About those “Standards”
In a Montessori elementary classroom, we expect that children will learn everything that children in local public schools will learn. This isn't such a difficult task, because the typical Montessori lessons incorporate nearly everything that’s in those public school standards. We help the children take responsibility for their learning by making the public school curriculum standards available in the classroom, and helping them understand that society expects them to master these things. I made a child-friendly version that I kept on a shelf in my classroom, as the "official" standards are pretty much impenetrable, and tend to use a lot of words to say remarkably little. I find that the children are eager to take responsibility for themselves, so they tend to check the standards themselves and nag me to give them lessons on what they feel they need help to learn.
Sometimes, parents ask me why we “only” give children the public school standards and not a more challenging curriculum (for example, International Baccaleaureate). This reflects a misunderstanding of the role of a "curriculum" in Montessori. In the traditional model, a curriculum (which I'm conflating with standards here, though they're not quite the same) defines what the children learn, on the assumption that learning is a product of teaching. Therefore, a parent who has high hopes for their child will naturally want the most challenging curriculum their child can handle.
But in the way we understand the role of the standards in Montessori, this logic doesn't make sense. Because we know that learning is the product of a child's freely chosen activity, the standards don't reflect the totality of what children will learn. Instead, the public school standards represent a minimum of specific knowledge that all children should have in common, and represents only a small slice of each child’s learning. Rather than ensuring greater rigor or learning, each additional requirement represents a lost opportunity for freely chosen activity, the kind that leads to real growth. If we pretend it is possible to quantify "total amount of learning,” every additional requirement imposed in a Montessori classroom actually reduces each child's total learning.
The difference between these models looks a bit like this sketch. In the traditional models learning is mainly a product of what's taught, so every child's body of knowledge is basically the same. Of course, there is some variation due to electives, parental teaching, enrichment classes, and maybe even independent learning, plus of course, there is variation in ability and work habits. Mostly, though, the curriculum is equated to learning, and anything outside it is viewed with a degree of suspicion, or simply discounted. In general, the curriculum/standards represent the “maximum possible learning”. (Many, perhaps most, teachers have a far more nuanced view of learning than this caricature. Unfortunately, I think it's precisely this caricature that captures most public and political discourse, and influences the view of many parentss unless they've actively dug deeper).
In the Montessori model, the standards are only a small part of each child's learning. Every child learns a great deal more than this, but what they learn isn't standardized.. The result is a sort of flower of learning, with each child's knowledge anchored in the common standards, but reaching out into a unique petal. The catch is that we don't necessarily know what's in each petal.
I mentioned that any learning outside the specified curriculum tends to be viewed with a degree of suspicion or simply discounted. I fear that, at least here in the US, we have developed an unquestioned axiom that only that which can be measured can be trusted. The traditional view of learning works well with that assumption, because if everyone is learning the same thing, we can theoretically measure how well they've learned it. Unstandardized knowledge and very complex learning can't easily be measured, and therefore is discounted, if it’s existence is even acknowledged.
The challenge of Montessori for many parents (and frankly, many guides!), is that we can't know what's in each of those petals, we can only trust that the petal is there and growing. Sometimes, we get a glimpse though our observations and conversations, but we'll never really know. (This is actually not unique to Montessori, it's a fact of reality, but it’s one we pretend we can measure our way out of). This goes so against the tendency of many parents to believe they need to manage most aspects of their child’s development to ensure success in life: if it’s not adult directed, it most likely doesn’t “count”.
But over 100 years of experience with Montessori classrooms, as well as ethnographic observation of unschooled societies, and decades of psychological and cognitive research tells us that the learning is happening, and that children can be trusted with their own development without having it all choreographed by adults. No, the challenge is not in making children learn; it's in trusting them enough to let them. That is hard.
Get the Standards
If you would like to use the child-friendly standards I made in your classroom or home, you can download them here. I am charging for them, because it was a big project to make them, but I want everyone who needs them to be able to use them. If you can’t afford the price tag, please just send me a message and I’ll get them to you. They are designed for Washington State, but the document is in Word format so that you can edit it to fit your locale. If you are in the US, you will likely find that it is already pretty accurate.