Cultural is not social studies with some science thrown in it




By Erika Ohlhaver



“And to understand anything in the real world, to help the child to understand anything in the real world, means that we cannot limit the child or ourselves to one subject at a time, to one box or compartment of knowledge at a time. If we try to do this, the child will always ask what is the point of learning this or that, what is the point of learning geometry or geography or history, and study and knowledge will come to seem a useless and sterile thing, cut off from any living reality. But if the child is using geometry, geography, etc. to understand the world, to develop clear ideas about how the world and human society function, then the work brings its own reward, self-evident and emotionally satisfying, and the child is never left wondering, “What is the point of all this?”


Camillo Grazzini


Cosmic Education at the Elementary Level and the Role of the Materials, The NAMTA Journal Vol. 22, No. 1 Winter 1997.


Is it just me, or have you witnessed the same deer in the headlights look when you tell people that once the first and second year elementary students in the classroom have worked on math and language, the Montessori curriculum changes its focus to the cultural curriculum? Perhaps it’s because there is very little hardware to teach this subject area, or maybe people think that the cultural subjects are more like Social Studies: some type of “research” activity to be done when the students have finished language and math on their work plan!


To be clear, let’s define what I mean by the cultural subjects. In my mind the areas explored in cultural are science, history, and geography. Historically, the early childhood teachers have some cultural curriculum, but it’s not a major focus; unlike practical life, sensorial, reading, and math. As a matter of fact, until relatively recently, these rudimentary cultural lessons presented in early childhood were housed in a “fifth album”. It didn't even warrant a name!

I also understand the importance of focusing on language arts and mathematical skills in early elementary, since these are foundational skills. However, when looking at the traditional Montessori curriculum as a whole, there is a significant switch to the cultural subjects during the end of Lower Elementary, and it extends through all of Upper Elementary and beyond.


So why is it that parents, administrators, and even many teachers don’t make this switch? Let’s take a look at each subject.




Surely, in today’s educational arena with the emphasis on STEM, everyone can get behind teaching science! So it can’t be that people don’t see the relevance of teaching the subject. Also, looking at the classic presentations moving from lower elementary through upper elementary, the Montessori life science curriculum is unparalleled. How many other fifth and sixth grade students can describe the vital functions of all the plant and animal phyla, while speaking knowledgeably of the Six Kingdoms, their characteristics, and their taxonomy?


Ok, I’ll admit that physics, chemistry, and ecology are a little threadbare in the classic curriculum, but there are authentic resources available to present this curriculum to the students. If we were really honest with ourselves, would we have to admit that we are hesitant to present these additional sciences because we ourselves do not know it? As evidence, I would submit that many schools now have a “science specialist” who is responsible for presenting the science curriculum to the students. The problem with this format is that the teachers send their students to the specialist, who has maybe one or two hours a week, to present the concepts to the students. The teachers feel that the concepts have been presented and therefore do not provide follow up activities for the classroom. The students see it as fun time where they get to do experiments, but nothing is applied, extended, or integrated.

So let’s say that you are presenting the full science curriculum. Which skills are we incorporating when we expose our students to these concepts besides the basic exposure to informational and expository text?


There will be skills in:


  •      1. Following directions
  •      2. Sequencing
  •      3. Predicting
  •      4. Observation
  •      5. Integrating ideas that are contrary to the original thought
  •      6. Using measurement skills to gather data
  •      7. Using mathematical processes
  •      8. Tracking data in graphic form
  •      9. Interpreting the data collected
  •      10. Using synthesis skills to complete a conclusion
  •      11. Writing to communicate those conclusions

From this list it seems obvious that the science curriculum integrates the skills identified for both Language Arts and Math standards.




I understand that the history curriculum in Montessori differs from the social studies sequence in American schools. This is because John Dewey, the father of American education, believed that starting with the neighborhood, moving to the city, state, then country, would promote nationalism. Now don’t get me wrong, identifying with your country is a good thing, but Dr. Montessori, as always, was ahead of her time.


She believed that young children needed to understand their place within the framework of world history. This is why the lessons, after the concept of time has been established, are to introduce students to fundamental needs. We all have the same fundamental needs; across time, across geography, and across cultures. It’s a framework from which to study different groups of people. These fundamental needs are introduced in Lower Elementary, and become the lens through which we study all other groups of people. I remember bringing in a parent guest speaker, who also happened to be a university professor in anthropology, to share his knowledge of early humans. In preparation for his discussion with my students I shared this same fundamental needs framework. He looked at me with just the right amount of wistfulness and said, “I wish my college kids came to my classes with this type of framework!”


So if we still need further justification to follow the Montessori history sequence let's look at the standards that are met, simply by “doing it”. Whether introducing the Timeline of Life, Early Humans, Ancient Civilization, or the state history, there should be follow up research projects. What is actually happening when appropriate research activities are scaffolded for the student? There will be:


  1.      1. Beginning research questions
    1.      2. Reading trade books
    2.      3. Finding internet resources
    3.      4. Identifying the main idea of the content
    4.      5. Summarizing or paraphrasing that content
    5.      6. Citing the resource
    6.      7. Writing multi-paragraph or multi-page rough drafts
    7.      8. Editing the rough draft
    8.      9. Writing a final copy
  2.      10. Presenting the research to the class either orally, or in another presentational style

Anyone who is conversant with current educational standards will recognize these are all language arts skills. Who says we have to separate these out into either language arts or history?




Ok, I can understand where those who are not familiar with the traditional Montessori curriculum would be confused about geography. It is natural to think that this subject would be about maps…..and it is to some degree. However, in Dr. Montessori’s and Mario’s interpretation, geography also included earth science. The geography curriculum is divided into cultural geography (sometimes termed human geography), and functional geography. There is a difference.


Cultural geography is how the continents have been artificially divided into countries that have borders, states, capitals, flags, and economic resources. Cultural geography shares how the inhabitants of that country have used their resources, developed rituals, traditions, and holidays based on where they live. It includes the type of governments that have developed as well as the architecture and artifacts that exist. It is easy to see that if the study of the country is removed from “the lens of today”, it connects easily to the history curriculum.


Functional geography is more attuned to earth science. It is the study of how the Universe, solar system, earth, land and water forms were formed, as well as the how the aspects of light, water, wind, and continental movement change the shape of the landscape. It’s heady stuff and most of the time needs to be presented impressionistically, because these changes happen over millennia. Furthermore, as our educational standards have evolved the study of ecology, the bridge between functional geography and life science, has become more pronounced. When ecology is presented as the link between these two content areas it becomes very clear how one branch of the cultural area relates to the other. Dr. Montessori termed this Cosmic Education, a specific curriculum usually introduced to children who are in the second plane of development.


So here’s the thing: if children understand that when light hits the earth it provides heat in different ways, depending where that light hits. This light and heat creates different biomes in which flora and fauna make adaptations to exist there. Humans populate different areas of the earth and use the natural resources available to satisfy their fundamental needs, and these resources are adapted to make a culture specific to that area on the earth. If each culture is merely using the available resources and we all have the same fundamental needs, we become more tolerant of diversity.


This is the basis of the Montessori peace curriculum, a child’s understanding of tolerance comes from studying the cultural subjects, in full, and in depth. Studying this content is more than maps, timelines, and nomenclature; it is the embodiment of Dr. Montessori’s vision, and one that is easily attained. When we look beyond the individual lessons and content area and look at the big picture we can expose our students to advanced concepts, meet standards, and still fulfill Dr. Montessori’s vision.


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