Learning to Think in an Ever-Changing World

 First published in E!stilo Magazine (Poland) 

Children today live in a world truly different from when we were children. Back then our parents and our grandparents anticipated we would become adults in a world that would resemble their own. How our parents and grandparents learned was sufficient for how we learned: We learned to memorize. What we memorized would prepare us for our adult lives because we grew up into a known future. This is no longer the case. Our children are growing into an ever changing future, and this is taking place worldwide. The evidence is pervasive. We live changing economics, politics, technology, medicine, sciences, environment, and more. 

When we were children, a primary function of our educational and other institutions was to preserve traditions. Learning to memorize preserves information. Now the sheer amount of information explodes daily, and we expect disruption. Consequently, if children merely learn to memorize they will not become adequately prepared their adult lives. Instead, we must guide children to learn to think. Learning to think is not the same as learning to memorize. Thinking involves inquiry, innovation, creativity, analysis, synthesis, problem solving, developing habits of persistence, becoming self-reliant, and more. 

Learning to think occurs daily in Montessori schools found in Poland and throughout the world. Based on the discoveries and insights of Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952), Montessori schools provide developmentally appropriate inquiry-based learning activities. Developmentally appropriate refers to children learn differently according to their age. For example, children under the age of six or seven think with objects; older children are able to think more with language. 

Drawing from nearly 110 years of Montessori experience, we know that children during their first six years desire to become independent. Throughout the world children as young as two declare, I can do it!” They are determined to dress themselves, feed themselves, build with objects, look at books, and much more. They are determined to think for themselves. But their determination is often easily thwarted if they are in environments that are not correctly designed. In Montessori classrooms, children between the ages of two and six explore a vast array of materials that assist children with becoming independent. This includes learning to think, read, and compute mathematically. 

The secret to becoming to doing it “all by myself” is to develop coordination. Coordination enables organized movement and use of the hands. Simply, until the child’s hands develop coordination and strength, the child’s ability to fasten buttons, zippers, or tie shoes is limited. Until the child’s hands develop coordination and strength, the child’s ability to write is limited. 

As children coordinate their movements, they also develop cognitive mastery. Cognitive mastery is a necessary component of learning to think. Young children do this with concrete materials. There are some 150 learning activities in a typical Montessori classroom for children between the ages of three and six. Each activity presents abstract ideas in a concrete form. Young children are also sensorial learners; they cannot yet reason. When children use the learning activities, they will examine each object and take note of the colors, sizes, shapes, textures, and sometimes odors and tastes. 

The children use the materials to developing cognitive thinking abilities such as observation, exploration, sequencing, sorting, combining, comparing, and contrasting. They also use the learning activities to learn to read, write, compute arithmetically, identify geographic land forms, and investigate scientific properties. 

The learning experience begins when a particular learning activity is chosen. The child is shown how to carry the materials to a table or to the floor. The process of sequence has begun. Daily we coordinate all kinds of sequences – sequences for dressing, getting children ready, eating, transporting, working, leisure, and more. Sequences require brain maturation (a newborn cannot sequence), and sequences are learned. For example, a three-year-old child investigates and sorts a basket of colored objects. The process of sorting involves forming groups or sets of the objects with the same color. When they are older, children will sort letters and forms sets called words, and then sets of words called sentences, and so on. They will sort quantities and form numerical hierarchies (such as 4,376) and construct arithmetic operations. 

The idea of number is introduced to very young children using the quantities of length. A three year old has brought a set of ten wooden rods to the floor. Each is painted red, and each has the same thickness. They differ in length ranging from ten centimeters to one meter; they increase in length by ten centimeters. An initial purpose for this activity is to sequence the rods from shortest to longest by comparing and contrasting the lengths. Exploration of length serves to indirectly develop the concept of number. The second rod is twice the length of the first; the third rod is three times the length of the first. The third rod is also the combination or sum of the first two. Older children will use the red rods to explore the idea of fractions. The first rod is 1⁄2 the length of the second and 1/3 the length of the third. The red rods also invite creative design such as making mazes. 

In a science activity, a child examines a different set of objects. He places each into a bowl of water and notes which sink and which float. The objects are taken out of the bowl, dried, and then placed on a two-column chart labeled sink and float. Another child looks intently at a set of pictures and sorts each one according to its classification type, invertebrate and vertebrate. 

These are but a few examples of the many learning activities which guide children to develop habits of thinking. Children during their first six years seek to become independent through the development of coordination. Children during the next six years want to be knowledgeable, and they will naturally develop habits of inquiry. Children wonder about everything, and they want to know the reasons all of it. Montessori elementary schools answer this natural quest through an elaborate interdisciplinary course of study called the Cosmic Curriculum. This curriculum is presented to children in the first through six grades. 

The Cosmic Curriculum is organized into the Five Great Lessons. Each Great Lesson involves telling stories, exploring hands-on learning materials, conducting experiments and research, reading and discussing texts, engaging in role play and dramatic reenactments, and still more. Children use materials to investigate and understand knowledge drawn from anthropology, astronomy, biology, botany, chemistry, geography, geology, history, language, mathematics, physics, sociology, and zoology. The intent is for children to experience being scientists and authors as they satisfy their desire to learn how to learn. The Montessori guide gives numerous presentations which provide children with information and procedures; the presentations will also stimulate children’s thinking and sense of wonderment. Children are encouraged to identify their own related interests and then engage in their own investigations. 

Elementary age children naturally want to know where everything comes from, and the first great lesson offers multiple perspectives concerning the origins of the universe. Multiple perspectives are considered including science. The children conduct over twenty experiments on the physical properties of matter including erosion, sedimentation, precipitation, temperature, and more. The intent is to present more than scientific orientation. Literature and mythology are read and discussed; older elementary children may also read from various religious texts. 

The second great lesson seeks to satisfy children’s desire to belong. Young children often prefer to do things independently by themselves. Elementary children prefer to collaborate and to do things together. The second great lesson offers an ecological understanding about life on earth: What are its purposes? As children explore various geological eras, they come to understand that life before ours contributed to the whole. The children begin to wonder and ask what they will contribute. We call this process the discovery of cosmic task: Why am I here? What am I meant to do? The Montessori guide facilities the inquiry; there are no prescribed answers when the curriculum engages children in awareness of life itself. 

During the third great lesson children explore the origins of human civilization. They examine archeological and anthropological date concerning the progression of human social, economic, and political life from hunting/gathering to the agricultural revolution to the ancient empires. During these studies children will take up questions and issues of justice and fairness; elementary children natural develop an understanding of morality. Questions may include how did our ancestors resolve conflicts? What is justice? What does it mean to be fair? Is justice universally defined and understood? How can we resolve our own conflicts? 

The forth great lesson concerns the development of human languages, and the fifth great lessons concerns numbers and mathematics. 

Montessori children actually do memorize. They are expected to know basic math facts (1 +3 or 5 x 7), and they are expected to know the various combinations of spelling. Math facts and spelling are necessary points-of-departure for learning to understand and think mathematically and for learning to think like an author. The main emphasis is to learn to think, and children can only learn this in developmentally appropriate ways. That is, learning to think engages the whole person. The Montessori learning program differs significantly from the test-based, memorization approach. Imagine growing up where how you learn influences who you will become. Instead of recalling the one expected correct answer, Montessori children are shown many methods of knowing. The Montessori guide models reflective thinking. The Montessori guide asks, What did you discover? How did you do that? Is this what you expected? What might you do differently next time? If you did that, what might you discover next? These and many other questions become part of a child’s habits of learning and ability to think. This is what it takes to become a self-reliant adult in an ever changing future.