One of the first things you notice when you walk into a Montessori school is that the classrooms are not divided by age. In a Montessori classroom, you will see children of different ages working together and socializing happily. You might, for example, see an older child showing a younger one how to complete an activity, with the younger child fascinated by watching his older classmate accomplish what he can’t yet do.
Montessori classrooms are divided into multi-age groupings, such as from 3 to 6 years, and, starting in Children’s House, the students stay with one class and one teacher for an entire 3-year cycle. The multi-age classroom is fundamental to the Montessori method. Why do multi-age classrooms work and what are the benefits?
Opportunities for Leadership
Older students have the chance to become mentors to their younger classmates, while learning and practicing important leadership skills. Younger children naturally look up to and emulate older children, and so in a classroom with a range of ages, there are always natural opportunities for a child to be a leader. Older students can learn the joy of teaching their younger peers.
It’s a natural way for older students to begin valuing patience and empathy, as they learn how to help others by sharing expertise with tasks that they themselves have mastered. To teach something, you must first have that mastery, and the process of passing it on—of teaching by example and communication, of reminding oneself of the specific steps, of seeing how to correct mistakes—reinforces that mastery. By helping younger students, older students further learn their work. And they learn the foundations and pleasures of taking responsibility and being appreciated.
True Peer Learning
Children learn a great deal simply by observing. Having older children in the classroom means that young children are surrounded by teachers-by-example! Watching older children do their work not only provides a model for how to proceed, but it also motivates young students to practice and achieve mastery over their tasks. They look forward to the day that they can do that kind of work too. A child may watch an older student sitting quietly and focusing during a work period, and think to himself, “If they can do that, someday I will as well!”
This applies not only to academic skills but to foundational cognitive, emotional, and social skills. For example, by watching how older children interact respectfully with the teacher and their peers, young children absorb that dignified manner in a way that is at least as effective as explicit teaching. Young children naturally imitate and watching the way that an older student politely asks the teacher a question will lead naturally to trying and copying that behavior themselves. Multi-age classrooms give younger students the chance to learn not only from a teacher’s instruction but from the examples set by their fellow students.
By combining multiple age groups into one classroom, the Montessori method creates a diverse environment—since differences in age, for young children, correspond with vast differences in every other ability.
One specific benefit of this mixed-age diversity is that it helps to eliminate unhealthy competition between students. Students of similar ages and abilities naturally compare themselves to one another. In a mixed-age classroom, attention is instead drawn to the range of talents and abilities within the class. There is exposure to a variety of interests and skills, and children can build confidence working in diverse groups, talking and interacting with different aged children. They build confidence when they have leadership roles, share different skillsets and literacy, and when they can comfortably interact with various groups of children.
Both younger and older students have a chance to implicitly develop a “growth mindset” by observing all three years of the learning process in one classroom. Watching younger students progress from one material to the next teaches older students the value of practice and hard work. Conversely, younger students look up to their older classmates, and look forward to reaching their level of ability. It’s not always that easy for children to understand or remember that they have vastly different skills and capabilities than they did a year or even a few months ago—but the mixed-age classroom makes that developmental trajectory very apparent.
Having a growth mindset—the attitude that progress and valuable skills and traits aren’t inborn but come from learning, change, growth—is incredibly important for future success. Working with a diverse group of peers teaches all students that neither ability nor intelligence are fixed, but are skills that can be developed over time. Approaching learning in this way benefits children for years after they leave a Montessori classroom.
Finally, it’s worth noting that having a three-year cycle within a classroom is a more stable student and teacher experience. Students get deeply comfortable in a learning environment that fosters their long-term growth, and Montessori guides have a chance to really get to know students over an extended period. Rather than putting effort and energy towards adjusting to a new classroom, teacher and peer group at the beginning of each school year, students remain settled in their classroom and stay engaged and focused on their learning process.
If it takes a few months for a guide to really get to know a student, in a traditional, one-year model, a significant portion of the total time in the classroom has already passed. In a mixed-age, Montessori model, the student still has years left to enjoy that hard-earned familiarity.
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