What is this about a gorilla in the Montessori room? Is it a radical new classroom pet?
No, it is a symbol of an ongoing problem that is being ignored for many reasons – it is difficult, uncomfortable, and so big that it will take considerable effort to deal with it. Here is why I think there is a “gorilla” in Montessori classrooms.
Maria Montessori designed her brilliant elementary framework around five great lessons, and she constructed it with her perspective as an early 20th century European. Her understanding that children need spiritual nourishment, not just facts, guides us today. Her stories are tied into the science content she felt children should have. She gave them real knowledge, not a watered-down version, along with inspiration to learn more.
The inspiration and spiritual nourishment are still wonderful, but there is a problem with the content of those stories and the lessons that come from it. She used the state-of-the-art information for her time in the stories, and many classrooms still do that – they use the state-of-the-art biology from the mid-20th century. This leaves children woefully out of touch with today’s view of life science.
Biology has come a long way since the mid-20th century. Not only are two, five, or six kingdoms obsolete, but the whole idea of kingdoms is not what it once was. If you still use five or six kingdoms as your main lesson on the diversity of life, it is time to move those materials to the history of biology and move on. The Tree of Life provides the framework now, and the three kingdoms (fungus, animal, and plant) that are still valid are not the organizing framework for the diversity of life. Instead, they are major branches among many others on the Tree of Life. Biologists have extended classification to include the relationships between all kinds of life. Shared common ancestry drives classification, not just physical appearance.
For an example, see the website for animals, The Shape of Life: The Story of the Animal Kingdom (https://www.shapeoflife.org/). It has a tree of life that gives the derived traits for the lineages. You can download the pdf from https://www.shapeoflife.org/news/resource/2016/10/18/tree-life and print it. This branching diagram is not for beginners, but it will help you see how the diversity of life is shown scientifically.
This website also has an artist’s Tree of Life for animals, and I think children would enjoy poring over it. It is by Ray Troll; the pdf is available at https://www.shapeoflife.org/news/featured-article/2018/02/26/we%E2%80%99ve-got-your-tree-life-right-here. Even though it is an artist’s interpretation and shows little of the other branches of life, it has valid branches for animals.
There has been such a revolution in biologists’ ideas about the diversity of life that it has required college professors to be flexible and ready to change. Some revise their course content on a yearly basis. DNA data has been a big part of the change, and biologists continue to acquire new data. The rapid change doesn’t mean that it is OK to stick with old ideas until the field settles down. It means that children need the new framework and new ideas about how biologists see life’s variety. They don’t need to spend time learning a system they will set aside in further studies.
Back to that “gorilla.” I see that inadequate movement toward new ideas is common in Montessori teacher education programs. The extent of change in biology means that everyone needs to learn current biology ideas, including teacher educators and teachers with all levels of experience. It calls for relevant conference presentations and professional development courses. It means that teachers can’t simply change a few terms and keep teaching the old framework.
Certainly, there has been progress in updating biology for Montessori schools. Cynthia Brunold-Conesa’s album, Life Science Lessons for Montessori Elementary Classrooms, has a totally new structure and current ideas. You can find it at https://georgeconesa.wixsite.com/lifesciencemont.
For more than two decades, I have been working to bring updated materials with current ideas to Montessorians. My recent video course, Life Science Literacy for Elementary Teachers, is available through Trillium Montessori at https://courses.trilliummontessori.org/p/life-science-literacy. I have revised my books and card sets multiple times, and I continue to do so each time I reprint an item. The websites change, the classifications change, and even the terminology evolves.
Montessori classrooms help children acquire knowledge. In biology, will it be useful knowledge, or will they have to relearn the subject later? It depends on whether Montessori leaders do something about that gorilla in the room.
Priscilla Spears, July 2022
I have been studying the concepts of evolution and false ideas about this process. “Evolution” literally means “unrolling,” and we use the word as a name for the changes in life over time. I am convinced that children (and everyone else) need to know valid ideas about evolution as a basis for social justice and peace.
The idea that some life is more advanced or important than other life started with Aristotle and Plato. They used an animal-vegetable-mineral classification, which is an intuitive idea that still exists. It leads to misconceptions about how evolution occurs and what it produces.
