Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Montessori Geography or Not

In general, the Montessori approach to anything is to start with the whole, and then delve into the parts. In general, I think this is great. Learn about trees as a whole, then about leaves, etc. In many topics, this really helps the transition between concrete and abstract; a child can see a big tree easily. They can break it down into leaves, branches, trunk, and roots as they look more closely. If they look really closely, they can see that the leaf has parts. Then it's not so hard to think that maybe those parts are made of parts too. If they get out their microscope, they can see the cells, and understand better than before working through this process that they are parts of the leaf. And if they are ready, it won't be too much of a leap to think that cells have parts, and that those parts may *do* something, and learn about photosynthesis. As I get deeper into the reality of implementing the Montessori method, however, I am realizing that there is one really big topic that is not served well by this process; geography.

In my experience (and I am not trained, nor have I by any means seen them all) Montessori political geography albums begin with the globe. Even with some expanding map work, this seems like an enormous, insane leap to thrust upon a preschooler. A child who in all other areas is understood to be incapable of abstraction is supposed to imagine that we are all on a big ball in the middle of vast nothing? The maps are presented beginning with all the continents of the world, then the individual continents, and finally countries with a breakdown of the specific states/provinces of the child's country. This seems totally opposite to the idea of moving gently to abstraction that really is the heart of the "whole-to-parts" method. I think there is some desire also to start with something conceptually huge and inspiring that makes the kids want to delve deeper into understanding. That doesn’t really work for me either, however, as with a history in astrophysics specializing in the collisions of galaxies, I have trouble summoning the same sense of wonder Kinde’s teacher did holding a globe and exclaiming with wide eyes “This is our whole world!” And ultimately I just feel that the understanding derived from beginning with things the student comprehends and expanding outward in distance and abstraction is more important. Despite Kinde's original introduction to geography in her year of Montessori preschool, and our conventional efforts last year, I am shifting gears this year (and in the future for Pre). We are moving to a system starting with what is close and relevant to the child and moving out from there. Generally this looks like a progression:

Basic mapping and developing our sense of place in our own local
State (presented by region)
Other continents

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