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An Ageless Approach: Why Multiage Classrooms Should Replace Fixed Grade Levels

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer
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One day, the mother of one of my fourth-grade students came in to meet with me about her son. She reported that Noah, who I knew to be extremely bright, was bored with math. Although my school district's textbooks included problem-solving activities and stories, and I augmented the curriculum with various exercises that required students to apply creativity and higher-order thinking skills, the assignments, she told me, were still too easy for him.

Fortunately, I was able to hand Noah a middle school math book and invite him to knock himself out. This shy, soft-spoken ten-year-old, working independently and handing assignments in to me, went through it with remarkable ease. I was relieved he didn't ask for a high school textbook; I hadn't done well in math at that level, and I would have had to shrug my shoulders if he needed me to go over differential equations with him or even if he used sine or cosine in a sentence.

Nor was grade-level math a challenge for another student, Jenny, a sweet but assertive girl whose ambition was to become president of the United States. However, she made no complaints -- except when she had something to say about some perceived inconsistency or fallacy in the textbook's problem-solving stories. And, of course, I had a handful of other students whose superior academic abilities in math and other subjects I was sometimes hard pressed to accommodate.

Then there were the equal number of children -- boys, for the most part -- who struggled to read, labored at writing, were easily confused by simple mathematical concepts, could not concentrate on tasks for more than a few minutes, and would in some cases fail to finish a task unless I happened to be looming over them while I visually surveyed the class.

In sum, I had easily a five- to ten-year spread in terms of academic ability among my students, yet because they had been born within a year or so of one another, they were all assigned to the same fourth-grade classroom.

It is absurd to expect teachers to accommodate such a dramatic disparity in ability. And it is tragic that the intellects of high-performing students are understimulated while the needs of less gifted ones are not better addressed. Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) programs on the one hand and resource teachers on the other help alleviate the problem, but I still had difficulty meeting the needs of students at the far ends of the spectrum without neglecting those who were performing at or near grade level.

The most sensible solutions are radical, but, like most aggressively different proposals, they also are logical: Group children according to their academic abilities instead of their age, or at least organize classrooms so that students have more opportunities to learn from one another. Two of the teaching approaches Edutopia advocates, project-based learning and cooperative learning, are natural fixes for this problem.

Multiage-classroom organization is admittedly difficult to implement, because the tradition-bound inertia and bureaucratic complexity of many public schools does not easily provide for such flexibility. That said, I am interested in hearing about schools in which it has been adopted -- and about how well it works. (This idea seems particularly well suited to a charter school, and I'd be surprised if none had adopted it.) Please respond if you know of any such program.

Also, do you agree that children should be taught by ability, not by age? And do you have other solutions for teaching in classrooms in which some children should be reading picture books while others should be devouring novels, or in which one student is stuck on multiplying two double-digit numbers, while another is ready to tackle trigonometry? Please share your opinion.

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer

Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

A. Fulara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although there are several pros that accompany multiage classrooms, it is important to also consider the cons.

For students who need more challenging classwork, putting them in classes with older children also means that they will be required to interact with their older peers. Many of these younger students may not feel comfortable or intimidated by these older classmates.

Also, what happens when an older student needs materials that are at a younger grade level? Should a 7th grader really be placed with 3rd grade students? What would that do to his/her self-esteem?

I agree that differentiation is an extremely difficult task for teachers who have students with large span of abilities. However, I think the social implications must also be weighed in when making the choice whether to switch to multiage classrooms or not.

A. Fulara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although there are many pros to a multiage classroom, I think it is important to also consider the cons to switching from a grade level classroom to a multiage classroom.

If a student is able to learn higher grade level concepts, he or she will most likely be in a classroom with older students. Therefore, this student will be expected to interact with these older peers. The younger student may not feel comfortable or intimidated by those older classmates.

Also, if an older student needs materials based on a lower grade level, he or she will be placed with those younger students. Should a 7th grader really be placed in a classroom with 3rd grade students? What will happen to the older student's self-esteem?

Parents may also feel negative about multiage classrooms. Although many parents may feel proud about their younger student being challenged in a higher level classroom, I highly doubt many parents would feel pleased with their student being placed with children much younger and at a lower level. The stigma attached to such a move produces negative emotions.

I think multiage classrooms (in theory) are great in the sense that the class is learning the same topics at the same pace. However, educators need to consider the negative social aspects of multiage classrooms as well.

Sarah Clum's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Have you ever tried CAI math programs with your students?
CAI is the "Computer-assisted instruction" where students are allowed to work at their own pace. The computer program is illustrative and interactive. It also lets the student know whether their answer is correct right away and gives suggestions if the answer is not correct. The student is not allowed to move on to a new question until they solve a problem.
This would help out students with different academic abilities without having to worry about the possible repercussions of "mixed age groups".

