Why are updates so hard? October 28 2019, 0 Comments

I recently recorded a webinar on introducing children to the diversity of life for the American Montessori Society (AMS). It is available in the professional development section of the AMS website. While I was preparing this webinar, I read articles on the history of biology education in the US. I was particularly interested to learn that a widely used high school biology text (Truman Moon’s Biology for Beginners) had been published in 1921 and remained much the same for 26 years – other than decreasing the coverage of evolution after the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial.

After 1947, this text got a new author, James Otto, and a new title, Modern Biology. It was updated several times at intervals of 3-5 years, but it still took decades before the content shifted appreciably. In 1965, this text had only three kingdoms in its coverage of diversity of life – animals, plants, and everything that didn’t fit comfortably into those two kingdoms. The author placed bacteria, algae, fungi, and protozoa into the “Kingdom Protista.”

I found an enlightening history of kingdom classification in “Five Kingdoms: More or Less” by Joel Hagen, an article published in the journal, Bioscience, volume 62, January 2012. This article tells how it took the biology education community a long time to accept the five kingdom idea, even though knowledge of the protists and prokaryotes was increasing. One of the reasons given was academic inertia, resistance to change in lesson content.

Montessorians are currently dealing with academic inertia. There is no path given for revising biology content. Maria Montessori didn’t give guidance on updates. Why would she see the need to do this? The biology taught in her lifetime hardly changed. It was mainly animal anatomy, human physiology, and botany. She couldn’t foresee the rapid changes and new vision of biology that came after her death.

After World War II, our cell biology studies became more detailed because of knowledge that biologists gained using the electron microscope. The use of radioactive tracers made possible knowledge of a mind-blogging number of chemical reactions in the cell. Knowledge of DNA structure came in 1953, and more than a decade later, biologists began to sequence this huge molecule and explore the second fossil record it carries. If anything, change in biology content has accelerated in the last two decades, as DNA sequencing techniques have gotten faster and cheaper, and so much more data is available.

It isn’t as if Montessori’s original elementary biology content is unchanged in the classroom. Most Montessorians have added ecology to life science. The majority moved from the original two kingdoms to five kingdoms sometime during the last two decades of the 20th century when biology texts included this scheme. Five Kingdoms is a nice, neat system, and it is hard to give up, particularly when the replacement is the still-evolving Tree of Life and its three domains. It is time, however, to send Five Kingdoms into biology history and use the current “family tree” diagrams (phylogenies) of life’s diversity.

Many discoveries and advances have changed the way biology is presented to students. In general academia, there is more emphasis on evidence-based thinking and doing science investigations. There is less emphasis on memorizing information. Change is indeed hard, especially when there is a well-ordered sequence of lessons in place. Do your biology lessons for elementary children give them a foundation on which they can build? Or will they have to discard many of their Montessori lessons to move into higher level biology study?

It is time for the Montessori community to come together and synthesize new lesson sequences and content. Who wants to work with me on this?

Priscilla Spears 

October 2019