Aristotle introduced the “scala naturae” or great chain of being, which is a ranking of organisms from “lower” to “higher.” He ranked animals with blood above those without – the invertebrates whose blood he didn’t recognize. Plants, of course, went beneath animals, followed by minerals. Soil was at the very bottom of the scheme, which is the opposite of our current view. Now we see soil as a unique combination of living and non-living, and the foundation and sustainer of life on land.
During the Middle Ages, the idea of a chain or ladder of life became a religious idea as well. At the top sat the deity with the angels beneath, then humans, and so on down the ladder. Religious authorities presented this ordering as divinely given, which likely helped keep those on the lower rungs of social structure down there doing the hard work.
At one time, biologists used the great chain of being concept, and scholars thought that all organisms were striving to improve and move up the ladder of life. When Darwin proposed his theory of evolution via natural selection, he included the idea that there was no direction to evolution. After genetics and molecular biology showed the mechanism of evolution, most biologists accepted the idea that evolution doesn’t have a goal. Some biologists still thought that life was evolving toward complexity or some pinnacle of evolution.
One of the most famous – and wrong – illustrations of evolution shows a monkey, an ape, a caveman, and a modern man marching along from left to right. Note that I said “man” not “human.” This iconic illustration always ends with a Caucasian male. It leaves the impression that white males are the ultimate product of evolution.
There is no pinnacle of evolution, only a many-branched Tree of Life. There are no “highly evolved” organisms vs. more primitive ones. All life in existence is very complex; it has thousands of molecules in a highly ordered arrangement, all functioning together. All extant life has been evolving for the same amount of time although some lineages have undergone more visible changes than others. If life continues to exist, it continues to evolve.
It may seem that evolution produces more complex life, but that is not always the case except for the earliest life. Think of life starting as simple cells. There wasn’t any room to get simpler, but the opportunities to become more complex were plentiful. Even with that, there are many instances of a lineage of life becoming less complex and losing structures rather than developing new ones. This has happened frequently with parasitic organisms, but free-living animals also give up structures. The echinoderm lineage is sister to the chordates, which means that they shared a common ancestor. One branch got more complex and developed vertebrae; the other got simpler and combined several organ systems into a water vascular system. Both are highly successful.
As far as anyone can tell, evolution has no special direction and no goal other than the survival of life, all kinds of life. Especially all kinds of life because it takes diversity for life to continue. There is no climbing to the top, whatever that might be. With no ladder of life, there are no missing links, and paleontologists no longer use that term.
What does this mean in the classroom? The guiding adult must take great care to express the concepts of evolution accurately and to remove any diagrams that give false impressions.
I’ve written previously about the problem of teleology, the idea that organisms change because they want to or need to do so, but it is worth repeating. Fish didn’t decide to try growing legs, and they didn’t get them because they wanted to get out of the water. Those are teleological ideas. If an organism could change because it wanted to do so, there would likely be a lot of three-armed people taking care of small children. 😊
I don’t mean to say that people can’t change; they certainly change their minds and may work to bring about other changes in their lives. Individuals do not evolve, however. Evolution can be defined as a change in the frequency of a trait in a population. The process of natural selection brings about this change. A random mutation can change a trait in an individual organism, but evolution doesn’t take place unless that trait is passed to offspring, AND it confers an advantage for surviving and reproducing.
In the classroom, if children see a Tree of Life diagram that shows humans (or mammals) as a part of the diversity of life, they will have a better perspective than if they see a row of equally spaced boxes with humans/mammals at the far right. If they see a timeline of humans that shows modern humans with a range of skin colors, it will give a more accurate impression of what the evidence indicates has happened. An accurate timeline of humans cannot be a straight line. See https://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-evolution-interactive-timeline for a more realistic view.
A timeline of humans that ends in light-skinned and light-haired people is not fair to anyone. I think it is best if children understand that there are many colors and cultures of humans, and that all of them are equally evolved and equally valuable. You may ask best for what? Best for our species and the whole biosphere.
“Life is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, not a ladder of predictable progress.”
― Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History
Priscilla Spears, November 2021