The Montessori classroom is more than just the materials and the curriculum. At House on the Hill, we embody Maria Montessori’s understanding of children’s education and development by practising mixed-age class groupings and by allowing each child to work at their own pace. These two principles — mixed-age classes and individual pacing– are foundational to Montessori education, though they are unfortunately rarely seen in many Montessori classrooms in Singapore. They may not be located on the shelves in the classroom or alongside the Pink Tower, but they are equally as influential as the materials in each child’s development at House on the Hill.
Mixed-age classes, also commonly referred to as vertical learning structures or groups, refer to groups of children across a three-year age span together in one class. At House on the Hill, our mixed-age class is for children ages 3 to 6 years, combining Nursery and Kindergarten students in one classroom. Some parents, and even other educators, initially balk at the idea that this would be a conducive learning environment! However, we proudly advocate for vertical learning based on our daily observations in our classrooms and the research conducted by Dr. Maria Montessori and other scholars. Time spent in our mixed-age classes makes it clear that vertical learning offers a unique and wholly positive learning experience for children of all ages.
All children in a mixed-age class benefit from the community and familiarity that is built over the years. Each year, approximately ⅔ of the children return to the same class, with only ⅓ graduating, and with few exceptions, the child will work with the same teacher each year. This consistency helps build trust amongst children and between children and teachers, which in turn creates a healthy community where children feel they belong and can use each other as guides in learning.
They are aware of those around them, and one often sees the small ones intently watching the work of others, particularly the older ones. In doing this they absorb much more than it seems and are already preparing themselves for more active social participation in the community of the class. —Maria Montessori, “Education for Human Development”
Mixing ages and abilities in a classroom creates a friendly environment that facilitates peer-to-peer learning. Younger children are naturally inclined and eager to learn from their older classmates, both through observation and through direct guidance. Older children in the class role model appropriate behaviour and routines, inspiring younger children to follow their example. Children are often inclined to ask their older friends for help with materials and concepts, and the older children are remarkably competent teachers who take their jobs as leaders very seriously. When older children help a younger child they reinforce their understanding of the concept, and both children achieve a higher level of mastery.
The main thing is that the groups should contain different ages because it has a great influence on the cultural development of the child. This is obtained by the relations of the children among themselves. 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. —Maria Montessori, “The Child, Society and the World”
Many social and emotional skills are also developed in a mixed-age classroom, especially for older children. Older children in the classroom learn leadership and teaching skills through their experiences in guiding their younger classmates. The older children are very aware of the younger children in their class, and they practice empathy and patience in understanding their needs and behaviours. Dr. Montessori developed the three-year age grouping system because such a range in ages and abilities encourages cooperation, instead of competition.
The success of mixed-age classes is possible because of another core tenet of Montessori education: every child must learn and develop at their own pace. In every Montessori subject, each child has an individualised path of learning. Even within same-age classes children are at different stages, and to expect them to master each concept at the same time is unfair; one child may be rushed while another grows bored. At House on the Hill, we understand the uniqueness of each child and customise each child’s learning to suit their needs. Teachers closely observe each child and work with them one-on-one until they achieve mastery, and then introduce the next lesson at the appropriate time. We keep our student-to-teacher ratios low and allocate ample time for teachers’ planning so they can best serve the needs of each child.
Some parents fear that by allowing each child to work at their own pace they may fall behind, that Montessori is too slow. Montessori work can be slow. Children will repeat activities and lessons until they are confident in their mastery, and only then will they move on. But at House on the Hill, we do not ascribe a negative connotation to slowness, instead, we see a lot of value gained when children learn at their own pace. When children are given time to repeat, explore, ask more questions, and practice again they achieve a deeper comprehension of ideas, find mastery in skills, and build firmer foundations that will propel them further in their studies than cursory understandings. Working at their own pace allows children to develop confidence and self-esteem in their abilities; no child is being compared to another child, eliminating unhealthy competition and self-doubt. When we do not allow children to learn at their own pace, we are more likely to see children with anxiety, incorrect understandings of key concepts, and missing foundations for future lessons.
Vertical learning and individualised pacing work together to create one of the many unique experiences in a Montessori classroom. Children between the ages of 3 and 6 can learn together in one classroom because each child follows an individualised path of learning. Older children act as resources and guides for their younger peers who are eager and receptive to learn from them, and older children develop leadership skills along the way. All children benefit from the community and consistency created by vertical learning, and by the confidence and skill mastery that comes from learning at an individualised pace. To see the magic of Montessori for yourselves, come and visit our classrooms!