"Our schools have shown how children of different ages help one another. The younger ones watch what the older ones are doing and ask all kinds of questions, and the older ones explain. This is really useful teaching, for the way that a five year old interprets and explains things is so much nearer than ours to the mind of a child of three that the little ones learns easily, whereas we would scarcely be able to get through to him. There is harmony and communication between them that is not possible between an adult and such a young child. There is a natural mental osmosis between them. A child of three is also quite capable of taking an interest in the work of a five year old, because in fact the difference in their abilities is not that great.
People are concerned about whether a child of five who is always helping other children will make sufficient progress himself. But, firstly, he doesn't spend his whole time teaching, but has his own freedom and knows how to use it. Secondly, teaching really allows him to consolidate and strengthen his own knowledge, which he must analyse and use anew each time, so that he comes to see everything with greater clarity. The older child also gains from this exchange." - Maria Montessori.
One of the first things you will notice when you walk into a Montessori school is the classrooms are multi-age. The classrooms are generally divided into three year groupings; 3-6 years, 6-9 years, 9-12 years. The multi-age classroom is fundamental to the Montessori method. It's not only Montessori, other schools are adopting this approach. Why do multi-age classrooms work and what are the benefits?
- Observation. Children are free to observe each other, they are free to observe children working on more advanced materials, they observe more mature social interactions. They observe older children interacting with teachers and learn what is expected. We know children in the first plane of development are absorbing everything in their environment and the role modelling of the older children is of real benefit. Younger children often aspire to be like their older classmates and often look up to them. Through observation alone children can learn so much!
- Leadership. At some point all children become the older ones in the classroom, they all have the opportunity to be leaders and develop leadership skills. Leadership may include using mediation, conflict resolution, mentoring, negotiating and communication skills. Often leadership is acquired naturally, they step in when they know they can help or assist another child (younger or otherwise) as they have seen it and observed it in others.
- Confidence. Children build confidence working in diverse groups, talking and interacting with different aged children. They build confidence when they have, or are given leadership roles, and when they can comfortably negotiate in diverse groups of children.
- Diversity. The classroom is a more diverse environment. Children are working in an environment accepting of all capabilities, there is a wide range of ability, skills, independence, experiences, resources, literacy. Children are not discriminated against based on age. There is exposure to more areas of interest.
- Sense of Community. The classroom is a community and communities are inclusive, it is a cohesive social unit. The children are more accepting of diversity, they are helpful, supportive of each other, there is greater collaboration. This sense of community can build connectedness and trust. It can foster authentic and child led partnerships. It can lead to good citizenship and meaningful collaborations.
- Competition is Removed. Due to the diversity in the classroom competition is removed. There is no competition between children as all children are at different stages in their learning, there is or testing or grades used in this environment. The learning is more collaborative because they are all encouraged to look after and help each other, this contributes to a positive learning culture.
- Connected Learning Experiences. Many materials are used various times during the child's education. The child can see and make connections between when they first starting using the materials and how they may use the materials in the future. Working with others who have similar or different capabilities deepens and extends understandings and makes links between prior and new experiences.
- Respectful of How Children Learn. Children are resourceful and are active agents of their own learning. Learning from other children is a part of this. This approach is respectful and encourages child-initiated learning and independent thinking. Children learn best from each other! Children can teach each other, can explain and demonstrate things in ways adults cannot. Their hands are a similar size, they use similar words. They can connect, communicate in ways adults cannot. Their abilities are no so far removed from each other, they understand each other. This is why siblings often learn best from each other.
- Child Centred. Children are not taught to their age but to their abilities. The focus is on the child. The work is at the child's own pace. When children are grouped together for work or a lesson they can be grouped on their abilities or interests.
- Stable and Consistent Environment. In existing Montessori classrooms there are not thirty or so new children at the start of every school year. At the start of the year new children come into a classroom that is already functioning and can get to work right away. The teachers can often focus on the handful of new children and help them to settle. There is less turnover of children and less disruption. Children are in a stable group, with only few young children joining and a few older children leaving every year and often the same teachers the three year period.
I love this recount Otis' teacher once gave me. Otis wanted to bake but he couldn't read the recipe. He found another child who read the recipe to him while he measured and mixed the ingredients. This is collaborative and respectful, this shows how capable and resourceful children are! Otis didn't have the reading skills required and the other child was happy to participate. For both children this was a beneficial learning experience. This is reflective of how our society works. If I don't have the skills I need for my work I will ask someone to teach or to help me.
Like any environment, Montessori or otherwise, there are good and not so good examples. If you are interested in seeing a multi-age classroom in action I recommend visiting a Montessori school, looking for qualified and recognised teachers. In my experience as a parent to two and experience with two schools, I have only seen the benefits of the multi-age classrooms and wouldn't have it any other way.