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Small School Classrooms

Multi-Age Classrooms at Mt. George

Student at the Center: The Multi-Age Classroom

For many years Mt. George School has served a rural neighborhood which at times varied greatly in the number of students at a particular grade. Historically, this required some creative groupings or combinations that sometimes spanned two, three, or more grade levels. In the mid 90s, the state of California instituted a program of class size reduction for Kindergarten through 3 rd grade with a twenty to one ratio between students and teacher. This welcome change created an inevitable move from approximately one class per grade to a class and a half particularly in the primary grades (K-3). As a school, the staff adopted an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude and rather than see a combination class as a “problem” used their best teaching practices in meeting the learning needs of individual students whatever the age/grade span of the students in their class. Over time, our teachers have developed an expertise in working with multi-age groups and have experienced the benefits for students and learning. In fact, staff often chooses to configure classrooms with multiple ages and grades.

Traditionally, combination classrooms were defined as a classroom where two or more separate curriculums and learning activities were taught. You might picture a classroom sectioned off, for instance, into a 2 nd grade part of the room and a 3 rd grade part of the room, with a teacher moving back and forth between the groups leaving a portion of the class forced to work independently for a significant part of their school day. You may even have been a student in a classroom like this. In contrast, a multi-age classroom refers not only to the span of age/grade in a classroom but to a philosophy about the best way to achieve outcomes for them. A multiage philosophy is based on the knowledge that all children are at different levels of learning even in same-age classrooms and these differences are accepted and respected. Each child is able to participate in reading, writing, and problem solving at his or her own level of development. Teachers assess and support each child’s progress and tailor instruction to expand each child’s skills and abilities with high expectations for all students.

Multiage classrooms do present challenges that require a significant amount of planning and flexibility by teachers. In California, our instruction is based on state standards at each grade level which must be taught for all students to master. Fortunately, particularly in reading, writing, and math, these standards are very closely related and build on skills from one grade to the next. In reading, for example, the standard or goal is for all students to read fluently and comprehend what they are reading. In one classroom, you will have students that fall along a spectrum of ability levels. It is only the requirements for academic achievement that are defined by grade level. It is almost absurd to think that a teacher would attempt to hold back any student from reading and comprehending to his or her highest potential. In fact, they support all students with instruction that will promote their development without limits. At times, that instruction may be designed to challenge students in other areas that are more of a concern.

There have been several significant studies conducted by education researchers in recent years that show that students in multiage classrooms reach levels of academic achievement equal to or greater than students in traditional same-age classrooms. In addition, these studies also outline social and emotional benefits for both younger and older students. They were found to have a greater sense of belonging and more positive attitudes toward school. These findings are in step with our own experience and Mt. George student achievement data over a number of years.

The multiage philosophy matches the Mt. George vision and mission and is applicable to all classrooms both multi and same-grade. The likelihood is that each student at Mt. George will spend some of their elementary years in both settings. Our goal is that all our classrooms be a source of excitement for learning with a rigorous, student-centered curriculum. Please see the collection of frequently asked questions related to multi-age classrooms at right. A significant source of the information is an article by Bruce A. Miller, researcher for Northwest Regional Education Laboratory. For more details and information on where to find this article, please see the Mt. George School office.

 

Is the multiage classroom better for some children, but not for others?

This question assumes that traditional classrooms are the best way to educate children. As you investigate the philosophy of multiage classrooms, you quickly conclude that this child-centered approach is good for all children. In the multiage classroom, children progress at their own pace, view themselves as successful, learn from their peers without competition, and have the opportunity to mentor.

  How are children selected for multiage classrooms at Mt. George?

Children are placed in the same way that all classrooms are configured. The decision is based on a balance in each classroom of age, ability, gender, personality, learning needs, etc. Within this balance we look at individual needs, both academic and social. We carefully consider the teacher and other students that will best help them to succeed. We consider their emotional needs as well, but friendships are not always the first priority. Part of learning is sometimes to be challenged to move outside your comfort zone. Children are almost always resilient and adults often have a more difficult time adjusting to a new environment.

  How are students taught in a multiage classroom?

In a multiage class students are taught in groupings that maximize the potential of their learning. Teachers take advantage of the range of experiences, knowledge and skills of the group to develop programs where the outcomes for students are open ended. This means that students learn from the teacher and each other, and the teacher plans for, and expects different outcomes from each one dependent upon these stages of development.

 Do the older children benefit from the multiage classroom?

In the multiage classroom every child, even the older child, is on his or her own continuum of learning. The older child is able to go as far as he or she is able, just as the younger child is. Social and emotional benefits are also apparent through mentoring and modeling, older children gain confidence and increase their self-esteem. Being a leader in learning strengthens their ability to think creatively and problem solve in a real life way. Older children also learn how to care for and nurture others.

 Don’t the younger students feel inferior?

No, social learning and academic learning can happen more fluidly when other children are the models or leaders. The idea that everyone has a place and is an important part of the class helps the younger students feel secure. A multi-age classroom often makes the beginning of the year an easier adjustment for many kids. Rather than being in a room where everything feels unfamiliar to everyone, there are several students who have more experience to assist the younger students.

  What about the curriculum? Don’t things get repeated?

Teachers alternate themes or topics within the state standards for those that repeat with the same teacher. The focus is always on quality of material rather than quantity, or “just covering the curriculum.” This enables higher levels of focus on individual interests and questions which increases critical thinking skills and a desire to be a life long learner. Each year the new arrangement of students will dictate thinking in new and different directions.

  Are there any disadvantages to multiage classrooms?

The only disadvantage is unfortunately the misconception that exists about multiage classrooms versus traditional combination classes. Sometimes parents and students are influenced by negative responses of others who misunderstand the multiage philosophy and see placement in a multiage classroom as an indication of common ability level. Some worry that students will not receive the “typical” experience or that it is somehow less than optimal for students. In fact, there is no one way to learn or one way to teach children. All classrooms are designed to meet the needs of each student no matter their age, grade or skill level.