Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Thinking about multi-age classrooms

During the time I visited my new school last month, I was able to attend an R&D presentation about multi-age classrooms.  I've been interested in this idea for a long time, having lived in Holland where the Jenaplan schools are organized into multi-age homeroom groups because of a philosophy of valuing the differences between people - Jenaplan schools therefore try to group students into classes that have a diversity of maturity levels, intellectual achievement, interests and social backgrounds so that the students can learn to live and work together in different groups.   While I was living in Holland, a good friend of mine moved from London to a village in the north of England and she put her daughter into the local village school - this was a small primary school with just 2 classes - an infants class and a junior class.  Having visited this school I was struck by how well it worked with different ages in the same classroom.

Multi-age classrooms were the norm at one time, when there was a higher number of people living in rural areas and where transport to schools was limited.  It has been argued that such classrooms are more reflective of real life.   In almost every walk of life, teams are formed without any relation to age.   I've been a member of groups where there was quite a wide range of ages, such as the yoga and tai-chi classes I've attended, book groups I've belonged to and so on - we were brought together by our interest, but within the group we were all different ages and ability levels.  As a teacher I'm also used to working with colleagues with many different ages and experiences.  As a young teacher I was grateful for some of the advice given to me by more experienced teachers - hopefully I'm now able to help teachers who are new to the profession in the same way.  In the same way, multi-age classrooms encourage the older and more experienced students to mentor the younger ones, and students progress from being novice to expert during the time they spend in such classes.

Another advantage I've heard of with multi-age classes is that they are flexible - students can form different groups according to ability, interest or need.  The students learn in a continuum, mastering the easier material and then moving to more complex strategies at their own pace - they don't need to wait until the next school year to move forward in the curriculum.  Some students may move quickly through the curriculum while other students might need the curriculum to be spread out over longer periods for maximum learning.  Overall there will be more variety of learners, which can alleviate competition - it is acceptable that everyone is at different places and levels and students get to experience being at all the different levels (not just always top or bottom of a group).

One of the greatest benefits of multi-age classrooms is that students remain in the same class for more than one year - they are working with the same group of learners, and the teachers and parents have time to build up good relationships promoting a greater sense of community, which can have both academic and social benefits.  Teachers have pointed out that there is a benefit to not having to spend time at the start of each year assessing and getting to know a whole new class of children and building up class routines with a new class - in the multi-age class there will always be children there from the year before who can help the new students and this develops leadership, responsibility and nurturing behaviors among the older students in the class.  As the older students model social and academic behaviours, the younger children will be exposed to things that they might not be exposed to in a single-age class.

When I was a homeroom teacher we were encouraged to buddy up our class with another class in the school.  My Grade 5 students buddied students in a Grade 2 class and they went there every week to help the children with their reading.  The students soon learned to trust each other and even the shyest ones were comfortable reading with the older students and asking them for help.  Some of my EAL students who were themselves learning English, benefitted tremendously from this reading together too.  Later in the year, when the Grade 2s were writing their own stories, the Grade 5 students typed up the stories for their buddies who then illustrated them and turned them into books.  Although we did not have multi-age classes at that time I noticed the benefit that such buddy sessions had on the students in my class.

I don't know if my new school will eventually decide to pilot multi-age classrooms, but if it does I'll be really interested to see how this impacts on student learning.

Does anyone have experience working with students in multi-age classrooms?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of such classes?

Photo Credit:  Nick reading astro boy to sequoia by Sean Dreilinger AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike


  1. Hi Maggie,

    Thanks for the comment on my blog. I was at your session in Frankfurt last year, and thought that I recognized you at the iPad workshop with Jay and Warren! Such a shame. Next time. Congratulations on moving to ASB. An exciting adventure it will be! Doesn't it feel great to be re-energized about your work like that?

    I have only every worked in multi-age classrooms until now (here at TAISM we have straight grades). In my experience the greatest benefit is in the lower grades, where the social and emotional learning is so intense. A first grader can watch a second grader model life in the classroom for her, and then has the opportunity to be that model the following year. Everyone has a chance to be a leader, even shyer children or even smaller (physically) children will have a chance to take another younger student under their wing and teach them. This is invaluable, as far as I am concerned. The creates difficulty comes in later grades, in particular when there is a content heavy piece of curriculum. Then you find yourself differentiating across more than two years of curriculum, and if the cards fall a certain way, it can become overwhelming.

    At the end of it all, I prefer multi age classes, for many reasons. Community, above all, and opportunity for all to be a leader.

    Good luck, and keep in touch.


    1. Thanks Marcello - yes I am so excited about moving to ASB - it's such an incredible opportunity - and for sure it will be very different from my experience in Switzerland!

      "The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun."
      Christopher McCandless - "Into The Wild"

  2. The school I where I work began as a multi-age, year-round school. The school was arranged so that is had four K-6 houses. Each house had a K-2, 3-4, and 5-6 classroom. The curtain between the two classrooms with 3-4 and 5-6 could and often was open and the learning groups were fluid across all grades. It was a happy place with novel circles and project-based learning. This was in the late 90's. Enter the aughts and increased focus on grade level standards and standardized testing. It became more and more difficult to meet state grade level expectations with multiage learning. Consequently, away went the projects and circles and gradually we transitioned our current system of straight grade classes with teacher keeping their students for 2 years, teaching one grade level on year and the other grade level the next year. I hope that you get to teach in a multi-age setting. I think you'll find it challenging and excilerating.

    1. Hi Chris,
      It seems a shame that standardized testing has led to a movement away from multi-age classes, especially when considering the advantages that you describe. International schools don't have the same limitations of testing and therefore I can see that they can be places where such classes can thrive. Today I was talking to the director of a local international school that has always had multi-age classes and I'm hoping to be able to visit and spend a whole day in her school finding out how this works in practice.
      Thanks for your comments and best wishes,

  3. Hi Maggie! I currently team teach a 3/4/5 Multiage class- 2 teachers +50 students + 3 grade levels = best teaching and learning I've ever experienced!

    I would say we are yet to experience any disadvantages with this model, however we have ran into a few challenges. Educating people (parents, students, community members, and teachers) on the multiage philosophy is necessary, as clearing up misconceptions is needed. These conversations can be emotional, though. Building a new program requires a lot of work, energy, and reflection. SO worth every ounce of time though!

    The advantages come in surplus! Much of what you mentioned in your post we have found to be true. A multiage program allows for a family-like atmosphere that resembles the real-world. Also looping with students fosters deep relationships with parents and students, and decreases anxiety for students and teachers.

    You can read more about our discoveries this year on our blog: www.themindsofbreott.blogspot.com

    I appreciated your reflection. Ann and I are always looking for discussions regarding multiage! :)