"Why do I need to learn this?" I am fairly certain we all asked this question, at some point, when going through school. Some of us may have asked it more frequently than others. The question gets to the heart of intrinsic motivation, a key ingredient to success in school--and life.
Who do you think is best equipped to give a complete answer to that question above? If you answered "the teacher", you are likely correct. But what if we changed the question to: "Whose answer will have the most positive impact on student performance?" In that regard, peers have an advantage over teachers.
According to a recent study from Michigan State University, when college-aged peers answered the 'Why do I need to learn this?' question for one another, the scores of individual work were higher than when answered by teachers. The young adults could more easily identify with their peer messenger, even if the message remained the same.
It has long been true that in multi-age Montessori classrooms, children can sometimes learn as much or more from one another than they can from their teachers. Montessori directresses prepare the environment so that children can direct their own activites. Some of those materials are much more advanced than a child's ability; however, when a young child sees a slightly older one using those advanced materials, sees the level of work being performed, that younger child becomes much more motivated to reach to greater heights, simply by watching that older child exhbit mastery. Without those role models, every Montessori directress knows the level of work does not reach the heights that are possible when the role models are present, regardless of the teachers' ability.
With so many choices available in the Montessori classroom, parents often ask how we can ensure that children will choose challenging work when so many other appealing tasks, such as art, coexist side by side with, say, mathematics. Older peers modeling for younger ones are an important part of that equation, inspiring their classmates to work on increasingly difficult concepts, much more than a directress could ever do on her own.
Science Daily hints that even college students might benefit from a Montessori, multi-level model. "This gives support to the idea that, motivationally, the fact that instructors control grades, tell the students what do to, and so on, may be working against their efforts to increase their students' appreciation of why the class is important."