Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Great Lessons and Religion

A LOT of readers write to me with questions about the Five Great Lessons that are the centerpiece and driving force of Montessori elementary cosmic education.  The Great Lessons deal with topics such as the beginnings of the universe, the history of human development, language, and mathematics, as well as plant and animal life.  It can be a huge stumbling block when the driving force of your curriculum doesn't mesh with your family's beliefs.  A lot of the discussion focuses on the First Great Lesson due to its working titles: "God With No Hands" or "The Beginning."  However, I think that the first lesson isn't much of a problem due to several existing variations and the focus of the lesson in general but the second and third lessons are much more difficult.  

As my mentor, Jessica from Keys of the Universe, points out, none of these stories should be read off a page as someone else's.  You need to tell your own story.  That said, few of us want to start completely from scratch and it is nice to have a starting point. The take-away here is that one needs to understand the purpose of each Great Lesson.  Keep the purpose, discard what you don't want, and tell a story that matches your family's beliefs.

A lot of non-religious families are put off by the first lesson under the title of "God With No Hands."  However,  Miss Barbara's Great Lesson site is just one place to find the story "The Beginning" which is a Big Bang version of the story.   It appears that the Big Bang theory may be going the way of the dinosaurs, so even this version may not remain untouched. 

Religious families are put off by the lack of complete telling of the creation story in this lesson.  Don't worry!  The telling of creation is really told across the first three great lessons.  Don't look for it all in once place.  It is easy to use the traditional "God with No Hands" story here.  The point (for me anyway) of the First Great Lesson is to tell part of the story of creation emphasizing that God did not only create "things" but He also created the laws by which His creation behaves.  In this case, specifically the laws that govern the behavior of particles.  This lesson completely opens wide the door to all of physical and Earth sciences.

If you are religious and you fall into the category some would label "compromise creationists" (theistic evolutionists, progressive creationists, "gap", ruin-reconstructionist, are some examples) your work may be done.  Many families will wish to remove the dates from the timeline that accompanies the Second Great Lesson.  Dates would also need to be removed from the materials that follow the Third Great Lesson (the Third Great Lesson itself uses no materials) including the Clock of Eras and the First and Second Timelines of Humans and the Timeline of Civilizations.  If you are looking for more help adapting to an Old Earth Creationist viewpoint you can read about adjusting dates over at the Old Earth Creation Homeschool Blog.

Our family could be defined as "compromise creationists" that have rejected evolution in favor of intelligent-design but never completely committed to one of the other compromise positions but believed just about any of them are a possibility   We believe that the Bible is absolutely 100% accurate but have never believed that man is capable of 100% understanding everything in it.  I have always loved the book Seven Days that Divide the World because it describes so well the many different scenarios possible that some people feel can fit to their interpretation of the Bible.  This would include the Young Earth position as well as all of the compromise positions.  The more I learn about it, the more I learn about the ways in which all of the compromise positions are considered to be unBiblical from a Young Earth perspective.  I have always been grateful that understanding creation is not a requirement for salvation.  I am even more grateful now.

However, the church we attend is a Young Earth church that professes belief in a 24-hour day of creation.  I never worried much about that because it is not something that has come up in any of the Sunday services we have attended for several years.  I don't have the expectation to agree with a congregation of imperfect humans on all of the minute details of everything.  I don't have to believe everything they believe and I believe it is dangerous to believe everything you hear unless the source is God himself.  However, the issue came to a head because our church implemented a very specific, very focused Young Earth Sunday school curriculum.  Because the purpose of the curriculum is to approach this issue head on as the absolute truth and to discredit other theories and approaches as non-Biblical, my husband and I had to sit down and read the curriculum word-for-word and decide if this was something we needed to pull our kids from Sunday school over.  Why so extreme?  We DO want to teach our kids that they need to question everything no matter what the source.  We feel this is especially important in the case of the internet or the media but it is even important in a place like church.  Churches are still run by human beings and those human beings are not infallible.  Absolute unquestioning does not protect them from sexual predators or crazy ideas.  Yet at the same time we DO want to teach them NOT to doubt  the Bible itself.  I needed to know what exactly what was in that curriculum.  

This led me to learn a lot more than I already knew about the Young Earth position.  I am not an expert on it after 10 hours of reading one week.  But, I did gain a clearer view of how this position does NOT mesh with the Second and Third Great Lessons in the Montessori curriculum (For our family. Some families feel they can make it work without changes).  Many just know that a young Earth creationist believes that everything was created by God in six literal 24 hour days.  This belief combined with a very literal interpretation of The Fall, The Flood, and the events at The Tower of Babel  has farther reaching implications than can be solved by erasing the dates on a timeline.  It changes evolution, cavemen, dinosaurs, geology, fossils, all of it.  

