Culture: A Reorientation of the Montessori History Curriculum

The Fundamental Needs lesson is given to first year students in the Montessori elementary classroom. It is the first chapter of work that the child engages with in the history curriculum after The Passage of Time and it is a leitmotif throughout the entire elementary history curriculum.

The purpose of this lesson is to introduce the idea that all humans throughout space and time, have had the same material and spiritual needs. It provides a universal framework for thinking about other people, no matter how different they may seem to us. 

My Montessori training was fairly traditional, and when I was studying the history curriculum I received the original Fundamental Needs chart:

Montessori Fundamental Needs Chart

On the right side it shows our physical needs, the needs of our bodies. Here, the chart depicts how those needs were fulfilled at the time this chart was made. It shows it’s age in places, but there’s nothing urgently wrong with it.

On the left side of the chart it shows our spiritual needs, the needs of our “minds, hearts, and souls.” This side of the chart is more vague and doesn’t go into a lot of detail. This original chart includes three spiritual needs that were described to me in training as follows: 

  • Religion: The way we think about life, why we are here, what is true, right and wrong, good and bad.
  • Vanity: Making ourselves look and feel beautiful or interesting.
  • Culture/arts: Language, music, dance, art. 

I have objections here, and I’m not the only one; There have been many attempts by Montessori teachers to remake this material. It seems that no two teachers use the same version. Some versions put things like social acceptance, leisure, creation, affection, character, science, or legal system under spiritual needs. I know one creator who drops all of the spiritual needs, focusing only on material needs (which I think is a mistake).

An Attempt Was Made: Remaking the Chart

My first attempt at reworking the chart left the physical needs largely unaltered, only adding in “health.” The new spiritual needs included art, philosophy, communication, and culture. A small difference but it felt helpful and comprehensive at the time.

Montessori Fundamental needs chart old version
First attempt at remaking The Fundamental Needs Chart.

The first three spiritual needs were easy to define, but in lessons with students, I couldn’t give a clear explanation of what culture was. In my own mind it was a nebulous concept with fuzzy edges. I imagined that culture captured something about our social interactions with other people: manners, language, maybe festivals and holidays. It didn’t feel correct and it wasn’t useful.

As I continued working with this framework, I bumped into other problems- 

  • Where does architecture go? It’s concretely shelter, but there is also an element of art and something about culture because different groups have different architecture styles.
  • What is fashion? Is it art or is it clothing? What about cultural norms of what is appropriate clothing for certain situations like “black-tie” or “casual?”
  • What about holiday foods? That seems clearly in cultural, but is it actually nourishment?
  • How do you tie this lesson into the other history lessons? I could see a relationship with the Timeline of Humans, that lesson is how we have fulfilled our needs over time, and I could see a relationship with Interdependencies, producers create products that fulfill our needs. But the relationship was vague and when I tried to show the children, they struggled to make the connection.

I didn’t know how to handle cultural norms around our physical needs. I didn’t know how to mix spiritual and physical needs, even though in reality they do mix. The model didn’t work.

I kept snagging on culture. This catch-all term that I didn’t understand.

To Educate the Human Potential

I went back to the source. The first few chapters of To Educate the Human Potential by Maria Montessori are about the Great Lessons and the psyche of the elementary-age child. These chapters explain her ideas about how to teach children who have grown out of the first plane of development and reached a new stage of intellect.

She mentions culture a lot in her writings about elementary age children, and she isn’t talking about manners, festivals, or language when she uses this term.

“Knowledge can best be given where there is eagerness to learn, so this is the period when the seed of everything can be sown, the child’s mind being like a fertile field, ready to receive what will germinate into culture.”

Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 3

“If asked how many seeds may be sown, my answer is: ‘As many as possible!’ Looking around us at the cultural development of our epoch of evolution, we see no limit to what must be offered to the child, for his will be an immense field of chosen activity, and he should not be hampered by ignorance.”

Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 3

The word culture kept jumping out to me from the page. The way she was writing about culture did not reflect the definition of culture I had gotten in training: language, music, dance, art. 

When Montessori talks about culture in her books, she mentions inventions, science, history- these are the “cultural subjects” in the classroom.

“The task of cultural education is to put in order all the mass of confused impressions that the child has taken from the environment.”

Montessori, Creative Development in the Child, p. 157

There was a contradiction between what Montessori was saying and what the original chart was saying. (I later found out that Maria Montessori didn’t make these charts, someone else did.)

What Is Culture?

“Manners and festivals” also isn’t how anthropologists and evolutionary biologists talk about culture. In the broadest definition, culture is information that we access via social networks. 

Culture is the sum of intellectual achievements, inventions, beliefs, customs, and norms of individual people, which members of your community (whether that is your family, city, or nation) have adopted. 

Culture is as complex and nuanced as the individuals that create it, and truly to speak of a “culture” is only to speak of the dominant ideas of any group- the things most widely adopted. 

Culture isn’t a need– it’s knowledge transferred in a particular way.

The Three Categories of Culture

I found it helpful to split culture into three domains: Material culture, social culture, and philosophical culture. The following deep-dive isn’t necessarily taught to the student, but I always find it useful to understand the subject I’m teaching a few layers deeper that I need to explain. 

“[The] teacher can no longer take refuge behind syllabus and time-table. He has himself to acquire a reasonable acquaintance with every subject.”

Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 5

Material Culture

Cultural information allows us to create tools that better help us fulfill our physical needs, like a technique for making a sharp knife or grandma’s bread recipe. 

  • Clothing: How we protect our bodies from nature. Sewing methods, fabric creation.
  • Shelter: How we protect our bodies and possessions. Methods, tools, techniques.
  • Nourishment: The fuel we need. Cooking methods and tools, food preservation and production.
  • Defense: How we protect ourselves and our possessions. Weapons, shields, security systems.
    • In the modern context, this includes government, which is the delegation of your self-defense rights for the purpose of orderly, legally defined enforcement. There is a strong overlap with philosophy here.
  • Health: How we heal ourselves after injury or sickness. Medicine and medical techniques/procedures.
  • Transport: How we move from place to place. Could be walking, animal powered, or machine powered.

Philosophical Culture

Philosophy helps us understand what is good, true, and beautiful.

  • Art: Literature, music, performance, painting, sculpture, legends/mythologies
  • Concepts of: Self, time, past and future, truth
  • Approaches to: Finding truth, decision making, problem solving
  • Ethics: Justice, morality, virtues
  • Beliefs about: Death, afterlife, purpose, self-defense

Social Culture

The final category of culture is the most obvious one: social culture. This covers the complex ways that we interact with each other. 

  • Festivals, holidays, flags, games
  • Communications styles and rules: Facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, personal space, touching, body language, tone of voice, display of emotion, conversational patterns, table manners, languages spoken, languages written
  • Trade: Money, gifts, tipping, haggling, volunteering
  • Roles related to: Age, sex, class, family, heroes
  • Attitudes towards: Elders, adolescents, children, dependents, work, authority, cooperation, competition, animals, age, death, other cultures
  • Approaches to: Courtship, marriage, raising children
  • Notions of: Courtesy, manners, friendship, leadership, cleanliness, modesty, beauty

Each of these cultural domains overlaps with the others and combines in interesting ways. The Ancient Egyptian’s philosophy about the afterlife drove them to build the pyramids using complex tools and social hierarchies. These pyramids were decorated in ways that were beautiful to the Egyptians. 

This richer definition of culture is comprehensive, but there is still the difficulty of explaining these ideas in a way that is useful. It doesn’t matter if it is more correct if the child doesn’t understand it.

So, to present the idea of culture to students, I developed two whole new charts and reworked the Fundamental Needs chart again.

