Cosmic Education and the Second Plane
Maria Montessori envisioned education for the elementary child as holistic, purposeful, and comprehensive. She saw a “Cosmic Curriculum” with goals far surpassing that of skill development and the acquisition of a prescribed base of knowledge. Imagery, inquiry, and purposeful design help the child to realize the interconnectedness of the universe and their place within it. Maria Montessori saw the goal of education as “the development of a complete human being, oriented to the environment, and adapted to his or her time, place, and culture.” (Paula Polk Lillard, Montessori Today, 3)
Reflecting on her life’s work, Maria Montessori identified specific stages, or planes, of development. Like Freud and Piaget, Maria perceived each stage having a specific goal and a readily identifiable direction to follow in order to attain that goal. A child in the first plane (birth to 6 years) strives to orient him/her self in the family. The child has a primarily egocentric view of the world. His/her sense of order is external. At this stage, children take in vast amounts of information and grasp sophisticated relationships and principles wholly and effortlessly (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, 24). By the time a child enters elementary grades, he/she has usually passed through the first plane and is emerging in the second.
The child at the age of 6-12 years is in the intellectual period. “He wants to know everything. His thirst for knowledge is so insatiable that generally, people are at their wit’s end about it.” (Maria Montessori, Lecture at the University of Amsterdam, 1950). In the second plane of development, the child’s sense of order is internalized. He/she is driven to reason the how, why, and where behind things. The child of 6-12 has the ability to imagine beyond the concrete. His/her social development seeks independence and is monitored by a deep sense of morality and justice. Functioning within peer group “micro societies” enables the child to test the limits of right and wrong.
The third plane of development is a turbulent time. It correlates with the end of Piaget’s concrete stage and beginning of the formal. A child in this stage is undergoing radical physical and mental transformations. As they demonstrate the ability to think more abstractly and logically, they are also developing a social consciousness. They have a desire to contribute to society that is tempered by their vulnerability to criticism. They seek to find their role in society.
An individual entering the fourth plane of development has reached what we consider adulthood. They are typically well-balanced, mentally and physically. They serve as a functioning member of society capable of multiple perspectives and a great capacity for work.
It is for the second plane of development that cosmic education is most relevant. Rather than force the child to study what adults consider important, Maria Montessori says we should teach the child through a global vision so they can see that all parts are related. They will learn from whole to part and end with a better understanding of the whole. In her book, To Educate the Human Potential, Maria Montessori said, “If the area of the universe be presented to the child in the right way, it will do more for him than just arouse his interest, for it will create in him admiration and wonder, a feeling loftier than an interest and more satisfying. The child’s mind then will no longer wonder, but become fixed and can work. The knowledge then acquired is organized and systematic. His intelligence becomes whole and complete because of the vision of the whole that has been presented to him, and his interest spreads to all, for all are linked and have their place in the universe on which his mind is centered. . . No matter what we touch, an atom, or a cell, we cannot explain it without knowledge of the wide universe.” It is our interlinking of subject matter that allows the child to visualize its entirety.
Montessori felt that portraying the story of humanity and its achievements through child-centered work, the child is able to see where and how they fit into the picture. Teaching from whole to part allows the child to synthesize each piece as it relates to the larger whole, rather than teaching all the parts as through assembling pieces to an unknown puzzle. An integrated study of history, geography, biology, and physical science enables children to weave a blanket of understanding for the development of life and their place within it. Mathematics and language become tools used to explore the merits, development, and influences of past cultures, allowing children to become familiar with the world around them, both yesterday and today.
In her book Education for a New World, Maria Montessori said that a teacher needs to “visualize a child who will reveal himself through work” (87). When teaching, I need to visualize the adult of tomorrow in the child before me today. The needs of my class will change from year to year and from student to student. Establishing a classroom that is a reflection of the social, emotional, and intellectual needs of its students, combined with the instructional materials required to reach learning goals, sets the stage for engaged learning to take place. When I take pains to ensure that my classroom is a positive, cooperative, and cohesive learning environment, then the development of the autonomous learner is fostered and the community nurtured. My role as teacher is to teach for understanding. This means that I will strive to bring subject matter to life in order that my students experience learning, not just absorb material. I will create authentic, meaningful learning opportunities that stir the child up and make them anxious to know more about who they are and from where they come. This is the heart of Cosmic Education.