by Letty Rising
This is the first of a series of interviews that I will be conducting with people involved in Montessori elementary education. It also happens to be with my daughter, Zoe Rising, who owns Montessori Laboratory, a program that brings Montessori science lessons to life.
While we touch on her work just a bit, we end up having a lively and interesting conversation about scientific exploration in the elementary years. This is a written and summarized version of our conversation, and you can find the live talk on the podcast.
What are some of your favorite memories of doing science as an elementary child?
Zoe: I definitely might have to bring you in on some of these memories because I’m sure you remember them too! One that sticks out in my mind and is such a Montessori kid story (and maybe even a little bit gross…haha) involves me saving a lot of my baby teeth as a kid.
I can’t remember exactly why I saved them, but one day I decided to take those baby teeth and put each of them into a different liquid. One into water, one into orange juice, one into Coca Cola, and one of them into milk for a number of days to see if any of the liquids would rot the teeth. I heard my grandma say over the years that soda rots your teeth, and I was wondering to myself “Will it really do that? I want to know if it really does, I want to test this out, I want to make it into an experiment.”
As you can imagine, the water didn’t do much, and the soda did a lot. That tooth was like half gone! I was then able to present my findings on a poster at a science fair. That was so much fun because it was my first real opportunity to do an experiment from start to finish.
It began with the intrigue, then the hypothesis. Then I ran the experiment for a number of days, collected all of my data, then took pictures and presented them in a poster format, which we do later in life. If you follow a path into science in high school and college, that’s what you do in science.
As a child, seeing the holes in my teeth made me realize that, “Gosh, maybe I should really listen to my mom and brush my teeth at night.” As an adult, looking back, I realized that I was able to do a kind of scientific presentation as a child that some people don’t get to experience until they are much older.
Letty: It’s interesting that you brought up that particular experiment, because elementary children love doing things that are weird, fantastical, and out of the ordinary. I remember you collecting those teeth and not realizing you had a plan you wanted to execute with them. If you are a parent of an elementary child and you find a collection of random things, they might have an experiment in their mind that they want to conduct later on!
Thank you for sharing that story and taking me on a walk down memory lane. I have a vivid memory of that experience and what that was like for you.
What is your favorite Montessori science lesson, and what is it that you love about it?
Zoe: That’s probably the hardest question for me to answer, because I like so many of them for various reasons, but I will narrow it down to a couple and let you know why.
The first one that comes to mind is the foundations for the Work of Air. Air takes up space, hot air rises, and cool air takes hot air’s place. The first experiment involves a bottle and a funnel and pouring water into the bottle, and realizing that the water doesn’t go in because there is something in there…air! Which takes up space. As a kid, I was like “I thought that water would go in!”
The next two lessons involve getting to light a match, which is always fun as a kid. You set up a convection spiral, set up a piece of tin foil at the top of a point, and light a fire under it. Then, the hot air pushes up on the spiral, and that spiral spins around. It’s beautiful, like a wind chime.
Another lesson involves incense, where you get to actually see the incense move with the cold air and the hot air, and getting to see the smoke make currents through a chimney. Watching this is so much fun because of the element of surprise. It’s an amazing way to show something so abstract, to elementary children and even to adults.
Air is something we can’t see…we can hear it or feel it through a gust of wind, it’s constantly around us and we can forget it is there, but it’s obviously there because it’s something we breathe and something that keeps us living. For Maria Montessori to think of these demonstrations and show something that is so abstract to an elementary child and for them to get an understanding of fluid dynamics and air movement is just amazing.
The second one is one I have a new appreciation for, which is ALL of the lessons introducing solids, liquids, and gasses. I just started reading a book by Richard Feynman, a physics professor, called 6 Easy Pieces and it goes through 3 classical physics principles and 3 modern physics principles, and the first one he talks about is an atomic theory. It’s almost an adult version of Montessori’s solids, liquids, and gasses.
While reading I had a lightbulb go off in my head, like “Oh my goodness, we are introducing these children to atomic theory but in a way that they can visualize and imagine, and take with them to have a greater understanding of it when they dive into it even further!” Which I think is amazing.
Letty: What I want to highlight that is related to what you said, is that Montessori created this approach to learning for elementary children that starts from the concrete and goes to the abstract, and air is kind of tricky because it already is abstract. You can’t see it, and as a person who has worked with Montessori educators for many years, I’d say that work of air is one of the more intimidating topics of study in physical science and geography.
Work of Water lessons, for example, are very concrete. It’s easy to see the water, but the air you have to manipulate in your mind and imagine, rather than as something you can touch and feel. I’m so glad that you like those lessons…the children love them too because they really spark the imagination!
What is it about science experiments that appeal to an elementary-aged child?
Zoe: Elementary children are starting to invent, to imagine, and they want to see things that are interesting, different, gross, and weird. Getting excited about those things sparks their interest. They are excited about getting to do their own experiment, finding something out that they didn’t know before, getting to build something with their peers, making something up.
As we talked about with the air lessons, they get to go from the concrete that’s right in front of them into the imaginative space. And imaginative doesn’t have to mean fantastical or fake. Imagination is very much a part of science…we have to imagine what it is like in space, we have to imagine these tiny little atoms that we can’t see. I think that having created Montessori Laboratory, we have been pleasantly surprised about what people DO get excited about.
