Montessori mentions that her way of education provides keys to life. Many times we would think of those keys as facts about life and culture and the world. These is some truth to this, but one must go a bit deeper because not every fact is a key to the world. And what I have found is that there are three types of keys in Montessori: the heuristic (or transcendental); the generic; and the local.
A key unlocks a door into some home or world. So a key can be a fact, but they are facts that unlocked another world of facts. One example might be color. Once one learns about red, blue, and yellow, and one comes to discover the various types of colors, it really begins to unlock the ability to attend to a larger range of colors on a multitude of objects. Likewise for all of our senses. Once we know how to use a sense, to focus our attention to this or that facet of a sense, we then begin to see all the sensory objects that emerge in that sense. So for example, once we start to see shades of green, then we can see fields of green, oceans of green, forests of green, and wide ranges of shirts and hats that are green, and even the Green Bay Packers. The same with sound. Once we begin to hear various patterns of sounds, it unlocks all the birds that are singing in the spring time, or all the leaves that are blowing in the wind, or the beautiful orchestra playing downtown.
Lonergan calls these types of notions motor-sensory notions. Exercising them then builds a world of sights and sounds. On a next higher level however, intellectual notions begin to emerge. In Insight, Lonergan identifies three fundamental notions that lead to intelligibility. Intelligibility is the object of any act of understanding. When one understands a circle or the algebraic meaning of a line or the meaning of a gene in genetics, one is understanding an intelligibility. These really are types of correlations or functional insights that articulate the nature of something.
Notions in turn are not isolated but form into sets of relationships that unfold into patterns of recurrence that result in the development of one’s motor-sensory perceptions and memory, the development of one’s understanding into viewpoints, the development of one’s judgements into a person of solid reasoning (or what Lonergan calls the “principle notion of objectivity), and the development of one’s decisions into a well formed virtuous human being. These patterns of notions are called heuristic structures in INSIGHT.
Montessori materials begin to plant seeds of these notions in the youngest children. Not just the motor-sensory notions, but also the intellectual and moral notions as well. Practical life materials for example help to strengthen the will in creatively generating beauty and order in the world. Observing children at work in practical life leads one to the natural hope that one places in the youth of the world for a better future. Montessori’s sensorial materials help to further refine the senses, but they also begin to open up the child to a vast array of insights and the knowledge of how to reach insights through what St. Thomas calls phantasm (he was following Aristotle). These phantasms are rich images constructed from motor-sensory perceptions. These can be worked into various kinds of symbols and data patterns for insight. Hence, even before reaching first grade, children can reach into higher levels of math. Likewise for language. As children come to learn words through three part lessons, and then explore parts of speech through activities, they come to a profound understanding of how language works and how it serves them in thinking, communicating, constituting orders (like a political constitution or a business contract), and in getting things done. Language that came to manifest through its structure the interior notions and operations of human consciousness comes to be a profound key that carries with it the rich history of human intelligence and freedom.
There is more of course, but these notions are some of the most profound keys that Montessori helped children to appropriate through their environment.
A second level of keys is really in terms of the generic categories of the world. These can be such categories as color or shape. But they can be categories of things, such as is chemical things or biological things (what Lonergan calls explanatory genera). Montessori designed ways in the environment for children to makes such categories their own, for life. Classification boxes, timelines, types of lands masses or water ways, are all delivered in a fashion that attracts and embeds these genera frameworks into the child’s soul by stirring in the child a deep and mysterious encounter and fascination with creation.
A third level of keys is more specific yet. It deals with imparting particular facts and skills and words that are useful for today. This could be as simple as cleaning a computer to using a microwave rightly. It will include a number of specific types of vocabular words and vernacular structures found locally so as to help the child better connect with those in his or her world.
In short, I have found the keys to be as comprehensive as heuristic notions (or even transcendental notions — see Lonergan’s Method in Theology) which are universally relevant across cultures, to something based on generic categories which also can be universally found, or something more specific to a particular culture that deals with that culture’s peculiarities. In all cases, the child finds liberty when given these keys.