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Filtering by Tag: curriculum

Mastery in a Three-Year Curriculum

Elizabeth Topliffe

By Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

Ah, mastery... what a profoundly satisfying feeling when one finally gets on top of a new set of skills... and then sees the light under the new door those skills can open, even as another door is closing.
— Gail Sheehy

Have you ever been interrupted while completely focused on a task? Been on the cusp of mastering something only to be pulled away by someone else’s need?

For me, it is often an email that gets started. Then, someone enters my office to ask a question, the phone rings or someone needs my help. Even if interrupted for just a few moments, I often forget where I was, what I was thinking and what I was about to do. Later, I discover the email sitting in drafts waiting to be sent.

When I’m really working well, engrossed in my work and on the verge of mastering something, getting the thought just right, it only takes one small interruption to take me entirely out of that zone. I feel myself being pulled to the surface, and my brain inelegantly shifts gears. (Wow—it just happened. A call from a student in elementary to ask me the wifi password).

So it is for our students. One of Stepping Stones Montessori School’s rules is to avoid interrupting a child’s work, especially during the morning work period. Children are allowed to work with material uninterrupted until they are satisfied with their work. Then, they may return the work to a shelf. If a child’s work must be interrupted (e.g., for dismissal), he is allowed to place his name on the work, identifying it as his own until he is able to return to it.

This is why a 3-year curriculum is vital to Montessori education. In our Children’s House, students’ learning is designed to help them reach a sense of mastery. Montessori work aims to build a strong academic foundation—starting simply, and then expanding into more complicated concepts.  More than a mere recitation of facts, the Montessori curriculum allows a child to incorporate what is learned.

Objects are identified for Children’s House students so that they have very concrete experiences with materials. Everything within reach of the child may be touched (so long as it is respectful of self, others and the environment). The first two years of the Children’s House experience provide a myriad of sensory opportunities.  These sensory opportunities prepare them to learn and master abstract concepts.


As children master the lessons with objects, new lessons are offered, building steadily on what has been learned from concrete to abstract. What begins as physically moving spindles as they are counted grows into skittles and tiles representing numbers and place value. 

Because the Montessori curriculum is based on a 3-year cycle, mastery is developed at the child’s pace. She can spend as much time with the sensory materials as she wants. There is not a push to cram a set number of concepts into a single academic year. In effect, students are learning how to learn versus how to regurgitate.

Our students are not trained to pay attention to the teacher. Instead, the teacher is trained to pay attention to the child, offering the next lesson as the child develops readiness for it.

Now imagine that just before achieving mastery, the child is moved to another environment with different materials, new adults and new friends. Much of the preparatory sensory work for the child will be lost in the same way that my train of thought is lost in an abandoned email.

Of course, not everything is lost. But, when children leave Montessori before they have mastered and internalized the concrete lessons of the environment, their early learning may be lost because it is not reinforced in a traditional environment.

When a child is allowed to complete the three-year cycle of learning, she is allowed to master concepts. She can continue to move in and out of work with materials until she understands the work fully on the abstract level. She also has opportunities to give lessons to younger students, solidifying her earlier learning.

Even better, she has an opportunity to be a leader—to demonstrate her self-control, her mastery of peaceful conflict-resolution and the generosity of heart she has learned through three years in a community where she is loved and respected by children and adults.

That is definitely worth preserving without interruption.