Community of Reliable Individuals:
Learning to swim was an exciting experience for my cousins and me. We were going to learn to swim, not in a swimming pool, not with trained swim coaches, but in a well at our uncle’s farm, with our trusted older cousins, whom we regarded with great respect.
Every morning, during summer vacation, we walked six miles to my uncle’s farm to swim in the well. Our older cousins would dive in the well and beckon us to do the same. All of the younger cousins, in the age range of 6-12 years lined up nervously on the rim of the well and looked down at the water below. “No, thank you! I don’t want to jump in there,” each of us would think. But my cousins ages 15- 20 years made a human ring below and few others stood with us on the rim. Together they encouraged us to jump in. Finally, with all the courage and knowing that our cousins were there for us, we dove in, one by one. Each of us survived the plunge. As I took the leap, I heard voices of encouragement. I hit the water and felt my cousin’s arms nudging me to swim. I surfaced and saw my cousins cheering. I had watched them for many years and knew instinctively that I had to move my arms and legs to stay afloat. Another cousin took over and started to teach me the correct hand and leg movements. Within a few days I had learned to swim, to breathe under water and jump fearlessly from the rim of the well. In all of my childhood, not one cousin was injured during our swimming lessons, nor did the parents worry. We belonged to a community of reliable individuals.
Many such stories of dependable communities are common among large families, where siblings learn from each other, where parents depend on older children to care for the younger ones. One room school houses in America also fostered the peer to peer relationship.
Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor who studied young children in the early nineteenth century, observed that children are like sponges, absorbing tremendous amount of information from their surroundings. She was a big proponent of the multi-age classroom. In her essay, Reconstruction in Education, Maria Montessori wrote:
“One practical thing we have learned is that because the child absorbs so unconsciously, we must put the child in some place where he can absorb. We have put the child in places, for instance, in classes that are more advanced, and the little child has taken from the older child and has learned many advanced things.”
Maria Montessori proposed that children be grouped in multi-age spans so that the classroom works as a community, where the teacher, the student and the environment create a unique learning experience. In a multi-age classroom students are free to work with their peers. Older and younger students work together, choosing materials from various subject areas that they are studying. The teacher is not the only source of knowledge. Carefully prepared materials and peers are also regarded as resources. Older students who have internalized the materials, routines and traditions of the classroom serve as role models to younger students. Older students develop patience and a genuine love for their younger peers. They recognize that they have been in those shoes and that they too had older peers who taught them. Thus, by reflecting on their own learning experience, older students in the classroom become reliable members of the community.
How Does Learning Actually Happen?
Children are naturally curious and a good teacher knows how to leverage this love for learning. The teacher presents carefully prepared lessons so that the interest is piqued for all students. Appropriate materials are made available for children to practice the skills. Younger children observe the older students and aspire to work on the advanced lessons. A natural desire to learn is developed.
One day, the younger child is ready for the new concept. However, it is not a brand new concept at all. The child feels comfortable knowing that he has seen this material before. Just as my cousin held my hand while I learned to swim, the older child serves as a guide. He mentors the younger child as he learns the sequence and order of the work. By doing it himself, the young child develops confidence. It is a natural process where learning is initiated by curiosity and learned by observation.
The child continues to practice the newly acquired skill until he is satisfied. The act of repetition helps the child master the new lessons. Once he masters the skills, he is ready to teach another peer. Thus, learning becomes a transmittable experience, and soon the classroom hums with children engaged in highly purposeful work.
The Impact of a Multi-age Classroom
As students learn from each other, they begin to regard their peers as respectable members whose judgement they can trust. Students who model the highest level of excellence become natural leaders. They develop empathy and know what their peers feel while learning a challenging concept. Students develop patience as they learn to slow down and watch the young peers master new skills. Younger children learn to take risks, knowing fully well that there is someone to watch their back. Students with learning disabilities or different learning styles can take their time to master their skills.
On an interpersonal level, teachers and students develop a mutual relationship of respect. Everyone practices social norms of working together in a community; asking for lessons politely, waiting their turn patiently, saying please and thank you, among many others. Maria Montessori calls this state of mutual dependence as a ‘Normalized Classroom.’ Over the course of their time in a multi-age classroom students learn the lifelong skills to function in a healthy and secure environment.
Rupali Sharma is one of thirty-six cousins, each of whom had a different learning style while growing up. Some cousins had learning disabilities while others struggled with academics in school. Yet, each of the thirty-six cousins grew up to be successful adults, many of whom run independent businesses and all have happy families.