One of the first questions a parent usually asks after touring one of our classrooms is “Why do you have mixed-age groups in each classroom?”.
One of the aims of the Montessori primary classroom is independent learning, personalized to the needs and interests of the child. How does this happen? Montessori teachers are expert observers - they observe, contemplate the next step, intervene where necessary, and then observe again. Observation provides time to reflect on the needs of individual children and needs of the class as a whole.
I think it is important to distinguish between learning needs and development needs. When we say 'learning needs' we tend to think of breaking down learning into pieces that we then prioritize, with reading and mathematics at the top, and making lunch for some classmates near the bottom.
Framing our children's classroom experience in terms of 'development needs' gives us a wider and less anxious approach to their education. This is the point of view we must adopt when we talk about Montessori education. We can then place many of the possible experiences of the child in a context where the child's overall development takes center stage. This means a learning experience, such as organizing a trip to the History Museum, can sit beside multiplication table practice; where planting a garden can be seen as equally important to writing a report, and where resolving an issue between friends is as valid as silent reading.
How Does It Work?
There are countless conversations, demonstrations and corrections that need to take place in order for learning and development to occur. The Montessori guide is responsible for presenting a concept individually to each child. However, after the initial presentation, any child that is knowledgeable about that concept is welcome to assist in the learning process.
Watching the children help each other is one of the joys of a Montessori classroom. A 5-year-old in her third year (Kindergarten) is proud to show a new member of her Children's House environment how to properly carry a tray. They are able to aide each other as peers in all areas of work, such as math and phonetic reading. It also eliminates competition among classmates because each child is at a different stage of learning.
The younger child will call on more experienced peers for guidance just as readily as, and often more so, than the teacher. This kind of peer interaction clearly benefits the recipient, but it also benefits the peer teacher. When you teach something, you must first organize it clearly in your own mind.
So how does the Montessori teacher deal with the diverse learning needs of the children in a mixed age setting? The short answer: they don't. They simply form part of the prepared environment and create structures that meet their developmental needs. Remove part of the prepared environment - the other children, the focus on a broad development-based curriculum or the teacher, and neither learning nor development would occur.
Remember, every normal community has a mixed grouping of ages. Many of you have that in your own home, within your neighborhood or other community gatherings. Children are mostly isolated within their exact age group only in traditional school settings.
Tell Us What You Think:
We think mixed-age classrooms are important to developing a well-rounded child. What has been your experience with mixed-age classrooms? What do you like and what don't you like. Has your experience been in a Montessori environment or another education setting? I look forward to hearing from you and joining the conversation.