New Charts: The Transmission of Culture

First, something amazing happens: Someone invents something. This could be a new device, a new technique, or a new way of thinking. The inventor shares what they made with others, who then teach other people, who tell even more people.

Because you and I are human, this seems trivial and obvious, but human beings are the only animals that do this. Culture is the uniquely human way of harnessing cumulative learning– we can learn from everyone who ever came before us. Culture is our superpower.

If a man were to invent something and not share it, it couldn’t be adopted and won’t become part of the culture. Similarly, if he shares something and people choose not to adopt the idea, no matter how good it is, it doesn’t become part of the culture. Communication and persuasion are essential to the transmission of culture.

Montessori Culture Chart 1
The First Chart of Culture

This is the First Chart of Culture, it shows the inventor of fire. He shares this triumph to everyone he knows and they share the information with everyone they know, and so, fire becomes part of human culture. People are better able to survive and fulfill their fundamental needs.

Whether it’s a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creation. The line from the producer is golden to show its importance, because nothing is possible without our producers.

“Everything invented by man, physical or mental, is the fruit of someone’s imagination.”

Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 10

The pink lines connect the other people. These folks didn’t produce this knowledge themselves, but without the act of sharing, ideas would never spread. Pink is meant to be reminiscent of the pink conjunction symbol in the grammar materials. Cultural knowledge is passed between adults, but it’s also passed from adult to child- we call this education.

Culture Chart 2
The Second Chart of Culture

The second element of cultural development is our creativity, or as Maria Montessori would put it, our imagination. We can take disconnected pieces of information and put them together in new ways. 

“The crystallization point of hundreds of intellects is in the person of one man, who expresses something strikingly useful or discovers new knowledge.”

Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 55

If I can be so bold, that is what I’m doing in this article. I took the original work of Maria Montessori, and modern theories on gene-culture coevolution and applied them to the Montessori history curriculum. I made new charts, reimagined the Fundamental Needs, and wrote this article explaining it to you. If you accept my ideas, and tell others, they may become part of the culture.

The mechanism for cultural transmission is the same no matter what epoch you look at, we always learn from each other, the difference is scale and speed.

Early humans had fewer inventions to draw from, and their communities were smaller, this meant that cultural development was slower than it is today with our hyper-connected world and millennia of human culture to draw on. In just the past 100 years we’ve accomplished powered flight, we landed on the moon, and developed wireless internet. We can do this because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

“The man of culture today is superior to the natural man, having sensory powers far beyond those given by nature, through the telescope and microscope which extend his vision and through the accumulated researches of mathematicians, chemists and physicists who have investigated the secrets of nature, by the magical powers of the human mind. Thus appears the greatness of man, a creative agent and transformer above animals or plants, explore of the whole world and the universe outside it, able even to go back in time, and explore what has long ceased to be!”

Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 55

The New Fundamental Needs Chart

This new chart shows how when we help each other, everyone has a better chance of fulfilling their needs and flourishing. It also elevates the individual and shows how one person can affect change, which is inspiring for children to learn about themselves.

The black arrows are the sharing of cultural information between people. Gold arrows are new developments by individual producers.

Without culture, an individual has to fulfill all their needs on their own, but the thing that makes us uniquely human is our ability to cooperate and share information.

This addition fixes the problems I was having with the original chart and it better represents our understanding of human evolution (see further reading below). You can put things in their “obvious” place and then describe how other parts of the culture influence each other.

  • Architecture is shelter, influenced by the philosophical culture on what is considered beautiful.
  • Fashion is clothing, influenced by social culture on what is appropriate.
  • Food taboos are philosophy, your beliefs about things that are good and true, influenced by food availability and food preparation techniques.
  • Money is the medium of trade, it’s one of the ways you interact with your community.
  • The printing press is communication, and it elevated our ability to share culture.

