By definition, mixed age grouping is the practice, found in Montessori, British Infant, Rural, and Progressive schools, of placing children who are at least one year apart in age in the same classroom group. The benefits are numerous and usually evident to parents and teachers and children — however, it can sometimes require a deliberate re-examination of the concept of school. Horace Mann brought to America, in the second half of the 19th Century, the factory model of education that was meant to be more efficient, more cost effective, ensure uniformity of experiences, and be easier for administrators to monitor. Industrialization of farming and manufacturing was sweeping the country and it changed radically the way we think about children and schools as well. As Progressive educators see it, the consideration missing from the factory model school is the children — and what is best for them. The Progressive education movement was a reform movement that started 40 years later, which set out to put children at the center of the school experience.
Research Shows the Many Benefits to Children
There is no research that we are aware of showing that stratifying children narrowly by age is better for their learning and growth. Rather, there are multiple studies as well as anthropological research that demonstrate the benefits to children of “family” and spontaneous mixed groups. Children have opportunities to observe, emulate, and imitate a wide range of competencies; older members are able to be leaders and tutors; and there are many more possibilities of relationships for those who match, complement, or supplement a child’s needs or styles. Furthermore, the normative pressures are greatly reduced in mixed age groupings. This can be a relevant issue for some families, for example, where a daughter may prefer to play with boys — a tendency that could be socially tricky when limited to a same-age group. Barrie Thorne’s research (Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School) shows that children have less “stereotypical gender play” when they are in mixed-age groups such as found in neighborhoods and church/synagogue groups. When ages are mixed, a wider range of behavior is likely to be accepted and tolerated. Further, Miquon’s affective goals of cooperation and minimization of competitive behavior are supported in broader age groups. “In a meta-analysis of 122 studies on the comparative effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures on achievement, it has been found that cooperation is by far the most effective in enhancing achievement” (Lew, Mesch, Johnson and Johnson).
The most common concern from parents about vertical groups is that their older children won’t be challenged. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Here at Miquon, we see that the transition from being a younger to an older member of a vertical group provides so many possibilities for learning. One of the lifelong positives is that older children learn to be leaders and take on the subtler attributes required to facilitate group discussions and decision making. A study of 7, 9, and 11 year olds in a group process of reaching consensus on the appropriate ordering of a set of pictures showed that the 9 year olds exhibited more organizing statements, solicitation of preferences, and group choice suggestions when they were with 7 year olds than when they were with the older children. And they did not use simple dominance to control the decision, but solicited younger children’s opinions on how to order the pictures. The study concludes, “Many children do not possess the skills and characteristics that enable them to emerge as a leader in a group of peers. With sufficient age disparity, however, any child can attain leadership status with younger children” (Stright and French).
Mixed-Ages in the Classroom
Because mixed-age classrooms are multidimensional, as one can see from walking into any Miquon room, there are a wide range of activities in which varying levels of skill can be applied, and a variety of assessments and performance criteria are used and are valued by everyone in the group. Recently, a team research project was taking place in a fifth-sixth grade classroom, in which mixed-skill groups of children are sharing the work of gathering information about the medieval kingdoms of West Africa. A wide range of source materials was supplied, to enable every child, 5th or 6th grader, fluent or hard-working reader, to engage with the topic at a level that is appropriately challenging for them. The shared work of organizing and presenting the information allows for differing contributions and skills from each team member to come to the fore. The enormous and fruitful realm of choice — where children can have real input about what work they do and when and how they do it — reinforces the academic benefits of mixing ages in school.
We see that the friendships engendered in this special community can transcend age and are sustained far beyond the Miquon years. In her senior year of high school, a recent Miquon graduate reported that she leaned heavily on her network of former Miquon classmates to give her the inside scoop on college life, as her vertical classmates were freshmen in college at the time. And we do see something similar at Miquon, when our recently graduated students return to share news of their middle schools with our 6th graders — reassuring and supporting them as they begin to make the transition away from Miquon.