The Great Lessons are a necessary part of the Montessori elementary classroom and are presented to the whole class early each year. In a six-year elementary classroom, a student would hear each lesson six times. Each time the child would be older and wiser and able to make deeper connections than the years before. The Great Lessons flow from one to another, picking up where the last lesson left off, ambitiously covering all of existence and all human achievement.
This is the sequence of all five Great Lessons and accompanying materials:
- First Great Lesson: The Coming of the Universe
- Materials: First Great Lesson Charts and experiments
- Second Great Lesson: The Coming of Life
- Materials: The Timeline of Life
- Third Great Lesson: The Coming of Humans
- Materials: The Timeline of Humans
- Fourth Great Lesson: The Story of Writing
- Materials: Fourth Great Lesson Charts
- Fifth Great Lesson: The Story of Numbers
- Materials: Fifth Great Lesson Charts
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So what is the First Great Lesson?
The First Great Lesson is primarily an imaginative story that uses posters and experiments to demonstrate some of the concepts presented. It’s a high level framework that helps orient the child to the orderliness of the universe and some foundational science concepts that will be covered in the main curriculum throughout the year.
The Great Lessons are simple, but hold a lot of depth in practice. They help the child organize their mind and integrate new knowledge into a functional framework. They allow the teacher to refer back to a common reference point for all children, “Do you remember in the First Great Lesson when…?”
Each of the Great Lessons serves as a springboard and an orientation for the domain it covers. Together, all five great lessons touch on every piece of what is learned in the six-year elementary classroom. This is a sample of the domains and lessons that would follow from The Coming of the Universe depending on the age and readiness of the child:
- Sun and Earth relationships including day and night, the seasons, solstices and equinoxes
- Stargazing, moon observations, learning the constellations
- States of matter experiments
- Chemistry experiments
- Solar system studies
- The scientific method
- Plate tectonics and the composition of the Earth
- Magnetic attraction and gravitational forces
- Atomic theory, the periodic table, the elements
- Going out trips to science museums
First Great Lesson Charts
These are the experiments that I do, but don’t be afraid to switch out materials or entire experiments if you need to. For each of the experiments, you will also need safety glasses and a tray.
- Properties of matter
- Solid model – Tile, hammer, cloth to cover tile
- Liquid model – Two containers, one with colored water, the other empty
- Gas model – Perfume works well, I used a hand fan this time
- Penny melt
- Liquids settle according to their weight
- Different ways of combining
- Model volcano (handmade)
- Vinegar, red food dye and baking soda
See more about setting up the science area of your classroom in this blog post.
Dramatic Story Telling- start slow and calm
For thousands of years, people have wondered about the world around them. They have wondered where things came from. Can you imagine a time before there were any cars, or schools, or grocery stores? Can you imagine a time before there were any cities or homes - even before there were any people? Can you imagine even farther back in time, before the dinosaurs… before plants, before there was anything at all living on earth? Before there even was an Earth, or our Sun? What if we go back to the very first moment? The place in time where nothing happened before. No Earth… no Sun… not a single star or galaxy anywhere. This is a story about these things, about how we think the Earth, the Sun, the stars, space and even time began.
Dramatic Pause- Let the above sink in and then build up excitement in the next passage until you get to BANG!
It must have been a very, very long time ago. Astronomers have studied the cosmos and determined that it was about 14 billion years ago. They learned that everything in the whole universe was once pressed together somehow in one tiny singular mass. Everything was packed so tightly in this point that it became very hot. We think it’s a super hot day if it’s 100 degrees. Can you imagine how hot a million degrees would be? A billion degrees? It’s hotter than even that. Now, if everything were pressed very tightly together, and if everything were very hot, then things that we know couldn’t exist. It was much too hot, and there was too much pressure. Living things couldn’t possibly exist. Even the sun couldn’t exist. It was too hot for stars! It was too hot for atoms. The hot point was unstable, all that matter and energy didn’t want to be so close together, they jostled together until -- BANG! In an instant of great energy, the whole universe was brought into being.
Dramatic Pause- continue slowly after the BANG
The energy cooled enough to form particles… The particles cooled enough to form atoms… Hundreds of thousands of years later, the atoms cooled enough to form gas clouds… There were an uncountable number of these interstellar clouds, each one of them enormously big and beautiful. And in each cloud, wisps of gas huddled together, forming small droplets. As the droplets got bigger, more wisps huddled with them, until they were so crowded together that they ignited into light- becoming a hot, hot star.
