When Maria Montessori began to develop the method of education that now bears her name, she changed much about what currently passed as children’s education.
Tables and chairs were shrunk to child-size, children were given real tasks to do, and observation (not testing) became the key to knowing how a child was progressing.
Another change that occurred was that children were grouped in multi-age classrooms, rather than having one age per class.
Generally, Montessori age groupings are as follows:
• Infant: birth – 18 months
• Toddler: 18 months – 3 years
• Preschool: 3-6 years
• Lower Elementary: 6-9 years
• Upper Elementary: 9-12 years
• Middle School: 12-14 years
• High School: 15-18 years
Because traditional schooling generally groups children of just one age together, mixed age groups is a striking difference between Montessori and traditional educational programs. There are pros and cons to the idea of mixed age groups, but I believe that the benefits definitely outweigh any possible negatives.
What Do Mixed Age Groups Bring to Montessori?
1. Interaction: The mixed age group environment creates an atmosphere where children learn to help and be helped by other children, because they interact consistently with children whose age and abilities are varied. Children gain an appreciation for their achievement and the accomplishments of others, and are naturally challenged by the achievements of others.
2. Learning from Each Other: Older children learn to be patient and tolerant, and serve as role models and teachers for the younger children. When an older child teaches a younger one, it reinforces previously learned concepts and is actually an aid in complete mastery of concepts. Younger children learn about courtesy, manners, and conflict resolution by watching the older children in the class.
3. Work at Child’s Own Pace: Because teachers do not have to set the instruction pace by a whole group, each child is given the ability to learn at his or her own pace. This is a striking difference from traditional education, where everyone turns to page 33 of the book and stays there until every child understands the concept.
4. Community: By staying in a classroom for a three year period, children develop a strong sense of community and stability, with 2/3 of a class returning every year. This community aids the development of students as role models for one another.
5. Familiarity: Being in the same classroom year after year allows a teacher to truly learn each individual child’s learning abilities, style, and developmental level to better be able to set the learning agenda as well as build on strengths and work on weaknesses.
6. Homeschooling: Since homeschooling is naturally multi-aged, it’s a natural fit with the structure of Montessori. Siblings have a built-in support community for education and play, and benefit in the same ways that mixed age peers do as described above.
Is There a Downside?
1. Isolation: One major criticism for the Montessori mixed age group classroom is that children tend to work in isolation at their own tasks, with little social cooperation among students. In any classroom that allows children to work at their own pace, mixed age or not, this could potentially be the case.
2. Overburdened Older Students: Some people feel that a teacher should be the one to help a child when he or she needs help with a particular concept. There is always the possibility that older children are unreliable sources or ineffective teachers who may further confuse a peer. If older students are teaching or helping younger ones, they may be missing out on part of their own education.
3. Harder for Teachers: As well, there is a burden on the teacher to essentially teach three grades (or more) instead of one. This is definitely a challenge. Balancing it out, though, is the fact that the teacher understands clearly what the child needs to master to move to the next level.
Is It Worth It?
Once, early on in my Montessori teaching career, I asked my husband to be honest with me. “Do you think that Montessori is truly the best way to educate children?” I asked him. “Yes,” he said, “but the quality does depend on the person doing it.”
I feel similarly about the mixed-age group paradigm. Many teachers can juggle the different levels successfully. Some struggle with it. Sometimes older students sense the teacher’s weaknesses and capitalize on them, making it difficult for them to balance the needs of the classroom. I have seen this happen before.
If the classroom contains the materials needed for each age group, and the teacher knows how to blend and weave the lessons for each age group, the pros of mixed ages will likely be much greater than any cons.
As always, I love to know what you think. Are mixed-age groupings a good idea, and why or why not?