Here's an article that talks about many of these issues all in one place.

So the question remained, "What do I do about the Montessori Great Lessons?"  Fortunately, the answer to that question was explicitly written into every Elementary Montessori History album I've ever cracked open.  During 6-9 present one view of creation.  During 9-12 expose the child to alternative creation stories.  That solidified the decision to adapt the lessons to agree with our church's views and then go ahead and pull out all of those other beautiful (traditional Montessori) timelines and materials I have stashed in our Montessori storage during 9-12.

Here are two questions people seem to have: 
1.   Can you change these stories?
2.  If you do change these stories,  is it still "Montessori" ? 

I would say absolutely "Yes" and "Yes."  They are meant to be a personal story told from the heart...not read off a piece of paper in the first place.  I think the following things are important to the "Montessoriness" of this:

  • Use five stories and follow-up key lessons to drive the elementary child's work
  • Tell them a story
  • show them experiments
  • show them a timeline
  • Let them build the timelines themselves with working versions
  • Keep the purposes of each story the same because the five stories together shine a light on every corner of learning.

Would buying a boxed Bible curriculum still be Montessori?  Well, in the first place there is no "Most Montessori" award so you might not care.  However, many of us have chosen Montessori in order to help train up self-motivated children who are in charge of their own work.  If so, you'll want to stay true to the purposes of the stories.  Reading them a boxed curriculum and doing follow up worksheets, coloring pages, card work on trays, or Godly Play-style story reenactments do not fulfill the purposes of the stories.  (A few notes... You CAN use the scripted sections of your preferred Bible curriculum to help you script your own Great Lesson stories.  Godly Play/CGS are very Montessoriesque learning experiences, but that does not make them replacements for the Great Lessons.)

This is something I have been working on sporadically for the past year.  The picture at the head of this post is the sneak peak picture of timeline I made to replace the 1st and 2nd Timeline of Humans. We attempted the Great Lessons at home last year for the first time using the special specifically "non-evolution" versions of the stories from the Keys of the Universe History album (you have to ask for the "non-evolution" album) along with Jessica's suggestions and it just did NOT work for our family (I still felt like evolution was implied). However, yes it will work if you do it differently. There is no reason to scrap Montessori (or Jessica's course...still love it) over it. I don't think everyone completely understands the full ramifications of being a Young Earth Creationist. (I'm not saying Jessica doesn't.  Her personal views are her own and are not necessarily reflected in the albums.  Every possible religious viewpoint can NOT be represented in the albums.) I think most people understand it from a compromise creationist perspective. I personally have been a compromise creationist in the past. My church is a Young Earth church and it wasn't until I truly read the Young Earth Sunday school program they started that I fully understood how much this changes.

I  will be blogging about each change, new materials I made, and other details before and alongside each Great Lesson eventually.  A detailed look at my new "Timeline of Humans" should post tomorrow.  
But, just to give you a generally idea of where I am headed here is an overview:

  • The 1st great lesson is "God With No Hands." It is not the story of creation. Itis the story of how God created the laws of how particles will behave. It gets you involved in ALL the Earth science you need. Definitely do this lesson.

  • The 2nd great lesson is "The Coming of Life." I tried doing this with my kids while disregarding the dates. However, the timeline makes no sense even this way from a Young Earth perspective. The implied order of plant and animal development make no sense. Young Earth creation has all varieties of animals of the air and sea created in one 24 hour period. All plant life created in one 24 hour period. All land animals created in one 24 hour period. This visual progression of plants and animals don't jive well with that. I know of at least one person who simply cut up the timeline and put the images on in random order to get rid of the progression.  However, this still leaves you with an odd collection of prehistoric creatures that you wouldn't have chosen otherwise. I have a black strip and it can be used the way Jessica describes (talk about the black representing "work" to prepare the Earth for humans rather than "time." However, I don't know if using it that way justifies the cost and I would tell most Young Earth families to skip it. I am replacing the tradition Second Great Lesson with the actual story of creation from the Bible and am accompanying it with some traditional Montessori materials from a different part of the albums:  The Five Kingdom's Chart (every year) and accompanying chart for each kingdom (as interest dictates).