Traditionally you might think that people get excited about fire or explosions, or big exciting things like that (and they definitely do, don’t get me wrong). Some messages our members have written to us are about their kids doing research, or creating a project, or making something up themselves based on one of the lessons they watched, or extrapolating what they learned to a further experiment.
You do expect the excitement from the explosion or the fire, but it’s that excitement to learn and do the big work that gets kids truly going and interested in science, and wanting to do another experiment, and build upon that experiment, and do a project and things like that.
What do you think are some challenges to implementing science experiments in the classroom or in a home environment?
Zoe: There are obviously logistical challenges…some schools aren’t allowed to use matches or certain substances. There is always more than one way to demonstrate a concept, there are substitutions that we can offer. Some of the physical geography experiments used to be done with harsher chemicals.
All of the concepts in the experiments can be easily demonstrated with things you find in the kitchen. Look up substitutions to make sure that they are safe, but you can substitute many items, such as beakers for cups, or any common kitchen items. There’s a whole slew of kitchen sink science experiments that people can do.
And the other big challenge is fear. Not that people are shaking in their boots and having scared feelings about science, but there can be a lack of familiarity, depending on if you had teacher training, where you received the teacher training, and if you have a science background yourself. Not having these things can make science feel more daunting. People who had a traditional background in their own elementary schooling may not have had the opportunity to learn science through experiments or have the kinds of experiences that Montessori kids have.
For that, we always encourage people to learn themselves, and to model learning new things. Don’t be afraid to dive into the experiment, even if you aren’t sure it won’t work, have it fail, and have your student or child help troubleshoot with you. That is part of the scientific process, having scientific experiments fail. Trying to figure out what you did wrong, bettering your process, and figuring out that you had the perfect process but the experiment still didn’t go how you thought it would. Those things that seem scary or intimidating can be an amazing learning opportunity, so don’t shy away from them.
What makes the Montessori approach to scientific learning different from other approaches?
Zoe: There are two things that really stand out to me. One is the way it relates science to the real world. (I guess all the science we do is related to the real world?) The world that is relevant to the elementary child. They are so interested in what part they play in their classroom community, what part their community plays in their city, their state, country, etc. All of those things are exciting to them, as is finding their place in the world.
All of the physical geography lessons go along with that and paint a picture about all of the interconnectedness in our universe, from the suns and the planets to the tiny micro-organisms, and how everything really does have a place, a job, a reason. I think that is more apparent in biology in traditional schooling methods but the way that Montessori also ties everything together in physical science is so amazing and relevant to me.
I think in more traditional settings you will learn about these physical science concepts as individual topics separate from each other, but the way the Montessori approach wraps and weaves the work of water into the earth’s axis tilt and the tides and all of these various different aspects coming together is really amazing.
I think the second is absolutely the willingness to dive into the unknown. I think that is something that can really set Montessori science apart from traditional science. Whereas sometimes we might think of science as learning facts and learning about concepts, the true nature of science is about experimenting and testing facts to see if they are true or not. That is something that career scientists are doing every day. They have these facts, and their whole job is to experiment and test out the facts.
The way that the Montessori lessons are set up is to give some information about a concept, part interest, get them excited, then encourage them to either go do an experiment to test that fact or to make up their own experiment or do their own further research. This is what sets Montessori apart, especially in the area of sciences.
If Maria Montessori were alive today, would you ask her why she didn’t include certain topics or expand on them more deeply? Is there anything you wish she had developed?
Zoe: I have extensively thought about this question, and have had various thoughts about it. I have mixed feelings on this question because Maria Montessori was the most amazing person in the world, but people are fallible.
However, as I continue to dive into the physical science and geography lessons, this is how I feel: she is amazing. She really laid the foundations for scientific topics that lead up to particle physics, which they were still very much researching during the time when she was alive, which is a testament to how science builds upon itself.
In terms of asking her about what she could have developed further, I would have asked her what her thought process would have been as to how to dive further into chemistry and physics. And at the same time, she does. The physical science lessons do lay the foundation for these topics. It would be helpful I think, at least for some people, to have a little bit more structure.
We have these lessons that spark interest and do it in such an amazing way, such as the work of air experiments. I would like to ask her how she would take the chemistry and physics lessons and have them flow a little bit further. I don’t want it to be perceived that “there are no Montessori chemistry and physics foundations,” because there very much is, and that foundation allows for you to be the scientist along with your students and continue to build upon those foundational lessons yourself.
Letty: I’ve also been thinking about this and have had other conversations about this, and a couple of things that come up are: “Did she leave it a little lighter because she wanted the children to explore further? And, “If we give them everything they won’t have the chance to explore.” But then some people are like “What about simple machines? She doesn’t have anything about that.” She just touches on chemistry and physics but she could have gone even further.
Zoe: Even with simple machines, that kind of gets introduced in the third great lesson with the use of tools, so is it the child’s work to take that use of tools further to learn about simple machines on their own? I’m always back and forth thinking that she laid such a great foundation already, so I could see where the rest of it could be left up to the child, and at the same time, it might be nice for educators or a parent to have a little bit more of a framework in the sciences than we do.
Letty: This is the reason why some people do develop more science lessons, and then there are some people who want the children to come up with their own explorations. There are definitely good arguments for developing more lessons that go beyond the albums, and also good arguments for keeping it as is and allowing the child to explore.
Thank you for taking the time to join me in this interview! I look forward to continuing to follow your Montessori Laboratory adventures.
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.