The Natural Learning School: Older children benefit from mentoring young learners in classes
By Kandra Kolehmainen
Before I started teaching three years ago, I was a stay at home mother of two. When the question of my children’s education came up, we decided that homeschooling would be a perfect fit for the creative education that we envisioned.
I was especially pleased with the multi-age aspect of homeschooling. When I went back to work, I wanted to continue the multi-age experience for my children. I started teaching elementary school-age children at the Natural Learning School with a class ranging in age from 5 to 9 years old. The Natural Learning School is committed to providing a multi-age education for all children. In our Infant-Toddler House we have children from 10 months to 3 years; in the preschool we have 3- to 5-year-olds and at the elementary school we have 5- to 11-year-olds. We believe that the multi-age classroom is the foundation for a richer, more well rounded education.
The multi-age classroom entails much more than its name implies. Obviously the class is comprised of children of differing ages, but there are many other defining characteristics. The multi-age classroom is a learner-centered environment where children move at their own pace and are involved in hands-on, integrated learning. They establish mentoring relationships and are afforded many opportunities to facilitate the learning of others, to practice skills and concepts they themselves have learned and to become adept at handling social interactions with children of many different ages. Children participate in projects as a whole class, in small groups of similar ability, and in small groups around a common interest as well as working alone. Because of the preparation and organization necessary to facilitate learning throughout the multiple skill levels within the class, the educational emphasis naturally falls not on the curriculum, but rather on the child. It is this emphasis that ensures the success of the multi-age classroom.
Famous French essayist Joseph Jouber once said, “To teach is to learn twice.” In all classrooms children learn from each other through classroom participation, but children in a multi-age classroom not only learn from each other, they also actively teach each other. Children love to teach what they know and get ample opportunity in the classroom. Children serve as mentors on a daily basis, sometimes initiated by the child, and other times requested by the teacher. In both cases the teacher explains the purpose of the activity, the mentor’s role, when and how to help and ways to encourage the mentee.
The mentor gets the unique opportunity to thoroughly master skills through teaching. They also learn patience, compassion, and understanding. Most importantly they develop a greater sense of self worth by realizing how valuable they are to others. The mentee enjoys the privilege of being taught by another child. The mentee learns necessary academic and social skills through the mentoring process. They make relationships, learn acceptance for being themselves, and realize how capable children really are. They also become open to learning from a variety of people of differing ages which helps to develop an open-minded view of the world. Considering the advantages for the mentor and the mentee, it’s hard to say which child benefits more from this unique relationship.
Each child is a unique individual with experiences and understanding that are unlike any other child. With an individual curriculum, every child moves at his or her own pace, learning what is appropriate academically at the appropriate time. This builds self confidence and mastery of knowledge. With children of different ages learning many different concepts simultaneously, it becomes difficult for children to realize where they are academically in comparison to other children. They have time to think without judgment from others. They gain confidence in what they know, not frustration in what they don’t. In a traditional classroom where children are the same age and studying the same skills at the same time, competition often becomes fierce. With the strict time line that is required by state standards, there is no room for children who are not ready for what is being taught. Most of the time “not being ready” has nothing to do with intelligence, but rather maturity – either academic or emotional. This can take a great toll on the emotions of a child. Many children are labeled by others and believe these labels more and more over time. Some kids labeled “smart” gain confidence from these labels, others feel pressured to keep doing well. As for the kids who are “behind,” some do work harder to prove others wrong, but most begin to believe what everyone else believes about them – that they are not smart.
Arguably the most important advantage to a multi-age classroom is the myriad opportunities to socially interact with others. As stated above, mentoring and individual curriculum provide many opportunities to practice important social skills, learn patience and acceptance and bolster the self worth of children. This is also true with class discussions and small group projects.
But what children learn from each other outside the classroom is equally as important as academic learning. Through free time, recess, lunch and play, children are learning to interact in a real and meaningful way. They learn what is appropriate to say to a younger child, how to not feel intimidated by an older child and how to find commonalities at every age. They are presented with differing viewpoints daily; therefore, they learn to respect the perspectives of those around them (a skill that many adults struggle with). Younger children naturally look up to older children, and marvel at how nice, helpful, funny or smart that they are. Older children marvel and celebrate the achievement of younger ones with “wow” or “I can’t believe you knew that.” The children are able to see that everyone makes mistakes, struggles, succeeds, laughs, and cries just like they do. Instead of separating them,their differing ages actually bring them together.
Through an individual curriculum, mentoring, and social interaction, children learn to become well-rounded, empathetic students with a lifelong love of learning. At the Natural Learning School, our emphasis is on facilitating the learning of each child with respect for who the child is and how he or she learns. In a multi-age classroom, children are able to master knowledge in an inclusive and nurturing environment where their only competition is themselves and excellence is the goal.
Learn more about Cooper-Young’s Natural Learning School at naturallearningschool.org.