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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.

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Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer

Comments (21) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

ASquire's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is important to keep the age range small when talking about multi-age classrooms. I agree that it would not be good to have a 7th grader in with 3rd graders. However, having a class of 1st/2nd/3rd and another of 4th/5th graders woudl be beneficial. I can even see K/1st/2nd and 3rd/4th/5th classes as being a good idea. I know in amny districts, after 5th grade, students tend to move on to a middle school environment where 6th, 7th and 8th grades are in the same building and students switch classes for each subject. With this set-up, multi-age classes are easily possible as a 6th grader who is ready for 8th grade math is able to take that course and an 8th grader who still needs 6th grade math can take that class. 7th and 8th graders who need high school math can take course offered at the middle school for those higher levels or can go to the high school for those classes. So it all becomes a case of how the system is set-up. I teach a special education class for 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders. This year I also have a 5th grader and that makes things a little difficult.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I will be teaching a Multi-Age classroom next year. This mix of 1st & 2nd graders will be a new setup to me. I find it very interesting and understand that there are many benefits academically and socially. I am most of all worried that my high 2nd graders (my 1st graders this year) will be slowed down when explaining new concepts to my 1st graders. Does anyone else have this problem?

Judi Avila's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have a different take on multi-age classrooms. I teach children with emotional impairments in Michigan. For the past 9 years, and up until this school year, I had a multi-age self-contained classroom with a full time paraprofessional. It is up to me to make sure that every one of my students learn positive things from each other, and that is exactly what transpires. This year though, Michigan is pushing the inclusion model and my students are out in the general education setting with my aide and I following them around. Am I happy about this? No way! I pride myself on the awesome community that I create and strive for in my classroom. I love the kids that others don't have the patience for. I also see first hand how individualizing each child's instruction meets their academic and emotional needs. This cannot always happen in a general ed classroom even when all parties involved are on the same page (co-teaching or making accommodations). I am afraid to see what is going to happen if they continue to not place kids in special programs, or educate the disruptive and mentally ill kids along side "their peers." In my city, my type of classroom is the place where they used to go. Who knows how long it will take for the pendulum to swing back the other way. Let's just hope it does! So, do I agree with multi-age classrooms? From my experiences, you better believe it!

kindermom's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've been teaching at a charter school for four years (kindergarten), and this is my first year teaching a multi-age classroom (transitional K/1). The setup is I have 12 students--half "low performing" first graders and the other half "high performing" kindergarteners. I have to say, for a fairly new teacher who still struggles with differentiation in a "regular" classroom, I've found many challenges with teaching a multi-age classroom. The kindergarten students are doing great, although I've found that I had to back-track (teaching color words, number words--things they would have learned in a regular kindergarten!). The difficulty is that my first graders are still rather "low-performing"; if they were to be placed in a regular first grade room, they would still be considered "low". Although the exposure to higher level concepts has been great for the kindergarten students, I'm not sure how--or if--it benefits the 1st grade students.

michelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have a 6 year old in kindergarden. She will be 7 in September, our only child, and pretty grown up for her age. She has been invited to join a multiage classroom next year. The class wil be 10 to 12 each of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th graders, with 2 teachers. She is one of the top 3 students in her class now and has learned to read this year. My biggest concern with this multiage classroom, are her social skills. She is not a shy little girl. She is very outgoing, bright and already concerned about what the 5th grader will think of her bangs not brushed the right way! I do believe that her education will benefit from this, however, I worry about her "hanging" with 4th and 5th graders. Does anyone have any experience with such a big age range in a multiage classroom?

Chris Sawinski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been an educator for over 25 yrs and have seen trends come and go -many times flying in the face of common sense. The demise of "grouping" in favor of full class instruction was one of those head banging experiences for me. Hopefully, a classroom teacher will bring out the individual gifts of every child but who said that everyone had to be the same? I have seen brighter children go dull with constant boredom and children who were less capable in certain areas in a constant state of frustration. Tired of waiting for someones to announce that the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes, I started my own school where we individualized as much as possible and had no problem providing advanced curriculum via project based learning to our students. Convincing parents to adopt multi-age or nongraded classrooms was just not going to happen in this upper middle class area but we accomplished a great deal nontheless.

Tammy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am very interested in starting a project based school myself. If you can, would you please share some steps you took to begin your school? Thank you!

Carla Press's picture
Carla Press
multiage grades 1 and 2

I have taught first, second, and multi for many years. I am currently teaching what is called a multi-age gr. 1 and 2 after a three year hiatus. I loved teaching a multi-age in the past. The challenge of teaching and creating activities that were open-ended enough allow success for all the students was invigorating; having students for a second year was rewarding; facilitating the community of learners based on cooperation was terrific. While the cooperative element is present, the focus on grade level curricula has changed the structure
and intent of the class. Its existence is driven by enrollment, not philosophy. A more accurate description of the class is that it is a combined class. While benefits to kids are still in place, they are not primarily educational ones. And, for the teacher... a one armed paper hanger....

jenn's picture

I have been teaching a K/1/2 multiage class for several years and love it. I feel like I really get to know my students because they spend 3 years with me. While some of my instruction is whole group, I do a lot of small group and individualized work. This really helps me meet the needs of the students at all levels.

Donalyn Vaughn's picture

I will be teaching on a multi-grade (6th-8th) blended learning team next year. This is new for us, and we are still in the planning stages, but I can't wait to see how it goes!

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