The Importance of Three

By Dr. Wendy Agnew

Montessori offered her curriculum in a structure called the three-period lesson, realizing that knowledge was three-dimensional. First the experience touches the curiosity of the student in an act of communication and communion – an offering. Then the experience is deepened and explored through movement, manipulation and experimentation. Lastly the concept is integrated and offered back in an act of reflection and resurrection. Each experience is an act of metamorphosis where knowledge is transformative not only transmitted. The transformation occurs in the method of offering through the totem of material that manifests a personal resonance in the body – the materials are prime – materialized abstractions that evoke a physical commitment to discover a conceptual secret embedded within. The exploration is multi-dimensional – through movement, voice, creative experimentation with media, etc. At different stages of development, the three period lessons manifest differently.

Micro to Macro Cycles

Note also that Montessori iterated the three periods in her vertical age grouping. The primary classes include children from age three to six. The three-year olds are in a period of high diversity – they are essentially experiencing meta qualities of a first period – orienting themselves in environment. In their second year, now four, they begin to select and deepen their knowledge and try more variations of the materials. In their third year now five and six they become more reflective – are able to mentor the younger children and contemplate their step into elementary – a new stage and a new metamorphosis that involves cognitive, emotional and physical change.

Karl Popper and Donald Campbell’s theory of Evolutionary Epistemology resonates to the successive rings of Montessori’s tripartite system. They organized the identity of social organizations, knowledge systems, and institutions around biological phases of:

1 conceptual birth – time of high diversity, chaos, vulnerability, absorption; an expectant state, absorptive and open

2 selection – time of experimentation and expansion leading to choice, eventual stabilization, identity formation

3 stasis – consolidation, reflection, rest, recouping for the next phase

It’s interesting to note that each phase - primary, elementary, adolescence – passes through these phases in three-year increments. The three periods are iterated on a micro and macro level. At the outset of each phase the child is spiritually and cognitively embryonic…at the close of each phase she is like a phoenix – sloughing off a previous incarnation to become a new person. The interface between phases is celebrated by a graduation from casa, to elementary, to high school.

The Three-hour Work Cycle

Time has tripartite potency and follows the principles of Evolutionary Epistemology in Montessori’s concept of the three-hour work cycle. Her observation of the potency of uninterrupted time coalesced when she watched a child make 44 repetitions of the same exercise and emerge from the experience with the peace of mastery. She began to attenuate her research toward time as mentor and discovered stages of engagement that revealed themselves in a fluent medium of choice, experimentation and consolidation. The casa child enters the learning environment (after having been previously introduced to a variety of materials and exercises) and we see her begin to exercise her muscles of choice. - The first period is a relationship with diversity in which she discovers what pulls her towards commitment. She chooses something that attracts her (selection) – usually it’s an exercise that is moderately challenging and she begins to focus – experimenting and repeating until she is satisfied with her own progress – another choice – She replaces the material – socializes, takes her new self into community – a type of reflection in which she is celebrating her achievement in the mirror of her society and then, she enters another choice – usually taking something demanding more concentration – she works with increased focus and attention and emerges peaceful and reflective. She has travelled a journey of transformation from diversity to selection to reflection …

From Explorer to Expert

In the adolescent environment this fluency extends into the practicality of community projects. The initial period involves a sharing of information and interests – finding what is known and what is possible. The prepared environment supports this exploration – material is provided for research in multiple areas – videos, journals, gardens, essays, songs, art – anything that extends the subject narrative be it scientific, historical or artistic. Strands of research are chosen by groups of students, and the process of negotiation, exploration, and selection begins. This may take weeks and may involve occupations, - practical project work relating to community plans or humanities research in which the topic is honed into a presentable form using a multi-media approach. The project culminates in a sharing of expertise – a form of documentation and reflection. The three-hour work cycle has expanded into a three-period lesson in which students transform themselves from explorer to expert. In so doing they mentor and magnify the group mind of the learning community. As always, the adult mentors are on hand to support, illuminate and guide.