5 Unexpected Benefits of Mixed Age Montessori Classrooms
Updated: Jul 9
By Ms. Marty Shepard
Why does Montessori have three grade levels in the same classroom? It seems as though younger children have a lot to gain while older children may lose out. However, contrary to popular belief, that third year in a Montessori classroom is critical to reaping the benefits of the three-year classroom. How is that possible? Below is a brief explanation of the theory behind Montessori’s three-year cycle, followed by a list of its benefits.
The Background: The Planes of Development
The three-year cycle in Montessori education is based on Dr. Maria Montessori’s psychological studies and scientific observations of the child. Specifically, she found that children pass through different planes of development. This means that children share certain attributes and needs according to these age groupings:
First Plane: 0—6: This is a period of transformation, divided into two parts.
0 to 3 years: At this stage the child’s mind is like a sponge, we call it the absorbent mind. The child soaks in everything without being conscious of the fact.
3 to 6 years: At this stage the child’s mind is still absorbing everything, but he/she is aware of doing so.
Second Plane: 6—12 years: This is a period of uniform growth, an intermediate period, or the second stage of childhood. This is a period for acquisition of culture. During this period the child has a powerful imagination, and develops the ability to comprehend and work with abstract terms. We also observe some physical changes. This period can also be subdivided into two parts.
6 to 9 years: During this time the child is getting to know himself, he creates a code of ethics for himself. It is also a very curious stage. The child begins to question everything, and we see the development of justice and fair play.
9 to 12 years: This is a time to create a code of ethics in relationship with his group. The child creates a code of ethics with his peers. Hero worship is a significant part of this phase of development. The child has the ability to undertake “big” work, and enjoys longer periods of work. At this age the child’s inner sense of order begins to emerge, and appears to do so at the cost of external order! The child’s room and work space becomes untidy. As internal order is being created the child appears oblivious for the need to keep the space around him/her neat and tidy.
Third Plane: 12—18 years: This is a period of transformation, subdivided as in stage one into stages of puberty (12 to 15 years old) and adolescence (15 to 18 years old).
Because children’s needs and attributes operate in three-year cycles, maximum educational progress is achieved when the educational system acknowledges this fact. Montessori classrooms take into consideration these planes of development by grouping children into three-year classrooms in order to maximize the child’s learning. Here are the benefits of this unique classroom set-up:
More effective teaching
The key to effective teaching is for the teacher to understand each child’s individual needs – academic and otherwise. In a Montessori classroom, children remain with the same teacher who can observe and assist the child through the entire cycle. The teacher has more time to get to know the child over a longer period. The more time the teacher has with the child, the more understanding is gained, giving the teacher the ability to base the education on each individual child’s needs. As a result, the Montessori classroom with mixed age children actually results in more effective teaching, hence, creating better results.
More effective learning time
Anyone who has gone through a big change (e.g., change jobs, change careers, moved to new location) will tell you how stressful the move can be and the time it takes to get adjusted. When children leave home to go to a new infant toddler program, preschool, or elementary school, they go through similar challenges. Changing teachers and classrooms every year in these early years adds unnecessary challenges for the child. Having the same room and the same teacher frees the child to concentrate on learning without having to waste precious time getting to know a new adult and a new environment.
Greater interest in learning
Children have the opportunity to see, hear, and experience three or more levels of all subjects. Younger children benefit from being exposed to the more advanced work that older children are working on. Because the children are relatively close in age and development, younger children relate more closely to the older children (sometimes when you are young, you trust your friends more than you trust your parents), and become very curious and interested in learning. Older children are able to test and reinforce their knowledge through discussion with the younger children. Having the confidence from mastering subjects gives older children the motivation to gain even more knowledge. Everyone faces constant stimulation, which generates an internal, organic desire to learn and do more.
Stronger foundation and unlimited learning potential
In traditional school classrooms, teachers must teach one set curriculum to all students, and often must resort to teaching to the average. Students who fall behind will never develop a strong foundation, and those who are ahead stop learning. Within Montessori’s multi-year, multi-level environment, basic concepts are constantly reinforced, yet there is an unlimited potential as to what the children may learn. The first year in a primary room, for example, the three year old learns a lot from just observing the others who have been there longer. Yes, they get lessons from the teacher, but they are learning all the time by just observing and listening in to the other lessons. Concepts are easier to grasp and learning becomes easier because the first time the teacher teaches something to a student, it will not be the first time the student was exposed to it. Once this strong foundation is established, his/her grade level or a set curriculum does not bind a child. I have seen some children finish every book in our library, while others do algebra in sixth grade. Each child is challenged to reach his/her highest potential.
The benefits of Montessori’s three-year classroom may seem to favor the younger children. However, it’s the intangible leadership skills that the child develops in his/her third year that truly showcases Montessori’s benefits. Leadership has to be earned, comes with responsibility, and requires complex mental capabilities – understanding, relating, motivating, explaining, and doing what’s right. Such soft skills cannot be easily taught, but rather must be learned through one’s own experience. How often do children have the opportunity to constantly develop and hone their leadership skills? Walk into any Montessori primary room and you will see 5 year old leaders assisting all the younger children. This type of interaction among mixed ages mirrors real life, and teaches all children how to hold different roles and interact with those of all ages.
Following Montessori’s planes of development, the same three-year learning structure occurs in primary, lower elementary, and upper elementary – each stage with its own purpose. In the primary years the child is given the keys to his/her world, while learning functional independence, responsibility, and all the academic basics for the next phase of education. In the elementary years the child learns to become a member of society through cosmic education, and is given the keys to his/her universe. However, it is only through this mixed-age Montessori classroom set up, that children can maximize their academic, social, and emotional development. This helps Montessori achieve its ultimate goal of enabling children to succeed beyond the classroom, and in real life.