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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Childhood Is a Journey, Not a Race: Tailoring Academics to the Student

Multiage programs at this Washington elementary school help teachers focus on the individual student.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team

"Multi-aged classrooms force us to individualize learning for each student," explains Theresa David, teacher at Chinook Elementary School in Vancouver, Washington.

Tailoring instruction to the student is one of the founding philosophies of the five-year-old school, where students learn in the same classroom with children from two or three grade levels. "With different grades and abilities in the same classroom, you could have students working at eight different levels in one room. It helps us meet the needs of all kids," says teacher Laura Bolt.

Because a core group of students stays with a teacher for the next year, start-up time is faster when students come back to school in the fall. "Once students have been in my class for a year they take on leadership roles and help new students adjust," adds teacher Eric Hoglund. The individualized learning approach is reinforced by the use of technology in the classroom.

Five networked computers in each class allow students to work on their own or in small groups. Parents also help out, staffing learning centers in the classroom where students rotate to work on different activities like reading and research.

Multi-aged classrooms and other strategies create a sense of community in this large elementary school, which serves over 750 kindergarten through fifth-grade students. Ten classrooms are clustered together in wings called "houses." Within each house, teachers meet for long periods a few times a week to plan themes and coordinate instruction. Students in each house participate in joint activities and even eat lunch together. Combining personalized instruction with a feeling of community helps make learning at Chinook a successful journey for all students.

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Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I grew up in the 70's when the multi-age classroom was the latest rage. For me, someone labeled "gifted" it was a godsend. We were in mixed 1-2, 3-4, 5-6 classrooms. So in 3rd grade, I was able to keep going in Math and Language Arts as far as I wanted to - I finished all of the school's workbooks and my teacher found some old textbooks from middle school so I could keep going. I finished 7th grade math and 6th grade LA that year. The next year I finished Algebra, self-teaching, and 7th grade LA.

Then in 5th grade, my teacher said - you're in 5th grade, you'll study 5th grade math and 5th grade Language Arts. So I didn't study anything. I blew off homework. I goofed around. My parents were crushed but they couldn't get me moved. The next year, I switched teachers and had a little 4' 11" teacher named Mrs. Cohn who practically cracked a whip on my sloppy habits. Within about 6 weeks of school starting, I was back studying at the 8th grade level.

We underestimate how much labeling a child for a particular grade can influence what they are capable of. In reality, if I'd been able to study at my own level, I likely would have finished high school 3-4 years early. Socially, the mixed grade classes were much easier. My peers didn't really notice that I was studying different books, and I was able to hang out with older kids, with whom I had more in common. Children should progress in grades based on completed coursework, maturity, and social skills. Why I wasn't skipped ahead a grade or two is beyond me but it still bothers me to this day. I never fit in, and was always teased for being too smart. I was never challenged (until college), even in the gifted program.

Rebecca's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I elected to put my son into a Montessori preschool/kindergarten for precisely this reason. The ability to progress as he is developmentally ready, to be coached by and to learn to coach other students, and to learn to take responsibility for his learning felt to me to be a much healthier way for him, when compared to being requested to sit in tidy rows and be ready to learn the topic that was about average for the students in a classroom that would combine such a wide range of student abilities. I drive significantly out of my way and pay the equivalent of a second mortgage to give him this educational advantage, and will continue to do so for at least another 3 years; the sacrifice is worth it to keep him in what I think is the healthiest, best environment for him. At 5, he is reading simple books, adding, subtracting, and even doing some rudimentary multiplication, exceeding all of the "standards of learning" on the website of the local elementary school that would be within walking distance and also free. What's more, he's learned some Chinese, and has impeccable manners and interacts well with other children, particularly younger children who he naturally teaches and helps. I can't fathom that the public school system can't see the advantages of creating this environment, and continues to force education to bring all children to a bland midpoint.

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