By Jay Underwood and Margaret Jones
Ah, the one-room schoolhouse. Born of necessity in remote areas of the country, it seems to be a whimsical relic in education. But teachers who took on this complex classroom community discovered that it had a multitude of benefits. Younger kids learned from older ones. Older kids mentored younger ones. Children of different ages learned the material they were ready to learn — both accelerated and remedial — regardless of their age. Perhaps most important, the classroom was like a family with strong sibling-like bonds.
Educators such as Maria Montessori and Loris Malaguzzi of the Reggio Emilia philosophy took notice, and introduced the multiage classroom. Ever since, a handful of independent and public schools have employed multiage learning as a way to meet students’ evolving needs.
The Heart of the Multiage Model
At High Meadows School (Georgia), a coed independent school serving 385 students in preschool through eighth grade, we have embraced this model since our founding in 1973. Our founders believed in the power of progressive education to help children become creative thinkers, fearless learners, and responsible world citizens. To this end, we emphasize a balance of individual and group work and free play — all of which allow students to work at a pace that matches their development. Over the years, our teachers have taught many different age configurations driven largely by enrollment needs. Most recently, we offered multiage classrooms for grades first and second, fourth and fifth, and sixth and seventh.
As our enrollment stabilized in the past few years, administrators and teachers asked why we still implemented a confusing mix of single age and multiage classrooms. Didn’t we believe the multiage model works for all students? After reaffirming our roots, we embarked on significant research and planning last fall. The result? This school year, we are implementing two-grade multiage classrooms at nearly all levels, and grouping together the following grades: kindergarten and first, second and third, fourth and fifth, and sixth and seventh. Eighth grade continues to stand alone so we can attend to our students’ needs as they look toward secondary school.
We pair two full-time lead teachers in each classroom. These co-teachers can differentiate instruction by leading small, fluid groups according to a child’s interest or readiness — not age. Teachers intentionally cultivate relationships between older and younger students. The “olders” provide mentorship and encouragement while the “youngers” gain confidence and social savvy. Teachers’ academic strategies include guided reading and writing; social-emotional strategies include daily class meetings and reflections on personal choices and classroom dynamics. The optimal class size ranges from 18 to 22 students, with lower grades having fewer students.
As Annie Swanlaw, a second- and third-grade teacher says, “We as teachers must practice what we preach in order to be successful. For example, progressive schools like High Meadows tout the importance of meeting children where they are and differentiating instruction to meet individual student needs. But the urge to get all kids to ‘meet grade level expectations’ can still be hanging over our heads. In our multiage configuration, we are naturally compelled to attend to each child’s developmental reality, as the pressure of hard-and-fast grade level expectations don’t exist.
“Additionally, I appreciate the advantages of having a classroom where everyone gets the experience of being an expert or a novice, which develops an incredibly strong, family-like bond between students and teachers. This creates an environment that is comfortable and safe which, in turn, inspires risk-taking — for me as well as my students.”
These first- and second-graders inspect rock formations at High Meadows School in Roswell, Georgia, where students learn in a multiage class environment. Credit: High Meadows School
The Affirming Research
While educators readily understand the power of the multiage approach, many parents (especially prospective parents) do not. We understand the skepticism — most parents were raised in a traditional grade-level system. So our director of admission is ready with articles, parent testimonials, and a list of impressive student outcomes. We cite the following research conclusions (full reference list below):
- Students learn at their own pace rather than being taught skills for which they are not ready or that they have already mastered.
- Classrooms become caring communities that help students advance socially.
- Students spend the bulk of their time engaged in conceptual, critical thinking rather than memorizing and repeating basic skills.
- Students learn skills in an integrated, authentic context rather than in isolation.
- The focus becomes the child’s learning rather than the adult’s teaching.
It takes time to convince parents of all of these benefits. They typically embrace the idea of their younger children participating in an accelerated curriculum and being held to a perceived “above-grade-level” standard. But they question what happens when their children become the olders. They ask us: Do they repeat the same curriculum and experiences? Does their performance start to lag behind their peers in more traditional schools?
We answer emphatically “no.” Older students are stretched toward more nuanced and sophisticated thinking and skill development. We have found that when students stay with the same teacher for more than one year, they become more secure and confident learners. Also, the older students understand expectations and develop a strong bond of trust with their teachers, which spurs them to work harder to produce high-quality work.
This model allocates adequate time for parents and teachers to develop an abiding partnership to educate their children. As a parent recently shared, “Our son adores his teachers, and for a child who had developed a mistrust of adults and teachers in particular, the teachers’ capacity to engage him and gain his trust and admiration has been incredible to witness.” Indeed, everyone wins when there’s a “family” of learners.
The effects are long-lasting, too. Students learn to be deeply reflective and to advocate for themselves. They engage in heady conversations and express themselves in uncommonly sophisticated writing and speech. They become high achievers at area independent and public schools, and later attend a wide diversity of colleges. We can say unequivocally that the multiage approach at High Meadows has been central to our students’ all-around success.
Sidebar: Examples in Action
In a communication unit, a first-grader began making tickets to sell for his group’s dramatic performance. He wrote “tikts” on carefully cut pieces of paper. A kindergartner approached and wanted to join in. He began cutting tickets, too, and sat down to write “ticket” on them. The teacher heard him say “t…t…t…” before he wrote “T” on the ticket. The first-grader noticed and started sounding out “t…t…i…i…k…k….k…t..t…t…s…s…s.” As the first-grader continued, the kindergartner wrote the letters he heard: “TTS.” They compared their phonetic spellings; the first-grader pointed out the sound “k” to the younger child. Then, the two of them created many “tikts” for the show.
A fourth- and fifth-grade math class was tasked with determining how many sheets of homemade paper were needed for bookmarks at an upcoming festival. Students worked in mixed-age groups to figure out the number of sheets, the number of bookmarks per sheet, and the total number of bookmarks needed for the community.
In one instance, two students represented their divergent thinking on scrap paper. A fifth-grader modeled sophisticated number operations while a fourth-grader used estimation and drawings. Then, the two talked things over. The fifth-grader tried to explain his number sentences. The fourth-grader did the same with her drawings and use of landmark numbers (numbers that are easily manipulated, such as multiples of 10s or 100s). The fifth-grader soon realized he reached an incorrect conclusion with his method. As the two continued to work through the problem, the fifth-grader illustrated the operation numerically, and the fourth-grader depicted her answer more concretely. In the end, each student understood the other’s solution.
Gutierrez, Roberto and Robert Slavin. 1992. “Achievement Effects of the Nongraded Elementary School: A Best Evidence Synthesis.” Review of Educational Research, 62(4): 833-876. click here
Stone, Sandra J. 1997. “The Multi-Age Classroom: What Research Tells the Practitioner.” Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. click here
Veenman, S. 1996. “Effects of Multigrade and Multi-Age Classes Reconsidered.” Review of Educational Research, 66: 323-340. click here
Jay Underwood is head of school and Margaret Jones is associate head of school at High Meadows School (Georgia).
Article can be found: https://www.nais.org/Independent-Ideas/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=568