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Cosmic Education: The Heart of the Montessori Elementary Classroom

Give the World to the Small Child

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

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