Montessori education, the multidimensional pedagogy developed by Maria Montessori, has stood the test of time. Every decade has its talking point, be it diversity, climate change or social justice. The beauty of a Montessori pedagogy is that it is relevant to all these conversations. It embraces change and values lifelong learning.
Parents value the Montessori curriculum and its approach because it focuses on key developmental stages. Unlike a traditional classroom that is led by a teacher, a Montessori learning environment is led by each child. For a pedagogy that is non-traditional, Montessori is beautifully structured and scaffolds a child’s learning journey every step of the way. At the same time, the child is encouraged to learn strategies of auto education and they become learners for life.
The Multi Age Group In Montessori Education
One practice that clearly differentiates a Montessori from a regular learning environment is the mixed-age learning environment or the multi age group in Montessori. For instance, children that are 2.5 years to 6 years age group, work in the same environment instead of being separated by age. All Montessori environments are mixed-age groups.
Research has shown that mixed-age groups has revealed many benefits. According to research by Stone, 1998 and Veenman, 1996, children from mixed-age classrooms have more positive attitudes towards themselves, to life and to school. In her research, Lilian Katz, professor emerita of early childhood education at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, found that with a mixed-age classroom, younger children extend their capacity to more complex activities and interests.
If we think about it, in everyday life, whether at work or at play, we never really find ourselves in specific age groups, do we? Some of us may work for bosses younger than us and some of us may lead a team with people of different ages. So why are Montessori environments mixed age? Maria Montessori wrote in one of her books that in a multi-age group, a student “…suddenly becomes aware of his companions, and is almost as deeply interested as we are in the progress of their work.”
How Are Montessori Teachers Trained To Make The Mixed Age Group Work?
A mixed-age classroom is a peaceful place that is full of possibilities. At Alpha Montessori, you can expect teachers to use their expertise in each mixed-age environment.
The Infant program at Alpha Montessori has trained and dedicated guides who create a caring and nurturing environment for your child. They follow a child’s natural schedule for sleeping, eating and playing to make sure that the Montessori environment is in harmony with their home environment. There is plenty of floor space for children to move and explore. In an infant mixed-age environment, children tend to attain milestones quicker by observing or picking up cues and encouragement by the infants who are older.
The toddler mixed-age environment is bright, spacious and sunny, facilitating and encouraging ample movement and independence. You may think that a mixed-age classroom is unstructured and leaves children to their own devices without guidance and direction. On the contrary, in a Montessori mixed-age environment, there is a lot of support and structure.
In Alpha Montessori, teachers are trained and certified in child development and guided instruction methods. They continuously work with the parents and update them about their child’s progress with weekly and daily reports.
In our Primary program, our Montessori teachers are trained to observe each individual child and put him or her in touch with their interest. A child who loves food preparation, for instance, at a Primary Montessori classroom the teacher will make sure that the child is able to do what they love. This gets them excited about learning.
While collaboration is encouraged, we also look at individual learning journeys and communicate with parents with weekly and daily reports on learning, activities, and progress.
Alpha Montessori is a member of the American Montessori Society, the largest Montessori Society in the world. They guide us with the implementation of the curriculum and work with our trained guides. AMS also monitors us to ensure that high quality is maintained from the Infant program all the way up to Lower Elementary.
In the Lower Elementary at Alpha Montessori, we truly believe that the mixed age group stretches the child’s mind to full capacity. These are the wonder years. This is when social skills blossom and there is so much collaboration in the air. The first Great Lesson, for instance, engages the children and their imagination. They learn their place in the world and hence, their relationships with one another. Elementary teachers are trained and certified to observe every individual child and yet facilitate group collaborations. They track each child’s learning progress with an individually tailored academic plan.
Benefits Of Mixed-age Classes For Children
In her books, Maria Montessori discusses how younger children learn by watching older children as well as adults. In a mixed-age environment, younger children watch the older children perform a variety of complex tasks. The younger children will try to work these activities out for themselves too. There is no competition and the child is truly motivated to perform the task out of curiosity. On their part, the older children learn responsibility, exhibit leadership skills and also collaborate with younger children, apart from being encouraged by the energy, enthusiasm and wonder exhibited by their younger friends. Working a problem out with a younger child reinforces the older child’s concepts and strengthens his or her understanding significantly. If you ask me about the pros and cons of being in a mixed-age group, I would say that the pros outweigh the cons. A downside to the multi-age classroom would be that the teacher or the Montessori adult should be extremely skilled, qualified and adept at facilitating the environment, its progress and its collaborations. Expertise and empathy are needed to guide children with their freedom.
A mixed-age group also shows the younger children a glimpse into the future and how they will progress with their material or a particular activity. Another wonderful benefit to a mixed-age group is that children stay with the same adult for a good number of years, establishing a rapport and connection with the adult.