Johanna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can certainly see the many concerns that a multiage classroom would bring about. However, I think the idea has a lot of merit and should be looked into more. For many years, I have thought about this exact concept. What if grade levels were non-existent? Instead replaced by ability levels. Each child moves at a pace that works best for their strengths and weaknesses instead of forced into preset molds. I would have to think this would help children feel more successful and continue their education.

If caught early enough in school, they would be moving at a good pace up the learning scale and this could eliminate the concern of the vast age differences that many worry would take place. I find that the students who are behind in Kindergarten, often just have a lack of exposure or knowledge foundation. Once they are given that extra that their peers don't need, they quickly progress and sometimes even surpass their peers. It wasn't that they weren't as "high" as the others, they just needed more time to work at their level. Often, schools just don't have the time in the grade level system to give the extra to those students. Instead those children get forced to move along with their class when they weren't ready. This causes that gap and it continues to grow as they move through the grade levels. The same goes for those above the grade level. Teachers are spending time trying to help the lower group and don't have time to give and challenge those that have easily learned the preset skills. Those students are losing out too. They are forced to wait for their peers and stay in the curriculum of their grade level instead of working at their ability level.

Teachers often find themselves stretched way too thin just meeting the demands of the school system. Then on top of all the responsibilities, teachers are trying to teach to such a vast ability group. Often this leads to either the top abilities getting left out and/or the lower abilities getting frustrated. Yes, I know the truly talented teachers can work with small group instruction to try to help these gaps. However, there are many students who are not getting that advantage. Even those teachers who do use grouping run out of time and resources to meet the vast needs.

I can see in the smaller school systems, there would be fewer for each ability group which would make the multiage a bigger factor. However, in the larger school systems there seems to be so many in each grade level that could use different learning levels that the ages wouldn't be so widespread.

Obviously the answers aren't so concrete or more schools would be trying to adapt to this system. However, it just seems too good of an idea not to try to analyze it and find some way to see it as a possibility.

J. Haveman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel as a former kindergarten teacher from an elementary school where multi-age classrooms were used, it was comforting placing my students in these classrooms. For my high functioning students, putting them into a multi-age classroom challenged their thinking and allowed them to thrive. Also the low functioning students placed in these classrooms were given support and guidance from students that are more advanced. Do do agree with some of the above posting about the effects of having children at various ages.

C. Curtin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the idea of having multi-age classrooms! When I student taught I was in a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade classroom and it was the best experience I've had in education. It lends itself towards addressing all learners better than a traditional classroom. Those students that were higher and lower were easily grouped to best meet their needs. It also seemed to make for a great community of learners, not only for the students but the parents as well. Since each child spent 3 years with the same teacher you got a chance to really get to know everyone. Also, very little time had to be spent with procedures and rules because the older students would teach the younger ones by example. After teaching first grade for 5 years I would love the chance to go back and have a multi-age classroom again.

Eric's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also teach fourth grade where I had a student who's abilities were identical with those in the original posting. Last year he started on where he was able to advance in math at his own level. By the beginning of this year, he was comfortable doing 8th grade math, but the program didn't give any opportunities for real-life applications or socialization. His differentiated instruction was an entirely different instruction. Ultimately, we decided to promote him to the middle school where he could take more appropriate classes (6&7) to receive actual instruction. But I digress. I want to discuss his little brother.

The little brother is also at the top of his class. Last year he was in a multiage 1-2 class, technically in first grade. He started this year in the same classroom (at parents' request) because the teacher successfully differentiates instruction. Ultimately, he was also receiving different instruction and was promoted to third grade over the winter holiday. His peers from the previous year accepted him with open arms and helped make the transition seamless.

Because of the success of these brothers, we need to think how we will meet the future needs of their 2 year old sister. My thought would be to have a 4-5 multi-age class. This way, students who are proving successful two years in advance would be socially accepted as they progressed.

Amie Flora's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like the theory, not only for advanced students, but also for underachieving students. We have been talking about a sixth, seventh, and eighth grade remedial room at our school for students who have not attained passing grades or passed thier standardized tests. We currently have single-sex classes for math and english, to address the different learning styles of boys and girls. I think all schools should be thinking of ways to improve the education for all our kids.

Johanna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What an interesting set-up to stay with the same teacher for 3 years. I would think that would help eliminate the time to get to know routines, each other, and learning styles. Did you see any problems with personality conflicts or teacher/student learning styles not working well together? Three years in that situation could cause major problems I would think.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The district where I live has one multi-age classroom with approximately 50 students in it. These are young students, ages 6 to about 9. It is amazing to see these students all learning at their own pace and making great progress. I wish there were more of these classrooms.

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