Moving From Known to Unknown – A Common Mystery for Early Years Teachers

‘Moving from known to unknown’ while working with children in their early years is a common phrase on the lips of every Nigerian teacher; it is as common as reciting the national anthem. In contrary, 7 out of every 10 teachers in this part of the world have struggled to make this mantra a reality while to some; the actual movement from known to unknown remains a hard nut to crack in the early years setting (18months to 5years+).

In Montessori, we simply move from known to unknown by creating a concrete experience for the children before introducing abstract concepts to them. The creation of this concrete experience provides a learning environment for the children as we know that children only unfold their hidden potentials and psychic traits when they interact with a learning environment. So when we create a concrete experience for the children before introducing abstract concepts to them, we are indirectly creating a learning environment for them to interact with. The interaction with this learning environment will then serve as a known platform that the children will move from to learn the unknown. I will explain this practically later on.

Most teachers use flash cards to introduce abstract concepts to children in their early years. To them, these flash cards are enough to create the concrete experience needed to teach the unknown.  In actual sense, flash cards are not concrete materials but abstract as they still contain abstract representation of concepts intended to be taught. They cannot create the needed concrete experience or the required learning environment and as such should not be used to start abstract lessons. However, flash cards are good materials to reinforce abstract concepts after the children have mastered and internalized them.

During one of my visits to a school early this month, I had an opportunity of evaluating a nursery school teacher who taught a group of children the primary colours ‘red, blue and yellow’.  As interesting as her lesson was, the concept of moving from known to unknown was the missing piece in the entire jigsaw.  She created flash cards for these colours and simply named them while flashing the cards for the children to see. The children understood the lesson quite all right but they could not internalize the concepts. When the children were evaluated at the end of the lesson, only 20% of them could identify the colours. The remaining 80% struggled to identify them.

What went wrong?

  • The children could not trace the origin of these colours.
  • The teacher got the lesson complicated. She used the unknown (flash cards) to teach the unknown (primary colours)without creating a learning environment or concrete experience (known platform) for the children to movefrom.

Come to think of it; the teacher did two things at the same time while presenting the lesson for the first time.

  1. She flashed the cards to show the colours
  2. Shealso named the colours at the same time.

What did she expect the children to focus on? The colour on the card or the name of the colourshe gave? Interesting!

Now, let’s be more practical. I stated earlier on that in Montessori we simply create a known platform before introducing the children to the unknown (abstract concepts). Let me show you how.

The teaching of the unknown with the known in Montessori is a logical procedure that involves 3 stages:

  1. Create a concrete experience or learning environment. This is the stage where the known platform is created.
  2. Progress to abstract. This is the unknown
  3. Link the concrete knowledge to abstract. This is where we bridge the mental gap between the known and the unknown for easy and 100% internalization of the concept.

Let us look at one practical example below.


Stage 1: creating a concrete experience, learning environment or known platform

Just as letters, numbers and shapes are, colours are also abstract templates. It is wrong to introduce them to children conventionally without a previous knowledge or entry behaviour. Before we teach the names of these colours and their identification, it is important for the children to first explore them as this will create the ‘known platform’. When the time comes to teach the names of the colours and their identification, this previous exploration activity will help the children move from a known platform to unknown.

In a nut shell, our main aim at stage 1 should always be to allow the children explore the abstract concepts to create a learning environment or a known platform. Teaching the names of these abstract concepts should not be our priority as this is what we do at stage 2.

This type of exploration at stage 1(without teaching or emphasizing the names of the colours) will leave positive images of the colours on the fertile minds of the children which we can take advantage of at stage 2.

There are different ways the children can explore the secondary colours to create the required known platform. Please find below 2 of them:


  • The teacher should collect toy cars of these secondary colours and put them in a tray.
  • He should go ahead and make a large colourful wheel from a thick cardboard such that this circular wheel will have three sectors of green, purple and orange. This is shown below:
  • A child should help bring the tray and the wheel to the work area, either on a floor mat or a demonstration table.
  • Tell the children that you are going to drive the cars to the wheel and leave them on the part of the wheel having the same colours.
  • Pick a car (for example green) and place it on the purple sector of the wheel and tell the children that the car cannot stay there because it’s not the same colour.
  • Drive the car with your hand to the green sector and tell the children you’ll leave it there because they are now the same.
  • Do the same for the other cars following their colours.
  • Allow the children to have a go by driving the cars as well to the sectors of wheel that represent the colours of the cars.



  • Since there are 3 secondary colours (green, purple and orange), the teacher could also get three bowls of these secondary colours (a green bowl, purple bowl and orange bowl).
  • He should put small balls of green, purple and orange in a basket.
  • The teacher will then show the children how to put the balls in the bowls following their colours without actually teaching their names. That is, green balls will go into the green bowl, purple balls into purple bowl and orange into orange bowl.
  • The teacher should then allow the children to try after showing them.

Stage 2: Progressing to abstract by teaching the names (the unknown)

This is the stage the teacher teaches the unknown by giving the names of the colours. If we want the children to truly move from known to unknown, we should not do the two stages the same day. We can have more exploration activities under stage 1 for the children to do for a week while we prepare to take advantage of those impressions in the coming week.

In Montessori, we name the abstract concepts when we get to this stage by using the popular 3-period lesson.

This is a 3-step technique of presenting information to the child in a Montessori environment. In the first period called the introduction or naming period, the teacher demonstrates what a concept is by saying “this is”. The teacher might say “This is green” while pointing to a green material (e.g. Montessori colour tablet). In the second period called the association or recognition period, the teacher asks the child to “show” what was just identified (“Show me green”). Finally, in the recall period which is the third period, the teacher asks the child to name the object by saying “What is this”. Moving from new information to passive recall to active identification reinforces the child’s learning and demonstrates her mastery.

Conventionally, most teachers start at this second stage and also end there as we saw in the case study above of the teacher who taught the children the primary colours.  That always leaves a mental gap on the minds of the children as the images created by those abstract templates are never converted into reality. This is the clear disparity between understanding a concept and internalizing it.

Stage 3: Linking the concrete knowledge to abstract

As I had pointed out earlier on, this is where we bridge the mental gap between the known and the unknown for easy and100% internalization of the concept. To finally convert the images those colours have formed on the minds of the children into reality, there is need to relate the colours taught to the child’s immediate learning environment. We could do this by introducing games to the children and playing them with the colours we have taught.

The flash cards could be used here. For example, we could give a child a flash card to identify it and match with objects that have the same colours in the classroom. By doing this, the child will know that any object in the environment could have that colour not just the flash card or material given to him.

Learning had transformed beyond its conventional ways. It entails stimulation of interest in things known to learning abstractions and internalizing them in the mind of a child. This means learning should begin within a four-corner world (teaching environment) of a child, by manipulating on her sense of touch, smell, feel, sight, taste and thereby build an imaginative wall around her object of interest. Only then the unknown would be registered in her subconscious mind.


Remember, ‘’there are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception’’ (Aldous Huxley)

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4th of June, 2018.


Country Director