  • (Edited...a paragraph was lost) The 3rd great lesson is "The Coming of Humans." Again, there are no actual materials for the Third Great Lesson but there are several follow-up works. No one even seems to mention this section of the albums as a problem for Young Earthers.  However because humans are seen as created "as is" and cavemen are seen as a result of the tower of Babel (scattering of people with different levels of skills and sudden new languages) this whole timeline makes no sense even if you take the dates off. (Edited...you can read some of my thoughts on the actual third story in the comments.)

  • I haven't finished working on the 4th and 5th lessons yet. I suspect there might be some effect on these starting from the tower of Babel but maybe not.

If you need help learning how to talk to your kids about these issues from a Young Earth perspective I recommend the "Answers for Kids Bible Curriculum" by from Answers in Genesis.  This is also a good source to use to help you  write your own Great Lessons. 


We will be using that book in our home this year as part of our daily devotions and I will borrow heavily from certain presentations to tell our Great Lesson stories.  

*Just a note:  I capitalized a lot of words in this post that I wouldn't normally capitalize (such as "young" in "Young Earth" for example).  I capitalized where I felt it made certain categories of ideas or beliefs clearer.   Also, I think capitalizing "Great Lesson" helps us Montessori-types distinguish one Montessori's five "Great Lessons" from the general "great lessons" we present to our kids every day.  Aren't all of our lessons great?

  • You can read about how I modified the Third Great Lesson story itself at Third Great Lesson Adaptations.
  • You can also read about my Modified Timeline of Humans.

    1. Great outline of the most applicable homeschool details :) I have a series of posts to put up on this very topic - but I can't decide which blog to put them on! And I'm just not satisfied with the layout of each one yet...

      Since Keys of the Universe is mentioned above, and there will be people wondering, I do want to clarify that my family's beliefs fit with 6 24-hour day Creation. I have not personally found the need to create any additional or modified materials - but I think that being Montessori-trained, CGS-trained at all 3 levels, a degree in theology and close family friends with devout Creationists, allows us to make it work, in ways that other families do need materials. Montessori Life is so much easier with materials ;)

      --Typical AMI albums emphasize evolution and the passage of time.
      --Keys of the Universe are already slightly modified to minimize that emphasis on time (for the core reason of respecting a wider audience - from 6-day creationists to long-term evolutionists - and the dates keep changing even for long-term evolutionists, so I wanted the albums to "keep pace" and be easier to adjust for each family's needs.
      --I do have "non-evolution" versions available of most of the materials that applies
      --There are 6-day Creation materials in-progress (being reviewed by a few families and being tweaked as I type this ;) )

      Even then, to make Montessori one's own, adaptations will almost always be needed in this regard - and MBT has an awesome ability to clarify what is needed right here :)

      If it is ok to tag on this post here - Montessori Nuggets has a list of the necessary materials for each Great Lesson:
      The 3rd Great Lesson causes the most confusion as the timelines are not part of the lesson - the story itself is fine; but the timelines (told as part of the history studies later) do need adjustment. :)

      1. Ugh. I had written a paragraph that pointed out that the ACTUAL Third Great Lesson doesn't require any materials, just the story. This post got so long I didn't notice it had disappeared. I will edit because I wanted that to be clear as well.

        The story provided for the Third Great Lesson still doesn't work for us because the focus at the beginning is on Man being defenseless and not knowing what to eat. In Sunday School the boys will be told that the animals were not dangerous at that time and God told them exactly what to eat (Any of the plants in the garden with one exception. Permission to eat animals was given after the Fall.). The follow up work (Timelines, etc.,) stay focused on that by mainly tracking the "evolution" of Man from neanderthal to "renaissance man" so to speak. From our church's perspective we are going to want to discuss the things "man learned" from a Tower of Babel perspective instead. Because I want to "go" somewhere different with the follow up work, I'm going to need a story that prepares them for that. I intend to focus on the seven events that shaped Man's history (The Seven C's of History) instead of their "learned skills." The learned skills are important as well but can be easily wrapped into the Fundamental Needs work. That is why I refer to these changes as part of the "Third Great Lesson" changes even though the timelines are not technically part of the lesson.

        What *does* work for me in your original story is that two of the main points that the boys need to learn are:

        1. The Earth was *very specifically* prepared for human life.
        2. Humans differ from all of the previous creation.

        So, my rewritten story will start with those two points and explain the Seven C's.

