The Gorilla in the Montessori Room July 15 2022, 2 Comments
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