Multi-age Classes

The elementary class is out for their weekly field trip on a fall afternoon, enjoying the sunshine and the smell of sage as they hike up a trail to meet a naturalist who promises them a close look at wild birds she’s been banding. Most of the older children stride ahead with one of the teachers, anxious to get to the top of the hill. One of the younger students falls farther and farther behind, in spite of her teacher’s encouragement. This is a tough hike for her and besides that, her shoes just weren’t made for the job. As her frustration mounts an older classmate turns around and sees her sitting by the trail. He comes back and offers his hand. She takes it and together they finish the hike, the 8-year-old boy adjusting his pace to that of his 6-year-old partner.

This scene that has stayed in my mind for years now and pops back up whenever the question comes up as to why we find mixed age classes advantageous.  Obviously the younger students are being exposed to a vast array of fabulous learning experiences that they absorb on a sensorial level even if they are not quite ready for the lesson itself. The oldest in the group are very cognizant of their role as leaders of the class and of the school. They get to pioneer lessons that no one else has seen and polish off their skills while enjoying the privileges of the eldest members of the student body such as taking lead roles in school plays, implementing the school composting effort, organizing a school bake sale or volunteering as reading buddies to Early Childhood students.

I hear the idea fairly often that people want their children to be placed in classes where there is a vast group of children of the same age. This comes from the experience of going to traditional schools where children are sorted by age. If that is your childhood memory it follows that this is what you see as the right fit for your child. Unless you’ve seen what a wonderful experience a multi-aged class is for everyone involved.

Traditional schools today are still organized on the factory model begun during the war years in America when our country needed soldiers and factory workers. Children are grouped by ages so it is easier for teachers to move them through the curriculum. A parent at our school once commented, “The factory model is fine. It produces a pretty good product. The Montessori model encourages every child to develop to her full potential. What would you rather have for your child – a pretty good product or the opportunity for her to develop to her full potential?”

Classes of mixed age groups promote learning at the individual child’s pace rather than keeping the whole class moving along the curriculum together. When children progress at their own pace they move much more quickly through a challenging curriculum than if they had to wait for classmates to catch up. Those who struggle with a certain subject have time to explore it in a variety of ways until mastery is achieved. This is why Montessori graduates are academically advanced. Working in a community of mixed ages is why they are socially and developmentally advanced.

“We must build strong communities to support and improve the quality of our human interactions. Montessori children are in the trenches practicing, practicing, practicing. Each child is needed in a Montessori class: each has a particular role in the community. They are not merely occupying a desk; they are a community member.” Eissler, Montessori Madness, 2009

Duna Strachan, AMS
Executive Director
Soaring Wings International Montessori School
Park City, Utah USA 

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