All of these ideas intermingle within a community, and the chart shows a mechanism for that mingling. Everything goes into the “melting pot” of your community and each element of the culture can be creatively mixed up to make something new (which is concretely demonstrated in Culture Chart 2).

I think this new chart better represents Maria Montessori’s ideas about humanity. She was very concerned about how people interacted with each other and how they shared information. As a scientist, she was very excited and inspired by the new cultural developments of her time, like the telegraph, and she wanted children to be introduced to these ideas. My hope is that this new chart provides a framework for teachers to present this information in a way that is useful.

My new chart does not include drawings of how the needs are fulfilled, I understand this is a trade-off. I found that the chart was very cluttered when I tried. Instead, I have included mini charts in the listing that show how these needs can be fulfilled. I think this format is a little more flexible- if you want to study different cultures, like Ancient Egypt or Modern Japan, you can make a new set of mini charts instead of reworking the main chart.

The Study of History is the Study of Cultural Development

If we reorient the history curriculum around the centralizing idea of culture, you can easily tie all of the history chapters of work together. The study of history becomes the study of how individuals have produced and shared information with each other over time.

  • The Third Great Lesson & The Timeline of Humans: Our uniquely human ability to cumulatively learn at the grandest scale, from those first hominids making simple stone tools, to modern medicine that saves billions of lives.

  • The New Fundamental Needs: Individuals are better able to fulfill their needs because they are able to learn from members of their community.
    • You can explore how different individuals contributed to their community, or how different cultures affected the average individual. How did Aristotle affect Greek philosophy? How did the average Greek citizen benefit from Greek philosophy?
  • The Study of Civilizations: This becomes the Study of Cultures. You place cultures and civilizations in historical context and give an idea of the variety of ways humans have lived throughout time. This is the New Fundamental Needs lesson on a larger scale.

  • Interdependencies: Closely examine people within a community, how each person plays their part in producing valuable goods and services to others.
  • Economic Geography: Examine the production, consumption, and trade of a geographic region. This is like the Interdependencies lesson but on a larger scale.

This shift in how we approach the curriculum achieves two aims; First, it provides an integrating framework, a way to look at the world of human achievements. And secondly, it is a source of ennobling inspiration for the child.

Culture is a mechanism. And by helping the children understand this mechanism, they can become active participants in the human story. They can understand and appreciate the world they live in, and ultimately work to change it.

Orienting the child to a vast, complex history of individuals who are great, and have done great things to improve the lives of everyone around directly invites them in to this story: These children are human, and they are capable of greatness too.

Further Reading

This theory was long in the making. I read lots of books, and had many discussions with my book club, my trainers, and my husband. Here are some of the important books that shaped my understanding.

Mothers and others

Mothers and Others by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Why do humans cooperate? How did early humans cope with children that have such long childhoods?

To educate the Human Potential book cover Maria Montessori

To Educate the Human Potential by Maria Montessori

Not an easy read, but highly recommended for elementary guides. It describes her ideas on the Great Lessons and how to educate the second plane child.

A Story of Us Book cover

A Story of Us by Newson and Richerson

This book is so interesting, it uses stories to talk about seven million years of human evolution. This book was formative in my understanding of culture.

History Materials from Rhyme and Reason Academy

All of the history products I make are compatible with this theory of culture.

Do you know someone who would find this interesting? Share it!


  1. Have long wanted to read Sarah Hrdy. She has a book on allocare I’ve wanted for a long time. Guess this is my cue to just buy it. Really really appreciate this article and how you have re-worked things here, Emily, and your thoughtful reasoning. Have long felt the original too simplistic as well as hard to explain, if that makes any sense.

    1. I’m really excited to keep pursuing this idea and seeing how it plays out with my students over the next couple years. We’ll only know if I hit the mark after testing and experimenting in the classroom.

      This isn’t the end-all be-all of my thoughts on this topic, it’s just the beginnings!

      “Mothers and Others” is super readable 👍🏼

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *