What is necessary is that the individual from the earliest years should be placed in relation with humanity. … Every achievement has come by the sacrifice of someone now dead. Every map speaks eloquently of the work of explorers and pioneers, who underwent hardships and trials to find new places, rivers and lakes, and to make the world greater and richer for our dwelling.Maria Montessori
The Purpose of History Education
The human world into which our children are born is bewilderingly complex. It boasts countless and often conflicting institutions, ever-evolving technologies, and contradictory norms and practices. This is a world that most adults struggle to understand—partially in virtue of the approach to history and civics in most schools, which doesn’t typically provide a helpful framework for thinking about the dynamic human world.
But even elementary-aged children want and need to start to make sense this cacophony, to understand the world they live in, to learn to appreciate it, and, ultimately, to be empowered with the knowledge needed to participate in it, affect it, change it.
The critical key for understanding for a student to understand, appreciate, and change the culture of their world—in all of aspects—is history. Conversely, the key learning outcome of history is the ability to understand, appreciate, and ultimately change their world.
History, in our elementary programs, is not a list of dates, nor is it a collection of topics and themes. It is a unified story of the development of the modern world—the explanation of the world of the student. It is a synoptic, rich timeline of its arts and inventions, its people and institutions, its arc of events, conflicts, and, most of all, ideas.
Students in our elementary history program learn, across the six years of elementary, the unbroken chronology of Western history, from early civilizations through the present.
History in Our Classrooms
History is infused into our Montessori elementary classrooms. There are three major aspects of the history curriculum:
The Great Lessons: six key lessons that cover the history of every topic in the elementary curriculum at the highest level, and that are delivered annually to all students;
Civilizations: historical work and lessons focused on understanding how early civilizations came to be and how they addressed fundamental human needs, done primarily by lower elementary students;
Western History: a three-year sequence of Western history, from ancient Egypt to the present, done primarily by upper elementary students.
The Great Lessons are big-picture history lessons that serve as the integrating and framing context for the entire elementary curriculum. They are given every year, in both lower and upper elementary (with older students who have mastered the lessons assisting in their final years).
The lessons are:
The Coming of the Universe: an overview of cosmology, covering the origin and historical arrangement of the physical and chemical elements of the universe, all the way to the solar system and the earth;
The Coming of Life: an overview of the history of life, covering the emergence of different forms of life, up to and including humans, with associated geological changes;
The Coming of Humans: the story of the emergency of early humans and our earliest struggles and discoveries;
The Coming of Writing: a big picture history of writing, how it emerged and evolved from pictures to alphabets;
The Coming of Numbers: the emergence of counting, then measurement, then mathematics
The Story of the Great River: a story that analogizes the human body to an ancient civilization, giving a big picture overview of human anatomy.
Lower elementary students, with a combination of charts, presentations, and other learning materials, start to learn history at the earliest stages. They study a variety of early civilizations and come to understand the full range of fundamental human needs a civilization evolves to serve, from material to political to spiritual.
Building on these foundations and hungry for ever-more abstract and relevant explanations, upper elementary students begin a more systematic study of history. They receive monthly presentations, 24 over the course of three years, that cover key topics and epochs in history in sequence.
The sequence varies somewhat by student grouping and by year, but goes roughly, over three years, from Ancient Egypt through the Renaissance, from the Age of Exploration and colonialism through the end of the American Civil War, and from the Industrial Revolution through the modern era of “Pax Americana.”
Students build a timeline based on these 24 key lessons as they move through the program. Moreover, each of these key, high-level lessons provides the opportunity for extensions—more detailed, sub-timelines that unfold under the heading of the broad timeline. For example, all students learn important basics about Columbus and Magellan in the key lessons on the Age of Exploration—but there is a more detailed sequence of lessons that follows the establishment of the entire Columbian exchange in the 16th and 17th centuries far beyond the initial excursions from Europe, establishing a worldwide, closed circuit—one that included trade between Asia and the Americas, further exacerbating the conflict between global trade and mercantilism, and setting the context for modern globalization. There are even opportunities, for the interested student, to go into controversies over how to understand particular epochs in history.
Not every student will go into this much depth on this particular topic—but all students will go into that much depth on some topics in history, and have a robust sense both of what they know and what there still is to learn.
Because of the focus on intellectual history, presentations are often followed by rich discussions, with students engaging in a mixture of historical fact-finding and philosophical debate. Writing is a critical part of solidifying understanding in history, and history is often grist for our writing curriculum.
These three elements add up: students enter middle school with an incredible rich, solid understanding of where their world came from. They have:
A complete outline of Western history, held in a way that is both chronological and meaningful;
The context of historical knowledge to go into much more depth on any topic in history (Western or otherwise);
A nuanced understanding of what it takes to understand an aspect history in more depth;
A particular understanding and appreciation for intellectual history, for the development of enduring ideas that shaped and continue to shape our world.