Montessori Elementary Homeschool Blog - with documentation of our infant Montessori, toddler Montessori, and primary Montessori experiences; as well as preparation for the upcoming adolescent Montessori homeschool years.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Review Post: Kingdoms of Life Connected

I have the current edition as of December 2013: 2nd printing, published in 2008/9
Kingdoms of Life Connected: A Teachers Guide to the Tree of Life
I own the pdf version;
purchased for my own use

Short story: I cannot highly recommend this resource. I can recommend it with much trepidation and with several caveats - as a potentially useful resource for an older discerning student (adolescence and above).

This resource is not appropriate for elementary Montessori students except those who are keenly interested in the subject matter at hand.

If you have a focus on Biblical-based Creation, this is NOT the resource for you at all. It is clearly an evolution resource, with no qualms about pointing out the outdated beliefs of Creationism. There is simply too much modification work to be done, to really be of value (unless you receive a copy for free - even then, the modification work is heavy). Could you gain some tidbits? Probably; not worth spending the money for the tidbits though.

Short-short story: I find this book at odds with the Montessori approach to scientific classification at the primary and elementary ages.

The author presents a great lay-out and makes an earnest attempt to "update" the Montessori scientific classification materials. There are so many examples of snubbing what has been previously given to the children that it leaves a bad taste about the rest of her words, accurate words or otherwise - it leaves me questioning her rather strong bias. If the information could be presented without the strong emphasis on anything but the information in this book being "outdated", implying that children have been harmed in the process of their past learning - and without the accompanying emphasis that "we don't have a final system in place but we have to teach the children something so we're going to give them something that is based on what they can't observe and that is changing very quickly in the scientific world, so we'll go with this one which will ALSO be outdated very soon" - well, that just doesn't sit well with Montessori - so if she could leave out the very strong statements to these affects, I could work with the remaining information much more easily. Except that elementary need to work with what they can observe. Molecular levels need to be saved for strong interest and middle/high school.

Thus this resource is simply a mis-match of content and age, if the bias is left out.

There are a few places where she lists old names with new names, which is oh-so-helpful for those of us genuinely trying to "update"; I think this information can likely be found elsewhere though.

From chapter 1 - some quotes - italics and parentheses are mine:
Classifications with fewer than five kingdoms belong in the history of science, not in current studies.
(ignoring that for the young children first presented with these concepts in a Montessori setting, 5 Kingdoms is getting too detailed - instead we focus on "plants and animals" and slowly build from there as the child is ready to explore how Kingdom Vegetalia has been replaced with 4 other, more accurate Kingdoms --- we need to leave children room to explore, pointing them in the right direction and providing the materials - by giving them too much, too soon, we risk (and very likely are guilty of!) filling them with information rather than exploring with them. Best to start with plants and animals, add in fungi upon interest (typically before 1st grade), then the other two in middle to upper elementary)

What changes have recently been made in the kingdoms and phyla? 
Changes are part of classification. They reflect the dynamic nature of science. Students need to learn terms that they will encounter in current encyclopedias and juvenile literature, not obscure or obsolete labels. Here are some suggestions for changes in lessons on classification. At the same time, older publications may have useful information about organisms, and it helps to know something about previous identities of organisms.
(So do the children need to know the obscure and obsolete labels or not? The auther is not clear.)

For introductory study, it will be better for them to define plants as organisms that are adapted to life on land.
(yet many children have direct experience with aquatic 'plants' (algae are not plants, they are protists) --- fish tanks... If she is striving for greater accuracy in teaching an evolutionary hypothesis (yes, she says the arrangement taught is only an hypothesis), and is upset about the present/past Montessori experience of scientific classification, then let's keep these definitions accurate too!)

This part, I am ok with:
Should we use kingdoms to classify life?
Kingdoms classify whole organisms. Children who are able to perceive the characteristics of whole organisms, but not yet able to think abstractly about cells and molecules are likely to be most engaged when they are working with kingdoms. They can learn that there are three “true” kingdoms (fungi, animals, and plants), and two “kingdoms” that we group together for convenience (prokaryotes and protists).
(we are saying here that we can indeed start with what children can observe (fungi, animals, plants) --- and move into the prokaryotes and protists which are less easily observed (these are not going to be a typical lower elementary study - and almost never a primary study)).

The straight information on observable characteristics is great. The activities contained in the book that could be perfect for elementary and middle school students are readily found in other resources on the same topic. Nice to have in one place? Yes.

In the end, the biggest factors for me relate to the BIG picture being presented:
  • too hypothetical - while I agree that we need to teach children what we have available even if the information is changing as new discoveries are made ---- there is TOO much hypothesis here that is CONSTANTLY changing - links between the different forms of life
  • the children can't "see" it - boh because of the hypothetical nature and the reality that the children can't go back in the past - when they look at a set of organisms, Kingdoms of Life Connected will lead to children believing that they can't trust their own sense of observation, but instead must be fed information by someone else before they can do any real work with classification. Rather the Montessori way is to provide "keys" and encourage the children to explore, to come to their own conclusions, to discuss and share and perhaps change their conclusions - but ultimately learning to trust in their own powers of observation and intuition as well as collaboration with others. I see the "direct teaching" happening far more heavily on the front-end here, in contrast to the Montessori way of exploration first.

Thus even as an evolution-based resource, I CANNOT recommend this resource at the elementary level. Perhaps at adolescence and/or high school. 

