"The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, "The children are working as if I did not exist."
-Dr. Maria Montessori
I have spent the last few weeks meeting with colleagues to discuss the importance of the mixed age group and the value of the Montessori kindergarten experience.
Dr. Montessori concluded that there are four distinct planes of development that an individual must pass through on their way to adulthood. In each plane of development, Montessori believed that children are instinctively drawn to those activities which meet their developmental needs; as a result, the Montessori method of education consists of removing obstacles to the child's development and preparing the environment with purposeful activities, from which the child is permitted to self-select. Dr. Montessori's genius was an anthropological insight- when given a choice among purposeful work, children naturally seek out lessons that are more challenging then what an adult might select for them and those lessons which are most appopriate to their own development. She also found that children perservere at those tasks for a longer period of time (they are driven to repeat them until they master them), with a higher degree of concentration, and take more joy in completing them, then activities which are assigned to them. In the Montessori philosophy, education is not viewed as the transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the child, who assumes the role of passive spectator, but re-conceived as a spontaneous process which is directed by the child, who is an active participant in her own act of self-creation .
The mixed age group is crucial to this process. For the younger children, the mixed age group provides the child with experienced peers whose examples are worthy of emulation. For the oldest child (the kindergartners, in a primary classroom), the kindergarten year provides children with the opportunity to perfect their skills, consolidate their understanding, and to develop their character, as they serve as mentors to younger students and leaders in the classroom. This affords children the opportunity to learn the value of service to others, to become charismatic leaders, and to experience the authentic sense of self esteem that comes from making a meaningful contribution to a community. Since children work at their own pace, there is no stigma for any child associated with being "ahead" or "behind" their same aged peers in a specific domain. Children are not pitted in competition against each other; instead, they work collaboratively in freely chosen groups, and work toward their own self-improvement and self mastery, with the help of their peers. Because the Montessori classroom affords such an amazing diversity of motives to activity, and gives children large blocks of uninterrupted time to engage in self-directed learning, three years is necessary to achieve the "total possibility" offered by the classroom environment and the final year (in this case, kindergarten) is both the culmination of the child's achievements and a necessity to prevent academic loose ends, partially developed skills, and incoherent knowledge.
Think all of this sounds a little abstract? Wonder what that looks like in practice? Here is a five minute glimpse into what education can look like.
In this video, which is officially one of my "favorite things", a kindergarten age child teaches her companions about the pilgrims and the Mayflower (complete with her own commentary and supplemental explanation), discusses punctuation, and provides her companions with gracious encouragement for their own works. The kindergartner gets to practice her reading skills (developing her fluency and understanding of orthographic-phonological representations of highly challenging words- including sight words, silent e words, and phonograms) and perfect her own understanding of the history lesson. The other children listen with rapt attention to the story, learn about history and punctuation, develop their own auditory processing, comprehension, and inferential reasoning skills, recieve peer based literacy instruction, cultivate a strong interest in learning to read (absolutely every young child in the classroom wants to be able to read like this), and receive encouragement and constructive feedback on their own works.
This is individually differentiated instruction and educational reform at its best, and it was invented more than 100 years ago. No assignments, no homework, no grades, no standards, no assigned seating,no rewards or punnishments, no guided reading groups, no teacher instruction or direction. Montessori is magic!