Show Unofficial Chart 1
Swirl your arms around an imaginary Sun, demonstrating the cloud swirling around the sun.
Billions and billions of wisps lit up into stars. One of these stars, spinning in a galaxy of stars, through enormous space, is our Sun. The Sun is just one of billions of stars in our universe, like one drop in an ocean. Our Sun spun, pulling a hot cloud of gas around it. And in that cloud of spinning debris, wisps of gas and tiny rocks huddled together. One of these clumps of hot rocks would become our home, Earth. Our Earth is much smaller than the Sun and most things in the universe, but it is precious and important to us.
Show Chart 1A: Relative Proportions of the Sun and the Earth
Remember that everything in the universe is made of tiny particles? Each one was very hot, each one moving very fast and they were once too hot for the Sun to exist! There must be billions and billions of these particles throughout the Universe, and yet every one of them behaves the same way, because they are following the laws of the Universe. These laws cannot be broken- it’s impossible! Every scrap of the universe, every speck which we might think too tiny to matter, every single thing follows the Laws of the Universe.
[Clasp both hands firmly together to represent a solid. See video at the bottom of the page for an example of motions.] Here are some of those laws: When particles get colder, they come closer together. They huddle up very tightly, like you might do if you were cold. [While staying connected at fingers, wave arms to represent a liquid.] And when particles get hotter, they move farther apart. [Flutter and clap hands to represent a gas.] And when particles get even hotter, they move even farther apart. By becoming colder or hotter, by moving closer together or farther apart, particles can form themselves into three states: Solid, liquid, gas
Perform Experiment 1: Properties of Matter
[Gently try to poke through tile...] In the solid state, particles hold together so tightly it takes great energy to break them apart. [Then smash tile with hammer] Even if you break off a piece, the bits remain solid. [Dip hand in water] In the liquid state, particles hold together, but not as tightly as a solid. The particles move aside easily. [Pour into fun container] A liquid has no shape of it’s own, and instead takes the shape of it’s container. [Wave fan, or spritz perfume] In the gaseous state, particles do not hold together, they spread out as far as they can in all directions.
Perform Experiment 2: Penny Melt
The laws of the universe also say that particles cannot become solid and liquid and gas at the same temperature. If the temperature gets hotter, some remain solid, some melt into a liquid and some evaporate into a gas. [Melt the penny. Bask in the oohs and ahhs.] Now, the young earth was so very, very hot at the beginning that nothing could be a solid- it was all liquid. As this ball of liquid rock spun around itself and spun around the sun, something started happening to it. The outer surface began a dance.
Show Chart 3A: Dance of the Elements
The particles on the outer surface were next to the cold space, and they became cooler. So, following the law, they huddled up closer together. This made them heavier, and they sank into the earth. But inside the earth it was still very hot, and the particles heated up again. And, following the law again, they expanded and moved apart. And this made them lighter, and so they floated back up to the surface. On the surface they became cooler and so fell down again, over and over, down and up and down again, like a dance. Each time a hot particle rose to space, it carried some of the heat away, once it had given away all of its heat and was shivering from coldness, it would fall back to earth. And slowly, slowly over millions of years, one tiny particle at a time, the earth began to cool...
Perform Experiment 3: Liquids Settle According to Their Weight
As the Earth cooled, inside the bubbling, boiling, hot rock, materials started to organize. Some of them were heavier elements and sank to the center of the Earth, and some were lighter and floated on top.
Perform Experiment 4: Different ways of combining
You may have noticed that there are more things on this Earth than just rocks, water, and air. There are different kinds of solids, liquids, and gases! There are different kinds, because some kinds of particles are attracted to each other so much that they combine with each other to form new substances. I have two test tubes of water here. I’ll add this substance (sugar) to this one, and this other substance (flour) to that one. [Sugar dissolves into water] Can you seeany of this substance here? (No.) That’s because these two substances are attracted to each other so much that they combine! [Flour does not dissolve in water] Do you see this substance in this substance still? (Yes) Yes, it made the water white. And see? It’s settling here at the bottom. These two don’t attract at all. They did’t combine.
