by Letty Rising
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Maria Montessori observed that human beings did not possess the same kind of instinctual behavior that other animals do. Instead, she observed in people from various cultures throughout the world what came to be referred to as Human Tendencies. These Human Tendencies are a driving force that helps children adapt to the environments they find themselves in, in order for us to satisfy our physical and spiritual needs.
These tendencies have been seen throughout human history, are common to all societies and cultures, affect human behavior, can be witnessed throughout the lifespan, and drive humans to act upon their environments. And while it was once the case that human tendencies helped us adapt and survive the wilderness, now they help us to adapt and survive the social groups we find ourselves in.
Human beings represent a wide range of tendencies that help children construct themselves into the adults they will eventually become, and help them to adapt to the culture in which they reside. Adults can assist in the development of human tendencies, but it is also true that they can become an obstacle to the development and refinement of these tendencies. Human tendencies are universal and can be observed in all cultures throughout the world.
Now I’m going to talk about the list of tendencies and how each of them specifically relates to the elementary child. It’s also worth noting here that not all lists of tendencies are the same…and you will find slight variations.
Orientation is about where you are in relation to a place or even an idea. Having a sense of orientation makes humans feel more secure, and also helps us establish points of reference, particularly for young children just emerging into the world, but also for older children and adults when they find themselves in new situations!
Elementary children need to feel oriented to their environment for a couple of reasons. For one, it helps them feel secure and confident when understanding the immediate environment and knowing what to expect.
Also, orienting a child to their environment gives them the tools and understanding they need in order to maximize their ability to navigate the environment independently. How much easier it must be for the student who has had a guide walk them around the classroom, and show them where everything is located, vs the child who is brought into the classroom with an underlying assumption that they will automatically know what to do?
It might sound obvious, and yet it is often the case that explicit orientation goes to the wayside, and children are left to discover their surroundings themselves. The child will not suffer in the end, but ultimately it means the period of confusion lasts longer, and the movement towards independence will be slower.
You as the adult will want to carve out some time, especially at the beginning of the school year, to orient your students to their environment so that they know where to find what they need, and where to put things away. You will orient them to important landmarks inside of the classroom (e.g. the soap dispenser, the pencil sharpener, the supply shelf, the recycling), as well as outside (the gardening tools, the sidewalk chalk, the ball storage).
Helping them feel oriented helps aid in their ability to construct themselves.
In order to hunt and gather, the first humans needed to explore their environment for food. These first explorations were often initiated as a result of people needing to satisfy their fundamental needs, for food, clothing, shelter, and etc.
However, people not only want to explore for reasons that are due to mere survival. People also explore to learn and understand the world around them, which is motivated by a deep curiosity that many people have of the world around us and beyond! We now also explore intellectually, emotionally, and artistically. We use the knowledge from our explorations to construct ourselves and to help construct society and culture around us.
When considering elementary children, they are no longer only content with exploring their immediate environment. They want to explore the wide world! Exploration in the elementary years can look like field trips, or going out opportunities. While field trips are most often adult initiated and directed and involve the entire class, going outs are student-initiated and directed, and usually involve a handful of students who are interested in learning more about a particular topic.
And let’s not forget their intellectual, emotional, and artistic explorations within the classroom environment, as they discover new information, ways of expressing themselves, and even a new artistic technique to add to their creativity toolkits!
Just as we adults want to observe our surroundings before jumping in, your students will want to do so as well! They will want to observe lessons and the work of others for inspiration. This is one of the beautiful aspects of the Montessori elementary environment…. the work of the children is on display for others to see, and this, along with lessons, sows seeds of interest and even understanding.
How often has it been the case that you’ve presented a lesson to a child for the first time, only to see that they have already developed an understanding? This is because they have the opportunity to observe daily, and these observations, whether conscious or unconscious, stimulate the brain and develop connections.
One way in which observation is built into Cosmic Education is through science experiments! Children conduct experiments and observe what happens! (If you’re in need of some great science experiment ideas, Montessoilaboratory.com has some engaging experiments to try!)
One of the first things that people tend to notice about the Montessori approach is the beautiful, didactic materials that are colorful and largely made of wood. However, it’s important to recognize that these beautiful materials are a means to an end, rather than the end goal themselves. We use them as a bridge from the concrete to the abstract.
We start the children with these materials that they can manipulate with their hands, and they eventually move from material manipulation to manipulating numbers in their minds, moving from concretized math work and eventually to using algorithms that can be calculated on paper, or mental math.
It was hard to choose a word for this section, because all of them have been used at one time or another, and they all apply! One of Montessori’s key conclusions is that children learn from their own activities. This is in contrast to the old paradigm where children were expected to sit passively at desks as the teacher lectured as a way of conveying information.
Children are active learners and in Montessori classrooms, children manipulate materials with their hands to develop an understanding of concepts. Maria Montessori observed that physical movement and work are how children learn best and prepared an environment designed for children to be active. Using the hand and mind together is how children create. This is how they construct themselves.
Elementary children can imagine what life was like long ago, or what the future might look like. They can use their imagination to create stories and to imagine how to use a material abstractly. Early life was hard for humans!
They had to hunt for food, and sometimes that took them far from home. Eventually, someone thought of a way to capture animals without chasing after them… maybe by digging a big hole and covering it and waiting for an animal to fall in. This imagining led to the first animal traps.
Or maybe they lived in such inhospitable conditions that it was freezing cold, and they wanted to keep warm. They saw animals had fur, and imagined that they could use the animal fur to keep warm. This imagination led to the first clothing.
Imagination is a huge part of the second plane, as they not only like to imagine what happened a long time ago and what will happen one day, they also love to use their imagination through the writing of stories, plays, and poetry.
When your students keep working on an illustration over and over, crumpling up each time when they don’t like them, that is exactness coming into play! Long ago, when the early humans were making tools, they quickly realized that if they did not make their arrows exactly, then they wouldn’t fly straight and they would miss their target. When you’re trying to find food, it’s highly motivating to be exact!
We also can see a need for exactness in our expansive buildings and architecture. Our structures need to be safe and solid so that they don’t fall down, and windows need to be insulated to keep buildings sufficiently warm or cool. Cutting corners in these areas will lead to, at the least, unhappiness and discomfort, and at the most, widespread harm.
Teaching children to appreciate this exactness that allows for our society to flourish will give them an appreciation of all of the hard work and concentration that has gone into exactness, and will likely inspire them to be more exact with their work. It’s important to convey to them that in order for something to be perfected, there needs to be a lot of time for practice. Conveying that practicing the decimal fraction board in order to attain exactness in the calculation of decimals will help them see the value in practicing…. and remember, the elementary child wants to know “why” something is relevant in their lives!
A desire to practice for the elementary child comes from exercising the will. They don’t have an almost compulsive desire to repeat, as do children in the first plane. So they have to make a decision that this is something they want and learn to persevere through feelings such as frustration or discomfort.
Repetition happens for the elementary child, but rather than it looking like the child doing the same thing over and over again, repetition happens through variety and elaboration. They learn something, and they practice either using the skill or taking the knowledge and creating a tangible rendition of what was learned, often presenting their rendition and sharing the information in their own words with the product as a visual aid in their presentation.
Elementary children like variety, and they like to be creative when participating in work that involves repeating by way of variety. A child might be needing to learn their multiplication tables, and they get lots of practice through the use of the checkerboard, the large bead frame, the flat bead frame, the elementary bank game. And also they are practicing multiplication through lessons on multiples, distributive law, squaring, and more!
If the child is acquiring some new form of knowledge, such as a lesson on ecology where they learn about consumers and producers, they can make a poster containing illustrations and written information, they can create a diorama with a scene containing fish, zooplankton, and phytoplankton, they can sew a pillow that contains an illustrated graphic of the food web, they can write a persuasive essay on why biodiversity is important, they can build an ecosystem in a bottle.
The possibilities for repetition in elementary are only as limited as one’s imagination!
Elementary children love to communicate, and they communicate in various ways, such as speaking, listening, and writing. In terms of classroom life, you will have students engage in oral presentations, collaborative work, skits and plays, and the ordinary social life of the classroom. They will also be reading as well as being read to, and writing narratives, essays, and reports. Writing is a powerful way in which they learn to communicate their ideas!
Elementary students are highly social, and they love to discuss, debate, negotiate, collaborate, and all of these forms of communications have ample opportunity for expression in the elementary environment, whether it be indoors while discussing a mutually decided upon project, or outdoors when discussing rules of a game.
Humans have a tendency to not be satisfied with things as they are. And this doesn’t always bode true for all areas of a person’s life, the areas that they care about, that they feel passionate about, are areas where we want to improve upon and make better. And this tendency towards self-perfection has been a driver in human progress. After all, if you aren’t satisfied with living in a grass hut, eventually you may find a way to make a sturdier home that offers better protection from the elements.
In the elementary child, there is a striving towards intellectual perfection, and this is evidenced, for example, in the child who persists in getting the math answer right, or the child who has created a booklet and is trying to draw an illustration for a book cover, and goes through many renditions as they attempt to draw the image to perfection.
And it isn’t only mental perfection that is seen in the elementary child, but moral perfection takes center stage as children begin questioning the actions and motives of others, and holding others accountable and with high (and sometimes unrealistic!) expectations.
Human tendencies are inclinations that are observed throughout the world, no matter what environment a person finds themselves in. Human tendencies help us satisfy our needs, which include physical and spiritual needs. Human tendencies help us both shape and adapt to our environments. They are universal, and although the list of tendencies varies, they are largely unchanging. Although they are not instincts, they are inclinations, and they influence behavior in profound and identifiable ways.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.