Some excerpts from an AMI theory paper on the Great Lessons and Key Lessons:
Dr. Montessori believed that “our teaching must only answer the mental needs of the child, never dictate them.” The mental needs and the mental activity of the elementary-aged child hinge upon the newly evolving faculties of imagination and reason. Remember at this stage of development the powers of the human intellect are most keen. The child’s mind is sharp and energetic. It is ready for meaningful exploration and discovery.
The framework for Dr. Montessori’s plan of education for the second plane child is cosmic education. In cosmic education, the universe, its composition and its inhabitants are opened up to the child. Within this framework, the child is able to spring into the grand and the mysterious, into the distant past and into the future. He is able to discover interdependencies as well as personal responsibility. Cosmic education serves up food for the imagination and food for the reasoning mind.
We go from the theory of cosmic education to actual practice of cosmic education with a series of mystery stories. They are grand in scope, inspiring in vision, systematic in progression, colorful in detail and deeply personal in implication. These stories are told with the respect both they and their intended audience deserve.
Each of the Great Lessons is an independent story, but after the first, each elaborates upon a theme set in the previous.
God with No Hands: The first of the cosmic tales. It is the story of the creation of the universe with particular attention given to our sun and our planet. The elementary age child is attracted to the grand and the mysterious, so ideally on the very first day in the elementary environment, that child is presented with the story that contains all the seeds of human knowledge: coldness, darkness, fire, air, water, solid, liquid, gas; elemental obedience and the establishment of order. The child’s imagination allows participation. The story distills the unreachable into the understandable. This first great lesson begins to answer some of the children’s questions but more importantly it excites new ones.
The Coming of Life: This story follows within a week of the first. This story focuses on the development and refinement of earth’s flora and fauna. It brings to the child’s attention the diversity, the beauty, and tenacity of life. The timeline that accompanies the story represents some of the biological and geological events that are part of earths’ history. It represents a few of the plants and animals that have graced our earth. At the end of the second story, the child is introduced to a very special life-form, whose story receives elaboration about a week later in the third Great Lesson: human beings.
The Coming of Human Beings: Thus far, the child has been placed in contact with abiotic and biotic creatures of the world. Each element of creation, whether living or not, is subject to natural laws, to inner directives and universal order. Each contributes by its every existence to the contribution and continuation of life. This story becomes our story – the child’s story – with the third Great Lesson. The human being enters the scene with the very special attributes of reason and will – intelligence and love – with an ability to work with the hand in ways unknown to other animals and with the possibility of choice. Dr. Montessori said, “Something new came into the world with man, a psychic energy of life, different from any that had yet been expressed.” Human beings have used their intelligence, love and hands to continue their own story. Two of their major accomplishments, literacy and numeration, are introduced in the next two Great Lessons. Because they do not open subject areas in the same way as do the first three Great Lesson, you can wait a small number of weeks (2-3) before coming to these stories if the children are not yet ready.
Communication in Signs: It takes the child on a journey through the development of our alphabet. Another week or two later, comes the fifth Great Lesson.
Numbers: This story traces the history of the numerals we use.
In both of the above last stories, connections are made between cultures of different times and places. The children are led to an appreciation of these two symbol systems that we usually take for granted, despite the fact that we ourselves use them more or less everyday.
Because the initial impression has been clear and uncluttered, the relationships and connections between them remain intact.
A vision of the whole provides the child an orientation, a home base, within space, time and history. It is the nature of the human being to order the environment in a meaningful way. Great Lessons reveal to the child the importance of order and laws and directives within the cosmos and within the creations of human beings, for example the conventions of writing and arithmetic. In the elementary environment, the children are at work, physically and intellectually, creating their own body of knowledge.
Repeat the stories every year or every few months. Yes, even into upper elementary. When the child does not want to repeat because they “know it all” invite them in with, “Let’s just see if perhaps there is something more here we didn’t see before.”
Remember that we offer a colorful overview, not exhaustive information.
Invite *all* elementary children to the Great Lessons.
Older children (upper elementary) have their own work with the Great Lessons, so keep telling them.
The Key Lessons are guideposts along the path of learning and discovery; supports here and there that follow up the Great Lessons and lead to deeper understanding and greater connections. They can be done in between the Great Lessons or at any point in time afterward.
The Lessons in the albums that are not Great Lessons or games or extensions are key lessons. Mario Montessori defined key lessons as lessons which “take up the detail item by item. Each gives some new information, presents new material, or shows another exercise in a progression which allows the mind to build up knowledge and to continue searching on its own for what it does not know.” Key lessons are those which are absolutely necessary for the child’s understanding – the (AMI) albums are filled with key lessons.
The albums are filled with key lessons and each album has a root in a Great Lesson. Each album takes up the details and clarifies or elaborates upon them. Besides the keys that we offer with materials, other key lessons are the short stories that the adult tells to illuminate a particular lesson already given. Some of the stories are in the albums, and others are developed by the adult, based on research as well as the principles of clarity and brevity. The key lessons are always ended with an indication that there is more to come – more to explore, together or individually.
Key lessons are guideposts along the path of learning within cosmic education. You will use most of them with your children, but if a child has the understanding already, remember that the materials are tools to an end, not the end in itself. Key lessons do not open up new areas, but provide touch-points for discussions, deeper understanding and encouragement of further learning.