessons have been given, the children are ready to pursue a subject as far as their interest will carry them."
Moral Development: Many psychologists agree that children reach a new level of moral development around age six or seven. During the second plane of development, the child becomes keenly concerned with justice, fairness, right and wrong – the conscience is beginning to develop.
"The characteristics of children at this age suggest that now is the time to begin, that this is the "sensitive period" to implant the initial impressions on which a lifetime search for meaning can be based... Cosmic Education helps young students discover the moral imperative by which they should live their lives."
Q. Is Cosmic Education relevant today?
A. In the twentieth century, Maria Montessori saw Cosmic Education as a way to protect humankind from the threat of self-annihilation posed by seemingly endless acts of war and political aggression. In the twenty-first century, global awareness, cooperation, and peaceful communication, are integral to resolving problems Montessori could hardly have anticipated. Cosmic Education helps prepare children to deal successfully with today's realities.
"Because of the undeniable impact of our own species on the life of the planet, we have a moral responsibility – a cosmic task – to deal with such problems as global warming, pollution controls, management of natural resources, population growth, the impact of industrial development, protection of endangered species, a responsible use of biotechnology and other global concerns. We are one people, one civilization, one humanity, in ways today that Montessori could not even imagine."
"Let us give the children a vision of the universe," wrote Maria Montessori in To Educate the Human Potential. "The universe is an imposing reality and the answer to all questions." Montessori observed firsthand children's eagerness to understand themselves, their world, and their place in it. It was her hope that Cosmic Education would allow children to grow into responsible sons and daughters of the great human family, with the understanding, ethics, and self-knowledge needed to transform the world.
In the Duffys' words: "Cosmic Education teaches children to recognize the fundamental needs we all share and to respect the cultural differences by which we meet those fundamental needs. Such an education can lead us to a future of true peace such as that sought by Maria Montessori."
—J.A. Beydler, with special thanks to Irene Baker and of course, Michael and D'Neil Duffy's excellent book.
—Originally Published 2009
If you are looking into Montessori education for your 6- to 12-year-old child (Montessori referred to this age as the “second plane of development”), you will likely hear the term “Cosmic Education.” So, what on Earth does this far-out phrase really mean?
As with her educational method for younger children, Dr. Montessori developed the second plane curriculum by observing children and identifying exactly what their specific developmental needs are at this age. Montessori’s observations led to the development of what she called Cosmic Education.
Start with the Big Picture
Cosmic Education starts with the whole, (i.e. the universe), and works toward the parts, (i.e. individual cultures, history, geography, life forms, etc.). This gives the child a foundational sense of perspective. Within the big picture of the universe, everything the child learns is connected. Children can use this big picture perspective to mentally organize new information. When understood as connected parts of a whole, the information gains relevance, which is an essential part of capturing a child’s interest.
It should be realized that genuine interest cannot be forced. Therefore, all methods of education based on centers of interest chosen by the adult are wrong. Moreover, these centers of interest are superfluous, for the child is interested in everything. A global vision of cosmic events fascinates children and their interest will soon remain fixed on one particular part as a starting point for more intensive studies. Thus, the way leads from the whole, via the parts, back to the whole. The children will develop a kind of philosophy that teaches them the unity of the universe. This is the very thing to organize their intelligence and to give them a better insight into their own place and task in the world, at the same time presenting a chance for the development of their creative energy. ~ Dr. Maria Montessori
During the second plane of development, children experience an innate need to use: a) their imagination to envision concepts that they cannot necessarily see, and b) their reasoning minds to make sense of how each new idea fits into the big picture.
The elementary school years are the most significant developmental years for the child’s imagination. The child, who previously had to experience concepts through his or her senses, can now imagine ideas without physically experiencing them. Compelled by his growing imagination, the elementary child will seek information that corresponds with his interests.
Human consciousness comes into the world as a flaming ball of imagination. Everything invented by man, physical or mental, is the fruit of someone’s imagination. In the study of history and geography, we are helpless without imagination, and when we propose to introduce the universe to the child, what but imagination can be of use to us? ~ Dr. Maria Montessori
The Reasoning Mind
According to Dr. Montessori, children transition from the Absorbent Mind stage into the Reasoning Mind stage at about age six or seven. Children no longer soak up information spontaneously and without conscious effort. (To learn more about the Absorbent Mind stage, read more here.)
Now learning takes place very differently. Children are less drawn to mimicry and repetition, and are more inclined toward abstract thinking in areas of science, history, geography and more, as they apply these to the world and the universe around them.
Children at this age are also developing important social skills. Thus, they are far more interested in engaging with others in their environment. These children are making the transition from working (and playing) alongside peers to working with them cooperatively. They become interested in their extended community and have an ever-broadening sense of social awareness.
To offer the child a “Cosmic Education” is to offer the child a choice, giving them a chance to pursue what interests them. Once you have captured that interest, the child’s own sense of curiosity and wonder is engaged. This is the beginning of a love for learning, which could stay with your child for life.
The secret of good teaching is to regard the child’s intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown, to grow under the heat of flaming imagination. Our aim therefore is not merely to make the child understand, and still less to force him to memorize, but so to touch his imagination as to enthuse him to his inmost core. ~ Dr. Maria Montessori
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