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