Perform Experiment 5: Volcano
The earth cooled more and more, all the time spinning around itself and around the sun. After a billion years or so, the outer surface was so cold that it became a solid, like a skin over the hot stuff inside. It seemed as if the Earth had calmed down and taken a solid shape at last. But the liquid rock inside this skin was still boiling hot, and felt trapped. It needed to get out! And there is only one thing to do: They had to follow the laws. If you are hot, you expand and rise. There was no room for them inside the earth’s solid skin, and so they pushed against the skin and burst out! [Sprinkle baking soda into the volcano- Explode!]
Show Chart 4A: Time of the Volcanoes
The whole planet was covered in volcanoes. Can you imagine what it would have been like to be there? This era in the Earth’s history is called the Hadean, named after the Greek god of the underworld, Hades. At this time, there was some water on the surface, but when the hot magma spewed out, the water immediately boiled, turned to steam, and formed giant clouds over the whole earth. The ash and gases from the volcanoes added to these clouds, and the clouds covered the earth. The sun couldn’t shine through for thousands of years, while volcanoes poured their hot magma out onto the surface.
Show Chart 5A: Oceans Formed
After a very long time, the earth cooled down into a mostly solid ball, though to this day, there is still some hot liquid rock inside. It became cool enough for the water to pool, and stay liquid. And then it rained, and rained, and rained -- for millions of years. It rained so much that all the oceans were formed in the low places, and lakes and rivers were formed. Above the Earth the volcanic clouds finally disappeared and air collected.The sun could look down on its beautiful little daughter, the Earth, and see rocks, water, and air; solids, liquids, and gasesAnd even today, the earth still goes on spinning around itself and spinning around the sun, and the sun still goes whirling through its galaxy cloud of stars. And all over the universe, other galaxies still go spinning and spinning away from each other. And in the whole universe, every tiny particle, in every star and every planet and every bit of dust, still follows the same laws, just as they have been doing for 14 billion years. The story of our Earth and what happened on it, isn’t quite over. We’ve only set the stage… for life to begin!
Final Thoughts on the First Great Lesson
There is a lot of optionality for this lesson, please do not consider this version authoritative- I know that even I will tweak this story a bit every time I tell it.
Keep in mind the overall point of this lesson: To awaken awe and wonder in the child, and give a framework to hang later physical earth and science lessons from. This story is not meant to be a science lecture, though we do want to be overall accurate in our descriptions.
Things you can freely change and make your own:
- The science experiments. I love the penny melt, but you may not want to do that! A crayon melt on a hotplate is more traditional. I don’t love the traditional ‘paper pieces in water’ experiment and I changed it to ‘different ways of combing’.
- The posters. Use the ones I sell, or paint your own! Add more posters, or use fewer if you like. Stick to the traditional AMI style ones, or try my updated ones. Totally optional.
Make sure you hit these key points:
- There is a beginning of the Universe, nothing happened before this moment. The beginning was a very long time ago (13.8 billion years).
- Things as we know it didn’t exist at the beginning.
- The Universe follows predictable laws.
- The Sun was formed from interstellar gas, then the Earth was formed from rocks orbiting the Sun.
- Earth started off as a sphere of super hot liquid rock; Then it cooled.
- Only once Earth cooled was the stage set for life (leave a transition for the Second Great Lesson!)
Make sure you avoid these common pitfalls in whatever version of the First Great Lesson you decide to tell:
- The Big Bang isn’t an explosion of fire that ‘blows up’. It’s way hotter than fire and it wasn’t a combustion. I think this language is more misleading than imaginative.
- For the Dance of the Elements- “coldness” does not “move”, only heat moves. In the traditional script the “angels brought a little coldness with them”, but you want to avoid this language because it violates laws of thermodynamics (the zeroth law). Instead say ‘heat was carried away’.
- Elements are not formed by some particles cooling and “liking each other”. Elements are predominantly formed by stellar fusion and supernova! I omit this section in the story and instead explore the concepts in upper elementary follow up work.
- Earth was never gaseous. Proto-Earth was hot liquid rock, any gases that close to the inner orbit of the sun (the first four planets) were either gravitationally pulled into the sun or blasted further into space by solar winds. Atmospheres, and water, on the inner planets formed later.
- There aren’t “Laws of Solids”, “Laws of Gases” or “Laws of Liquids” in the sense they are presented in the original story. I preferred to use “Laws of matter” or “Laws of the Universe”.
Recommended External Resources:
- Priscilla Spears’ archived free newsletter “The Early Universe” HERE
- The History of Earth YouTube channel. Everything they make is great, but these two videos are very relevant: The Formation of Earth, The Hadean Period