Why is multi-age grouping so important in Montessori?
by Erika Ohlhaver
When I was in the public Montessori program in Ft Worth, I was teaching my stand-alone 1st grade class on my early childhood credential. Actually, this was fine because at that time the early childhood credential went from 2 1/2 through age 6 and I knew all the presentations that I needed for first grade. Of course we all know this is not really good enough, because there are always children who are working at the top of your training; if I was to be true to the pedagogy I needed to know what those next lessons were.
I remember an article published in the Public School Montessorian stating that anyone could teach the lower elementary grades in the public sector on an early childhood credential. Let me say that this article was published AFTER I took my elementary training and it was only then that I was able to put words to the jumbled observations that I had that first year. Dr. Montessori’s writings on the Planes of Development are, to my mind, the single most important aspect about the Montessori pedagogy and honestly you don’t see this when you only work with the early childhood age group. Now, don’t get me wrong, I truly believe the most important work of the child happens in that first plane of development. And yet, parents wish for that great work to continue through their child’s elementary years. OK, the elementary child is messier, he likes to work in small groups rather than independently, and she is no longer as graceful in her movements. The child in the elementary program is fundamentally different than the child in the primary program and Dr. Montessori knew this, it’s too bad that we don’t have more discussions specifically on this topic.
Multi-age grouping is based on the Planes of Development and we have three-year age spans because children in those groupings think and learn in the same ways. Ask any kindergarten, third or sixth grade teacher during the spring and they will tell you it is time for those children to move on! This is because the environment is no longer meeting the needs of those children; they have outgrown it and are ready for a new structure. Instead of looking at it from the perspective of “what is happening with this child”, we should be celebrating that they are ready to move forward!
Yet it is precisely this three-year multi-age grouping that causes so many difficulties in the public sector. Upper levels of administration find it difficult to deal with the exceptions in scheduling, teacher training, materials, reporting, professional development, and yes, testing that comes with grouping three grade levels together. I’ve seen programs where there was no attempt to follow the Planes of Development and then they wondered why they were not seeing the same results that were evident in other Montessori programs. It’s very simple; the older children are providing models for the younger children on how to move in the environment, plan their work, how to present a report, be responsible for their own learning, or how to solve a problem. This is achieved indirectly when the youngest children have had two years of this modeling and are finally the modelers; the “difficulties” are almost inconsequential. Furthermore, why would it be assumed that a classroom that is developmentally responsive, with a set of manipulatives designed for a 3 year age span of differentiated instruction could be “modified” and still be successful?
As I tell everyone in my teacher training classes, there will always be a line in the sand when you can no long compromise. For me that line in the sand is multi-age grouping according to the Planes of Development. I did manage to affect a change in the right direction and we did move from the single grade model to a two-year model. Unfortunately, it was a compromise that did not include grouping first levels with other elementary children. Eventually, I did leave because of this issue.
After I took my elementary training, I was a much better early childhood teacher, because I knew what to look for to help the children move forward. I am better at preparing my environment so that children can develop at their own pace in their own way whether it is for early childhood or for elementary. Most of all, I’m better at achieving what Dr. Montessori says is “the greatest sign of success for a teacher….to be able to say, “the children are now working as if I did not exist.”