The success of a mixed-age group also depends on how well the Montessori implements Maria Montessori’s pedagogy and pluralizes it to suit different kinds of learners. Alpha Montessori’s Primary Program adapts to each child’s individual needs and pace. The physical space is designed to ensure collaboration and at the same time, children are free to explore things on their own and meet their own specific needs.
True peer learning is a remarkable thing. I have watched children develop a felicity for words and language or an interest in numbers simply by interacting with other children. Social interactions and shared experiences can teach more than a lecture can and they can also get those neurons firing away.
We have a three-hour ‘work period’ to allow our children to really focus on acquiring knowledge and acquiring diverse skills. Children are introduced to practical life skills, sensorial skills, numeracy, mathematical operations, reading, writing, art, music, Science and Geography. The beauty of our approach is that we foster collaboration and brainstorming among students. We also encourage interdisciplinary work. As we know, the world is moving towards a work culture that needs a lot of interdisciplinary work and skills.
Another benefit to a multi-age classroom is that there is no competition. Children in the same age group tend to compare themselves to one another but with a mixed-age group, the focus is on discovery. Children are exposed to a variety of interests, talents, and personalities. They develop confidence and learn to think cross-functionally instead of looking at their age as a barrier or a limit to their capabilities. They build a range of skill sets and can interact comfortably with children of all ages and in different scenarios.
Why the Mixed-Age Environment works
In a Montessori, the environment is also a teacher. For a mixed-age environment like Montessori, the classroom environment facilitates both the individual and intertwined learning journeys that the students take. Alpha Montessori’s preschool classroom for children between three to six is carefully prepared so that children learn at their own pace. The idea is to make the environment stimulating and interesting enough to let the child learn from it spontaneously.
Here is an example from our own classroom. In a classroom that is grouped chronologically, leadership roles are typically assigned based on outgoing personalities. In a mixed-age environment, even a shy five-year-old will be given the opportunity to a leadership role because the smaller children will still look up to him or her. He/she always does a spectacular job.
In such a dynamic learning environment, how does a mixed age group work? Interestingly, a Montessori classroom is one of the most peaceful places you will ever visit. Children respect one another, respect themselves and value their work. They treat the materials with respect. We use “grace and courtesy” exercises to teach children how to resolve conflicts and to problem solve tough situations. This is an environment that naturally encourages emotional intelligence, strength of mind and empathy. Our mixed-age environment teaches such crucial socio-emotional and life skills to our children!
A Montessori environment encourages strong intrapersonal skills. In our summer camp, elementary students worked on journal writing projects. This builds both an educational and an emotional foundation in children. Parents also believe that it is the older children who learn best in a mixed age environment but you must see the excitement and the rich learning atmosphere in a pre-primary mixed-age Montessori environment. Children pick up things very quickly from their peers because they want to be like them and they love observing them. The language acquisition is phenomenal for the three-year-olds because they are working with five-year-olds who have a felicity for words and interesting conversations!
What is vertical grouping in Montessori?
A mixed-age group in education is referred to as a vertical learning structure. Each mixed-age group has children across a three-year age span in one environment. Children are grouped by the stages of development rather than age. This means that they can communicate with one another and the age gap isn’t too large for it to become difficult for children to collaborate and associate with one another.
In our Montessori school in Frisco & Plano, it is common to see older elementary students come to the aid of the younger elementary students to help with the ten chain to count till 1000, for instance, or for explorations of art, language, science or geography. Learning intersects with interests and discoveries. Of course, our Montessori adult’s role here becomes significant. He or she needs to guide each child if they veer a little off course. The environment, the adult, the child, his or her peer, each play an important role and they all need to work seamlessly to make vertical grouping work. Our Montessori Elementary school in Frisco has trained adults who find purpose and delight in fostering these interactions.
The key idea behind a vertical grouping structure is that the group behaves and thinks as a family unit. After all, we are inspired and motivated by those whom we find directly in our surroundings.
In a vertical age grouped environment, the Montessori curriculum comprises two important components, the scope and the sequence.
The scope refers to the topics that the curriculum covers. The sequence is the order in which these topics are introduced to the children. The adults then pick and choose key lessons, which are the key learning elements of that particular topic. Then there is guided discovery, which has elements in a given topic that are not part of the key elements. This is when children explore and discover with a free rein and go beyond limits. By working on the scope and the sequence, the key elements and guided discovery, the Montessori adult can prepare and plan to help children across age groups.
As we have found in our Montessori Elementary school in Plano and Frisco, Montessori age groups create powerful spaces for children to learn, grow and work on relationships.They develop skills that simply cannot be taught or encouraged in traditional classrooms. These are skills that make them ready to take on an uncertain future. Maria Montessori said in one of her speeches, “You cannot imagine how well a young child learns from an older child; how patient the older child is with the difficulties of the younger. It almost seems as if the younger child is material for the older child to work upon.”
If you have any questions about how your child can grow in a Multi-age grouped class, contact us or leave your comments below.