A more useful reference for biological studies that does not get into creation OR evolution (minus the potential of the last chapter), but simply what children can observe with their own eyes:
The World of Biology by John Hudson Tiner
(I have neither read, reviewed nor utilized any of his other books)
Good basic information on each kingdom - easily understandable. Combine with some good living books and videos and real life experiences.


  1. The JHT book looks great. Just looked through the preview pages on Amazon. I wouldn't have bought the Spears book if I had known what it was like ahead of time. That said, there are some things I intend to use from the book. I don't know WHEN. That's up to the boys of course. I noticed that most of the things I have my eye on even Spears says will be for upper elementary or middle school.

    Okay. Here is a list of what I thought I might use from this resource (page numbers are the FILE page number not the printed page number):

    *Bacteria Questions Cards (pp 37-43)
    *What can Children do with Bacteria (p 44-46) I think perhaps this is my go to page for Bacteria in Lower Elementary. Suggests ONE safe bacteria to grow, suggests tie-in of bacteria to disease prevention...something the children have direct experience with at any age.
    *Book suggestions on Page 47
    *Protists for Classroom Study (pp65-67) I felt suggestions like "serve up a snack of seaweed" were a practical and useful to make that kingdom tangible and I wouldn't have thought of it myself.
    *Book suggestions p. 68
    *Types of Fungi illustrations (pp88-92)
    *Research questions and suggestions for activities p. 95.
    *booklist p. 96
    * in UE the sets of research questions for the different phyla of the animal kingdom. I can totally see typing these up on cards and leaving them on the shelf to spark research and help them start thinking of questions of this level on their own. pp. 114-120
    *Book suggestions p. 122
    *study questions and activities p. 153
    *probably not until high school, but love the building an Adenovirus activity that starts on p. 170.
    *The cards on p 183 for making your own tree of life are really nice, although I probably will have better cards that I can pull off of all my kingdoms charts to do something similar. I would love to have the kids fill in a mute chart of a "tree" with these cards except my "tree" just has five branches creating the five kingdoms. My tree doesn't have branches off of the branches implying evolutionary order. If that makes sense. These cards could be used to make box charts like I have from Montessori R&D if someone needs to make their own.

    This all distills down to this: I agree with everything you said about the inappropriateness of the theory behind this book and the tone. However I would not describe what I intend to use from the book, as "tidbits." And that's coming from someone who wouldn't even use the Timeline of Life in their homeschool. However, I am really good at reading something and tossing what I don't like without a morsel of guilt. I'm keeping what I like and tossing the rest. I also thought that someone who DOES have an evolutionary bent could modify the nice "coming of" stories for each Kingdom. It's nice to have a story for each kingdom

    1. Thank you for sharing what you've found useful :)

      I think you said quite well when you say that you are really good at finding what works for you :) Because you are! The local Montessori homeschooling moms around me simply don't have the time or just can't. We all have different gifts :)

      For me, to be entirely transparent, my reaction is far more based on Montessori principles than on the homeschool portion of it, which is the source of my trepidation even for those teaching straight evolution.

      Many of the activities I saw that I liked and would find useful - I have seen in other sources. It IS nice to have them all in one location, sorted by kingdom though. The book suggestions definitely get us into the right section of the library and bookstore (and online videos).

      Which is why my reaction is more "Montessori" than "homeschool" - and why it has taken me over a year to write this post ;)

      Now, if there was no claim to "be" Montessori, I have to admit - I'd probably knock it up a few points. And/or if it was geared more directly for middle school and not to "replace" what is done in elementary as well, definitely more points.

      What it comes down to for me is a mis-match of ages and contents - which don't fit with Montessori principles (AMI OR AMS in this case).

      So useful? Yep.
      Anywhere near my top resource to be used? Nope.


  2. Do you own any of the other books in 'The World of' series? Wondering how they are from the Montessori perspective. The author seems to be good about starting with what is observable before going abstract. Curious if the other books are as good.

  3. Oh and I do see that you said you don't have the other books but since this was written a year ago, I'm still wondering if you've read/used them? :)

    1. Indeed yes - I have quickly read through several and now own a few. I have not yet found one that I wouldn't recommend at least for the elementary level, although I am sure some experts in those fields might say it wasn't enough information. This is where I appreciate a basic overview of the subject, let the children follow interests into more detailed resources, or delve into those areas in adolescence if elementary interests didn't go there. ;) In that sense, I do like these books as great overviews, with a bibliography in the back to start on personal exploration, and lots of little sideboxes (without being distracting) with more detailed information in some places. Montessori: check!

      Each of the books I looked at (remembering I didn't read every detail in every book) seems solid to me; noting all contributions to that field on fair and balanced footing. The writer is solidly Protestant yet includes Catholic and Muslim and Jewish and Chinese (etc.) contributions without bias. There are a few places the writer could have clearly bashed any one of those groups and did NOT.

      He is also strongly 6-day creation, but that does not come out in the books I looked at.

      I own the following:
      Exploring the World of Mathematics
      Exploring the World of Chemistry
      Exploring the World of Physics
      Exploring the World of Medicine

      Looked at:
      Exploring the World of Astronomy

      Can't remember if I've seen:
      Planet Earth

      I do see on the website there are now lesson plans available with tests, etc. geared for the high school age (10th-12th grade). The back of the title page in each book describes how to use it with elementary children (read with them), middle school (independent reading), junior high and high school (will need supplementation, each book is not a full course in that subject matter for this grade level).


  4. Perfect overview. Thanks so much!