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Multi-Age Grouping: Observation + Imitation = Learning

Inside the Montessori community and beyond, multi-age classrooms are a hot topic for parents, teachers, and school administrators. Multi-age class, combination class, double grade, split-grade class, mixed-age class, ungraded class, vertically-grouped class... Are we all talking about the same thing?

Angeline Stoll Lillard, in her authoritative research review Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, describes the Montessori multi-age setting this way:

"Montessori encourages learning from peers in part by using three-year age groupings. This ensures that as children move through the classroom they will be exposed to older and younger peers, facilitating both imitative learning and peer tutoring... Dr. Montessori was quite clear about the need for this mix of ages."

How & why multi-age grouping benefits younger learners

Simply put, children learn readily from other children. Not only are they eager to play "teacher," they are astonishingly attentive "pretend" students. What young child has not played "school" with a friend or sibling? Multi-age Montessori schools take advantage of this natural tendency toward spontaneous learning by letting them "play school" with structured classroom activities.

Along with direct lessons given by classmates, younger students in a multi-age setting also learn by observing the activities of older peers and even by "eavesdropping" on advanced lessons given by the teacher to another child. Montessori teachers are careful to present lessons to older children in a manner that allows interested younger children to watch, listen, and learn.

The benefits of multi-age grouping to older learners

It's easy to see how access to advanced activities and lessons benefits younger children academically. What about older children? Any adult who has tried to teach something the least bit complicated to someone else has enjoyed a taste of the older child's Montessori learning experience! There is no better way to reinforce one's own knowledge than by teaching someone else.

Teaching a real lesson, as children do in Montessori classrooms, helps older children identify gaps in their own knowledge and often inspires them to achieve even greater mastery.

Leadership opportunities are extremely rare for children in a single-grade classroom; such roles are often assigned by the teacher. A Montessori multi-age classroom affords children daily opportunities to teach a skill or share information with others.

Further, because every child is particularly good at something, this opportunity exists for every child, every day.

This difference in how leadership roles develop in the classroom is a typical illustration of the difference between single-grade, teacher-centered, traditional schools and Montessori multi-age, child-centered classrooms.

When peer-to-peer learning is self-directed, when it happens because children are ready, willing, and able to participate, it bolsters the older child's self-confidence, opens doors for younger children, and sharpens the academic skills of both.

Observational learning at home, before and after school

If your child is not in a true mixed-age classroom, you can create similar learning opportunities at home. Children naturally watch older siblings and adults who are busy learning, solving problems, and accomplishing simple tasks.

Give brief, matter-of-fact answers to their questions ("This? This is a grapefruit. Want a taste?"). Avoid pouring out so much information that children are overwhelmed. (Note: "This? It's a citrus fruit like an orange but a little bit sour like a lemon. They aren't really grapes because grapes grow on vines and grapefruits grow on trees like apples...")

Here are some areas especially well-suited for imitative learning at home:

  • Social skills: Children are observing adults and older children all the time; modeling is the best way to teach polite language and social behavior.
  • Reading: Let your child see you reading a book of your own every day, in addition to reading aloud to your child daily.
  • Practical Life: Everyday skills like preparing food, cleaning up, and self-care are easily absorbed by young children through observation. Allow them to watch as soon as they are interested. Later, give them child-size tools of their own to use when they begin to imitate what they've seen.
  • Science: Asking questions, guessing an answer, then testing the guess is the heart of science. Ask yourself questions aloud: "Hmmm. What will happen if I use yogurt instead of sour cream?" Make a guess: "I think it will make the muffins rise higher." Test your guess: "These muffins definitely rose higher!" You need not address these questions to the children or prompt them to guess or test with you. Observation alone is enough to "teach" the concept.

Learning to Write the Montessori Way

The spontaneous explosion into reading and writing follows plenty of chances for children to observe language in use and absorb the process. So, demonstrate! There is no need to draw attention to your activities -- just writing where the child can watch is enough.

An adult can model writing by penning a few postcards or letters weekly. If you keep your supplies in a box now and put everything away when you're done (while the child is watching your every move) children will handle their own supplies neatly later.

Do your writing "homework" while your older children are doing their homework, at the same table, where younger children may observe from a distance. Soon, they will want supplies of their own so they can "do homework" too!

Give your child a box with paper or a journal (with space for writing and pictures) along with age-appropriate drawing (and later, writing) implements. Chubby crayons are good for a child's first drawing and writing efforts. Later, add pencils designed for learners to help children's fingers learn the proper pencil grip. When children show you their drawings, offer to write the "story" of the drawing on the writing lines for them. Older siblings love stepping into this role!

Maria Montessori has the last word

Maria Montessori observed that children are eager to learn, and she identified self-directed, observational learning as a central theme of childhood. Describing the phenomenon of observational learning in a multi-age group, Montessori wrote that the child "...suddenly becomes aware of his companions, and is almost as deeply interested as we are in the progress of their work."

Today's Montessori schools are fast becoming the last bastion of purposeful multi-age education. Armed with an understanding of how and why such a setting works, parents can both consciously create a multi-age learning environment at home and support schools and teachers practicing these ideas in the classroom.

—by J.A. Beydler for Montessori Services; Ms. Beydler is a nationally published writer, parent, and former day care owner/operator. Her articles appear online and in regional parenting lifestyle publications.

—Originally Published 2011

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