The Typical Size of a Montessori Class

A Montessori class, especially at the early childhood level, may seem very large at first to many parents. Each Class Is Made up of from 25 to 35 children, spanning two or three-age levels, normally more or less evenly divided between boys and girls among the three age levels.

A Montessori class will be taught by either a fully trained and certified Montessori educator working with one or more aides, or by two Montessori teachers who may be assisted by an aide.

The levels usually found in a Montessori school correspond to the developmental stages of childhood: Infant (birth through 18 months); Toddler (18 months to age 3); Early Childhood (age 3 to 6); Lower Elementary (age 6 to 8); Upper Elementary (age 9 to 11); Middle School (age 12 to 14); and Secondary (age 15 to 18). At each level, the program and curriculum are logical and highly consistent extensions of what has come before.

Parents and traditional early childhood educators always begin by questioning our large group sizes and Montessori's tradition of working with three different age groups in the same class.

Traditional pre-schools strive for very small group sizes, and boast of ratios as low as five children to one adult. Naturally, with all this emphasis on small class size and low teacher/child ratios, parents often wonder why Montessori classes are so much larger.

The answer stems from a fundamental difference in our perception of how children can be best helped to learn. Traditionally, parents and educators have assumed that the classroom teacher is the source of instruction. By this reasoning, the lower the pupil/teacher ratio, the more time an individual child can receive and the better the educational experience.

The facts as shown by a number of studies is that, except where ratios fall as low as four to one or when they climb to more than forty students in a room, research has not been able to find that class size in itself is the link with effective teaching. As any parent who has worked with five to ten children will attest, each individual child is a real person with a demanding set of expectations, opinions, interests, and needs. In a traditional classroom, whether teachers work with ten children or thirty, they spend most of their time either talks to the entire class or working with one or two children at a time while the other child listen, daydream, or sleep. Teacher time is a very limited resource. The most effective teachers succeed not because their classes are smaller, but because they have found teaching strategies that really work. They allow excellent teachers, not matter what setting they teach in, to individualize instruction and facilitate learning for the entire class while they focus their attention on a few children at a time.

Parents and teachers sometimes fantasize about classes that are essentially one-on-one tutorial situations. But the best teacher of a three-year-old is often another child who is just a little bit older and has mastered a skill. This process is good for both the tutor and the younger child. In this situation, the teacher is not the primary focus.

The larger group size in the Montessori class puts the focus less on the adult and encourages children to learn from each other. By having enough children in each age group, all students will find others at their developmental level.

This uses the resource of the highly trained Montessori educator much more efficiently than many schools do their underpaid early childhood educators. Also, we have to remember that the Montessori classroom is a carefully prepared environment, filled with fascinating self-correcting educational materials. They allow children to work independently in a way that no school that is heavily dependent on texts and workbooks can.

Montessori classes are organized to encompass a two or three-year age span, which allows younger students to experience the daily stimulation of older role models, who in turn blossom in the responsibilities of leadership. Students not only learn "with" each other, but "from" each other. Some parents worry that by having younger children in the same class as older ones, one group or the other will be shortchanged. They fear that the younger children will absorb the teachers' time and attention, or that the importance of covering the kindergarten curriculum for the five-year-olds will prevent them from giving the three- and four-year-olds the emotional support and stimulation that they need. Both concerns are misguided. Working in one class for two or three years allows students to develop a strong sense of community with their classmates and teachers. The age range also allows the especially gifted child the stimulation of intellectual peers, without requiring that she skip a grade and feel emotionally out of place.

By consciously bringing children together in a group that is large enough that it will allow for two-thirds of the children to return every year, the school environment promotes continuity and the development of a very different level of relationship between children and their peers, as well as between children and their teachers. Classes tend to be fairly stable communities, with only the oldest third moving on to the next level each year.

With the strong Montessori emphasis on international education, most Montessori schools both seek and attract a multiethnic and international student body.

© 1996 The Montessori Foundation