        So happy you posted :) You may have noticed I tried to say that the album didn't reflect your personal beliefs but are trying to be adaptable to a wide audience. You said it better :)

        Off to edit...boy did I have some font problems!

      2. Oops, I should have said God gave them permission to eat animals following the flood.

      3. I love your work - and your thinking ;)

    2. Andrea, I really appreciate your sensitivity in writing this article, how you are respectful to all view points, but at the same time thoroughly honest about your process. I also applaud you and your husband's efforts to teach your children to think critically and question everything. Thanks for taking the time to write this!

      1. Sheila, Thank you so much for your comment. When I wrote this post I was primarily focused on sharing our process and wasn't sure about how it would come across to those with other viewpoints. When I saw your comment I was relieved.

    3. Oh boy, I don't know if I can thank you enough for this! I'll be perfectly honest, science as a whole has not been a strong point YET in our homeschool - we've done just enough to scrape by, and I really don't want to do 'just enough' anymore, but I was turned off very quickly by some of the Great Lesson material I read, and almost did away with trying to go anywhere close to that route at all. A local Montessori teacher said NO don't do that - she said just to tweak it (which is what she would do were she not a local teacher in a school where she really doesn't have a choice!) and after reading this it gives me such a great drive! I am really looking forward to your posts in this area, and hope you don't mind if I borrow some of your ideas to use at home (althogh they will probably not look nearly as great as yours!)

      1. Borrow away! I just have received soo many comments over the past year or so in which people have asked if they should NOT do Montessori because of the Great Lessons and it just breaks my heart.

    4. Hi MBT,

      I've just ordered all my stuff for the great lessons from Creation Ministry here in Australia and Bookdepository. Thank you! I would have been stuck on what to do for ages. For the first great lesson, CMI recommended this resource:


      It really ties in science, math, language into the Creation story. There is a great preview of it.

      I also found this wonderful books series called "Wonders of Creation"

      They are too old for our kids, but good for a resource for me to understand science, evolution etc in more detail, like how cave men fit it, understanding rocks and periods of history, fossils, weather patterns - and how these relate to God and the laws of nature he has put in place. It looks like the pictures are just lovely, so it can be used for the kids in that way. Just thought I'd let you know what I found. :) What I love is that I would never have thought to buy titles like, "Caves", but when you read the previews, the content will just broaden my knowledge that I didn't know I should perhaps know more about.

      Hopefully when I start working through these lessons, I too will post some on my blog and heavily link to you! :)

      Thanks again,

      1. Tracey,

        Thank you SOO much for sharing the links. I can't wait to check those out. I look forward to reading about your approach on your blog as well. It's so nice to have people to collaborate with and not have to invent every little detail completely on my own. I JUST got your e-mail this morning (I don't check the blog e-mail every day). I have to get to work here, but will reply later!

    5. Thankyou thankyou thankyou!!! No idea how much help you just gave me, Im coming back to visit you over and over. ( hope that doenst sound stalkerish but you have really laid it out so well.

    6. Oh man!! Did you write this just for me?? We're back at our Montessori studies after a long baby break and I was ready to finally tackle the Great Lessons and had almost gotten to a point where I could do #1 when I read 2 and 3 and started to wonder what to do next. I am Young Earth, though I am open to Old Earth and other options, but I don't want to teach that for now. Off to read more about what you did. And, thank you! for giving me permission to still be Montessori ;).

    7. Just wanted to thank you for this. My kids are in a Montessori school for the second year. My oldest started in 4th grade and missed the Great Lessons. I got a letter home for my 1st grader that she had received the first Great Lesson and had a minor panic attack! I am a Young Earth believer, actually saw Ken Ham speak and that's when I knew it was what made sense to me! Anyway, Thank you for this! The letter home said to feel free to teach our children our own beliefs based on the lesson concept, but I didn't know where to begin other than reading "My Creation Bible" by Ken Ham to her. I will refer to this blog often as the year progresses to be sure she is being taught what WE believe to be true. Thanks for this post!!!

    8. Thank you for discussing this issue. I am one who leans strongly to Young Earth. I used to be on the fence. However, in the last few years of study on this issue, I lean far more strongly to the Young Earth position. It interferes with a lot of curriculum I have found. I am not a fully Montessori homeschooler, I mostly am using math elements of it. They are brilliant. So I am only incorporating bits and pieces of Montessori ideas. I was only just now looking at what the Great Lessons were. I immediately raised my eyebrows as most of what I initially came across conflicted strongly with our beliefs. I appreciate your article and thoughts on the topic.