Why is the three-year cycle important in Montessori?
To receive the full benefits of a Montessori education, a child who enrolls should remain in the program for 3 years or more. Each step of a child’s development and learning from the time he/she enters the Montessori classroom serves as a solid foundation for the next. The child who does not finish the program will never experience the same benefits, joy and satisfaction of having reached the end. The best analogy would be to say “having poured the concrete it also needs an opportunity to cure” for the foundation to be sound. A ‘true’ Montessori program works in the same way. Therefore, the importance of the 3-year cycle is so crucial in Montessori.
It is a clearly-defined and discrete educational unit with a beginning, a middle, and an end for each child, with the third year in each sequence a capstone year that becomes a culminating experience academically, emotionally, socially, and developmentally. If not followed, the child’s work in that three-year sequence is simply incomplete.
Why is it at the core of all that we do?
Dr. Montessori saw the growth of an individual from birth to age 24 in four “planes of development”: birth to 6, 6 to 12, 12 to 18, and 18 to 24 years of age. In each of these planes humans have unique needs and characteristics, which she defined. She then developed the methodology and materials to respond to the needs and characteristics of the evolving individual at each plane. Those needs and characteristics grow and then diminish in importance during each six-year plane.
Rather than fighting the social and emotional growth of the children in the third year of each sequence, Montessori encourages it. HOW? Instead of making those students in their transitional years the youngest of the children in a sequence, we make them the oldest and most mature in their group. We give them age-appropriate responsibility. We make them educational and civic leaders in this community. The leadership of the older children has a remarkable impact on the health of the three-year community they help lead, and it allows the oldest children in each cycle to stand tall with confidence during an uncertain time while internalizing the academic work of the first two years by sharing their knowledge and expertise with the younger students in the group. They become role models for the younger students, who long to reach their level of academic accomplishment and community responsibility.
We embrace the maxim, “You do not understand something until you can teach it,” and giving lessons to the younger students in the group requires that the oldest children reduce complex concepts to their simplest elements and then convey them with clarity and understanding. If they cannot, it is clear that they need a lesson before going on! Thus, without fully realizing what they are accomplishing, our “third-years” internalize and consolidate the academic skills they have garnered for two years before exploding into the next three-year cycle.
The three-year grouping also makes sense because we know from experience that Kindergarteners have much more in common with 3 and 4 year olds than they do with 8 and 9 year olds. Grade 6 and 7 students have much more in common with Grade 4 and 5 students than with Grade 8 students. Clearly, the full benefit of the educational program accrues to our children in the third and capstone year of each cycle, and a student’s educational experience is greatly diminished without it. So too, is the program and the educational experience for the younger students left behind without the gift of the leadership, mentoring, and instruction from the older children they have come to admire and aspire to become.