Multi age classes have long been a cornerstone of Montessori classrooms.
Montessori classrooms were built around Maria Montessori’s idea of healthy communities. Montessori thought it unnatural to segregate by age pointing out that segregating elderly people because they were old was as unnatural as segregating children into different grades because of age. (Montessori, 1949) Montessori saw mixed aged classes as being essential to building a community that benefited all children and society at large. Montessori gave the illustration of a large family where because of its size children at different developmental stages are able to form a society as each is at different stages in their journey. Montessori said ‘The main thing is that the groups should have different ages …. To have success you must have these different ages … The older children are interested in the younger, and the younger in the older.’ (Montessori, 1989, pp.68-69)
In a healthy Montessori community multi-age groups see children helping each other and working harmoniously. The occurs naturally as children interact constantly through learning and being with each other (Montessori, 1949). The child chooses workmates and activities that are developmentally appropriate for them rather than having the choices made for them by a teacher who is covering set work for an age group by an external curriculum (Lillard, 2005).
Through regular interaction, a child may inquire with another child about what they are doing or perhaps why they are doing it (Lillard, 2005). This provides the child with ideas of how the work they are doing leads on to another work and for the older child helps them to see how the work they are doing has built upon a previous work as they make conversation with their younger peer about what next steps need to be taken so that the younger peer can do the work they are doing. This process allows for not only academic learning but also social and emotional learning as a child thinks about their interactions with a peer. Conversations like this take place because in a Montessori class children have the freedom to interact with others without needing teacher permission and also because a multi age class allows for a wide range of activities of differing levels to be present and happening in a single class at any one time. This in turn allows children to follow their interests and become absorbed in a topic or material. The teacher, therefore, needs to permit such opportunities to occur in their class. For example, the teacher needs to allow for children to be able to freely move. The teacher needs to allow an environment where children can freely interact with others and choose activities that they are interested in.
Multi-age groups organically allow the student to have many teachers – the other students! In fact Montessori thought it was incredibly important that the ‘teacher’ saw the advantage of a child’s peers. Montessori implored the teacher to be patient and humoursly suggested that teachers tied themselves to a pole in their class so they didn’t react too quickly to an occurrence in the class! She stated that adults often had very different ideas from that of the children on the right thing to do so it was best to let the children solve the issue for themselves as they inherently knew the ways they wished their society to work (Montessori, 1949). Recent research has proven Montessori’s thoughts and shown that children can learn more easily from peers rather than an adult. In an imitation exercise where a young child saw actions from a slightly older peer or an adult , those children that had a peer as a teacher out performed the children who had had the adult as a teacher (Lillard, 2005).
In a mixed age montessori community there are many advantages for children of all ages. While parents and teachers may see multi-age groups as being particularly advantageous for younger students the advantages of completing the last year of a cycle are manifold too. When a child is in the final year of a cycle they are able to use their knowledge to teach younger children. Through teaching, a child has to refine and think about what they know and also how to present it appropriately to the student. In doing this the child is able to more clearly analyse what they know. (Montessori, 1949) . Sometimes parents are concerned that their older child may spend their entire time ‘teaching’. Montessori stressed again that the child had the right to say ‘no’ if they did not wish to teach or assist and that like every other child that child’s liberty was not to be infringed upon. (Montessori, 1949). This is again a reminder to the classroom teacher that the older child should not be constantly called upon to teach younger students.
What then are some down sides of Multi age classrooms?
Multi-age classrooms are not a bed of roses there are some very real challenges
Curriculum planning. Planning for a group of children with an extended age range means a teacher has to plan for multiple curriculum levels across a range of subjects this can be really challenging in a public school setting where the teacher is not only attempting to cover the national or state curriculum but the Montessori Curriculum too.
Relationship management. In a Montessori classroom there may be uneven cohorts for example a class might have dramatically more six year olds than nine year olds this may mean there may not be a huge group of 'leaders' in the class and the teacher might have to do more 'teaching' than might be usual in a cohort with a near even split of ages.
Systems. Having systems is important to any classroom. In a Montessori class a teacher needs to have systems and routines to ensure
- Students work is monitored, recorded and acted upon
- Students are getting a variety of lessons that meet their developmental needs e.g. not just concentrating on literacy with the six year olds or concentrating on Great Stories with the eight year olds. All students need to have a variety of lessons.
- Students understand class 'norms' and expectations for example knowing how to seek help.
Expectations of Self. As mixed age classes with age ranges that span three or six years are not 'usual' a teacher may feel like they have to prove themselves more that this type of education is possible. Therefore supportive school management is really important to ensure that the teacher doesn't burn out but that there is also really good education for families on the 'soft skills' a child is learning through their time in a Montessori Classroom e.g. relating to others of different ages.
The social and academic benefits of a Montessori mixed age class are manifold. It is important that the teacher is able to foster a spirit of community so that all children in the class feel able to share and relate well to each other. Children who are able to experience a full cycle are able to enjoy many benefits as they journey from foundation to leadership level in their community.
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Lilard, P. & Jensen, L. (2003). Montessori from the start: the child at home from birth to three New York: Schocken.
Lillard, A. (2005). Montessori The science behind the Genius. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press
Montessori, M. (1989). The child, society, and the world; Unpublished speeches and writings (Vol 7). Oxford: Clio
Montessori, M. (1949) The Absorbent Mind, India: Theosphical Society.
McInerney, D. & McInerney, V. (2010) Educational Psychology. Fifth Edition, Australia: Pearson.