The educational philosophy and methodology established by Dr. Maria Montessori represented (and still represents today) a departure from other, perhaps more prevalent systems in several key ways. The Montessori Method, rooted in the scientific observations of children made by Dr. Montessori, attempts to place the child at the center of their educational journey by crafting an environment and curriculum that meets the needs of each child.
There are several aspects of the Montessori classroom that look unusual to eyes used to a different kind of school. A lot has been made of the freedom that Montessori students enjoy in their classroom environments. Indeed, Montessori schools are at times mistakenly thought to lack structure and accountability. This is far from the case, however; the structure of a Montessori classroom may look different from conventional schools, but this is because it is designed around supporting the child as the leader of their own learning path. The environment (and teachers) are carefully prepared to provide exactly the resources needed for the child to take on the work of self-discovery and self-construction. Growth happens when an opportunity, a space, for growth is provided. Successful growth is guided, not directed, and a significant aspect of this growth is having the flexibility to support it when it happens, even if the moment or direction or nature of that growth is unexpected and unplanned. Lessons are given to children to spark their interest and help narrow and guide their choices, but it is essential for their developing independence and life skills that the children also have the space and time for their own academic explorations. Whether this be engaging their creativity when following up on a lesson, pursuing research on a topic of interest, or devising their own applications of their skills, Montessori students need the space to become who they will be.
Part of becoming one’s self is learning that others are not merely an extension of the self, but their own, separate people. The Montessori environment supports the development of social skills as well as academic skills, and one of these support structures is the multi-age classroom. This aspect of the Montessori classroom, this combination of children of many different ages in the same environment is essential to bend the flexible curriculum to meet each individual’s needs. This pliability of experience would be far less possible without a diverse learning community. Only by seeing the possibilities inherent in diversity can children even know what is possible for themselves. A first-year student can watch what a third-year student does and anticipate their own learning path. And the third-year gets to look back with new eyes. Children come together during Work Cycle to seek help from those who have gone through work before, and to deepen their understanding of a work by teaching it to a younger friend. In these ways, the multi-age classroom prepares students to live in a world that is diverse in its inhabitants and in its possibilities.
To enable the existence of the multi-age classroom experience, Montessori classrooms embrace a three-year cycle, keeping children in the same classroom with the same teacher for three consecutive years. But why three years?
In a nutshell, Dr. Montessori’s scientific observations of children in her early years as a physician, combined with a variety of research, led her to certain conclusions about the patterns with which children develop, grow, and learn. She described “planes” of development, each roughly six years in duration, each with certain key characteristics of physical, social, and emotional growth. Within each plane, the six years are often further broken down into two 3-year cycles as the child grows and gains self-knowledge throughout the plane.
Within the three-year cycle, the first year is usually a year of exploration, of discovering all that is new and possible within what is most likely a new learning environment and community. The second year is then often a consolidation year, when the child can take what they have discovered and begin to find the ways in which that knowledge works best for them. This paves the way for the third year in the cycle, the year of mastery, when the child can take everything they have learned about themselves and how they work best and really apply it to the world around them, not just in the classroom, but beyond. Exploration, consolidation, mastery. At each age, this is the nature of the three-year cycle.Nothing grows in a vacuum. All things in the universe are naturally affected by the other things around them. Dr. Montessori recognized this holistic nature of our existence in which children grow and construct themselves as human beings by interacting with their environment and with each other. Our Montessori method of education attempts to guide this process toward self-actualization.