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Teaching History's Big Picture

How did you learn history? What do you remember about those lessons? If you were one of a lucky few whose teachers brought history alive through stories and dramatic presentations, then you may have grown up with a passion for the unfolding of life and humanity on our planet.

Viewing The Past From An Event centered Standpoint
But for many, the past is taught as a series of dates and events, set in a line from one conflict-driven benchmark to the next. I think there is a better way. There is a drama behind historical events, no matter how significant or mundane; drama is the compelling force in the study of the past. Teachers who capture and share the unfolding drama of history inspire learning and lifelong curiosity of the events that shape our past, our present and our future.

Does It Make Sense
History, like any subject, must make sense in order to have any hope of being remembered. Even more significant for placement in long-term memory, the information must have personal meaning for the student. The student, regardless of age, must be able to feel, on some level, the significance of past events and put them into meaningful context for his/her own life.

The Underlying Purpose
With this in mind, I would like to take a look at the Montessori approach to the study of the whole of history. The goal of the Montessori history curriculum is to inspire children to see themselves as an important participant in the unfolding of humankind. By understanding the past and feeling their significance in the present, Montessori believed that students would be prepared to make their conscious contribution to the world. This was her design for peace education.

A Linear Approach
Montessori’s approach to history begins with the telling of earth’s story from its beginning to the present. It continues with the story of life on the planet, the story of humans, the story of the development of language and, finally, the story of mathematics. Each of these five Great Lessons approaches its topic from a wholistic perspective. Each tells its respective story including scientific and social impacts of the events. Montessori saw the interconnectedness of all living and non-living things on the planet. The Great Lessons share the big picture story with plenty of opportunity for the student to investigate aspects on her own.

The Great Lessons
The Great Lessons on the development of Writing and of Mathematics give students a glimpse into how different cultures have made contributions to the subjects throughout time. Through these timeline lessons, students see in a direct way how different people from different cultures and perspectives played a unique role in the development of something we all use everyday. These timeline lessons, which can be applied to any subject that interests the child, are called vertical timelines in that they look at the various layers of our past like an archaeologist looks through layers of a dig.

Cultural Contributions
The Montessori studies of history don’t stop with these timeline-based lessons. The curriculum includes an emphasis on the study of cultures, both current and historical. A child in the Montessori classroom will have the opportunity to investigate the people of ancient times as well as modern peoples around the world. These horizontal studies look at a slice of time and the people and events that made it memorable. They are a natural extension to the vertical stories because children want to know more about the different time periods that are discussed along the way.

The Big Picture
Teaching history as a big, overall picture gives a broader context in which the history can make sense. It imparts deeper meaning for the modern child’s experience. When brain researchers look at this sort of learning situation, they say there is optimal opportunity to transfer the pieces of data into long term memory.

What Is The Point?
But more important than the memory of specific facts is the processing of the logic behind the history. Most important is understanding how human nature responded to problems in the past and thinking about how humans will respond to problems in the present and the future. Teaching history from a big picture perspective allows the type of learning which is more likely to transfer when new topics and learning situations are presented. Students who have this kind of experience of history, will tend to look at modern problems from several different perspectives and be accepting of cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic differences of opinion.

The Goals Behind The Method
Dr. Montessori’s goals went far beyond the learning of dates and events, people and places. She wanted children to learn important lessons from the events so they could take these lessons into the future to create a better world for those who would follow. She understood that children have a fierce desire to understand themselves and to feel important in their own lives. By acknowledging these fundamental characteristics of the child, she developed a curriculum that would put children in touch with a global view of the past and that would allow them to shape the future.

Coming soon… Montessori's Great Lessons

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