There is nothing new about organizing an elementary school into multiage classrooms. In fact multiage learning environments have been around longer than single-grade ones. It wasn’t until Horace Mann visited Prussia in the 19th century that the idea of “modernizing” the classroom to more closely match the efficiency of industrial factories came to the United States. Perhaps a factory model of teaching children one step (or grade) at a time is an efficient way to teach, but it doesn’t match the way humans are built to learn.
At Swan School we see learning more as a pathway than a staircase. Children follow a trail that often progresses in ways unique to themselves, complete with meanders that match newfound interests and routes that allow them to speed on ahead. As educators we find ourselves fascinated by these trails and joyfully help each individual in our care move along at a pace that is unique to them.
Russ Yates, our current Head of School, taught multiage classes in various configurations of 2 and 3 year spans from 1995 through 2013. At the beginning of each school year he always had a number of students who were experiencing a multiage classroom for the first time. To help these new-to-multiage students gain a greater degree of comfort, he invited the returning students to talk about what it was like to be in a multiage class. One year a young boy named Brad explained it in words that his new classmates instantly understood. He said, “In other classrooms you are always racing against everybody else. In our multiage class you only have to race against yourself and everybody is here to help.”
There are many research studies that support multiage educational environments. These studies point to the following benefits, all of which are experienced by students at Swan School.
- Allows for flexibility in the grouping of children according to need, ability, or interest; not just by age.
- Problems associated with a yearly transition from one grade to another can be overcome. The teacher has a nucleus of children; trained in the details of the class organization who keep it going while newcomers absorb it.
- As the student-teacher-parent relationship develops over a longer period of time, students will receive greater support for their success in school.
- A more natural learning situation is established. Children work at their own pace. Their program is not geared to the work of a single year but can be adjusted over multiple years.
- Benefits come to the older children from the quality of leadership and responsibility they develop.
- Younger children are stimulated intellectually by older children.
- Children have a broader social experience with increased opportunities to lead and to follow, to collaborate and to make stable peer relationships.
If you would like to read more about what the research on multiage education tells us, the following webpage provides many direct links.
Multiage Classrooms Help Children Grow
The following article was written by experienced multiage educator and mother Marion Leier, a prominent Canadian educator. In it she uses personal experiences and research to show that Multiage classrooms do more than support students’ academic progress, they also provide one of the best educational structures to help children grow both socially and emotionally.
In this article Marion articulates quite well many of the reasons why we structure Swan School so that students experience multiage classes during all of their elementary years.
Nova Scotia, Canada
We arrived at the camp early, completed the registration and proceeded to the cabin she was assigned . Her cabin counselor greeted her with a welcome smile and announced that she was the first to arrive. We decided to wait with her until some of the other campers arrived. Meredith seemed a little apprehensive so I suggested that we busy ourselves, setting up her bed. Noticing the lump at the bottom of her sleeping bag, I started to reach in to investigate; but Meredith blocked my attempt, quietly saying that it was just ‘Old Doll’. It wasn’t long until the next camper arrived – a 9 year old, with her doll tucked under her arm. Meredith’s face broke into a relieved smile as she was introduced; then reached into her sleeping bag to pull ‘Old Doll’ up to her pillow.
I have been a teacher of Multiage classes for a long time – 26 years – and over that time have done extensive research and pedagogical analysis to develop an effective learning environment for children that also is compatible with our provincial curriculum guidelines. I have gained a reputation in Nova Scotia as a multiage guru, and I am frequently invited to speak to groups of parents, administrators and teachers about Multiage Teaching/Learning. It is reassuring for parents and educators ‘new’ to this educational structure and for those involved in small schools to listen to someone that is so convinced of the benefits of a nongraded philosophy.
But I had a lot of doubts early in my career as a ‘multiage teacher’. In 1973, when 2 colleagues and I started ‘Vertical Grouping’ (modeled after The British Infant School’) at our ‘streamed’ elementary school, we had very little literature available to us to read. It was prior to the ‘Whole Language’ movement, integration, and early into the ‘continuous progress’ policy in Nova Scotia. We were fortunate that our supervisor, Dr. George Forsyth promised the parent community to do a comparative study of the learning development of children in the multiage classes and the single age classes. He spent time observing our classes, meeting with us, and ‘reflecting’ back to us our methods, language, and program, constantly challenging us to analyze what we were doing and to create more effective ways to accommodate the diversity of learning in our classes. Working with children for more than one year, helped me to understand developmental learning and to be reassured with ‘late bloomers’. When I became a parent of two daughters (4 years apart), I experienced the benefits of a multiage environment from a different perspective. Watching my own children go through multiage programs at our elementary school, clearly demonstrated the validity of research that has been done about a nongraded philosophy.
My oldest daughter, Kerri – as many first born children – has taken on many leadership roles in school and community situations. She loves being ‘on stage’ and plans to pursue a performing arts career in another year. At the same time, she has been fairly hesitant in her approach to learning new things such as: riding a bicycle, reading, alpine skiing and driving a car. She was fortunate to spend her first 3 years of schooling in a multiage class, allowing her to develop those foundation skills at her own pace. Unfortunately at that time, there were no multiage programs offered at the upper elementary level at her school. I recall that her grade 5 teacher was very conscientious about preparing the class for Middle School. When Kerri went to Middle School, she made high marks but was very unhappy for 3 long years.
Meredith, being the younger child, was often described by her teacher in early elementary as being a bit reticent in class – avoiding any situation that centered the attention on her. In her third year, she was in the oldest group of a multiage class (5, 6 & 7 year olds). She was given lots of opportunity to develop leadership and peer tutoring skills. I will never forget the time that she offered to come into my class of 5, 6, & 7 year olds to teach a math game to all the children!
The following year, she was placed into a new multiage class of 8 & 9 year olds with a new teacher to the school. The next year, for various reasons, Meredith’s teacher kept her ‘grade 3’ half of class to move on to a single grade 4, adding other 9 year olds to the group. This was a very difficult year for Meredith. At home, she was very temperamental, often erupting in temper spells and very mean to her older sister. At school, her teacher expressed concern about Meredith’s tendency to pull away from her friends and physically isolate her desk in the classroom. On a few occasions, she and a group of classmates got into trouble and were sent to the office. It shocked her father and I that she would even associate with children that frequently acted out at school. We worried that if she was not confident enough to make responsible choices now, then she most likely would be vulnerable to more serious offers (vandalism, drugs, alcohol, etc.) when she got to Middle School.
Meredith had one year left of elementary school and was invited by her teacher to stay with her in a multiage class of 8, 9 & 10 year olds. As a multiage teacher at the early elementary level at the school, I was delighted to see this non-graded option continue at the upper elementary level. As parents, we were optimistic that this classroom structure would help Meredith develop more self esteem and improve her responsibility and social skills. It was like magic! We began to notice at home that Meredith was more cooperative and open to talking with us. She argued less with her sister. Her teacher reported that she was more ‘social’ in class, always in the midst of a group of friends. In the spring, she sang a solo at Music Showcase in front of about 500 students and their families!
Meredith went to Middle School the following year. She had a very positive attitude and joined everything that was going – bands, choir, drama, track and field. Her teachers said she had a great attitude and got along well with her peers. Her marks were at the top of the class and she has continued to excel this year.
Now, of course, I am wishing that Multiage classes were offered through Middle School. I know that there is a lot of resistance to a non-graded philosophy – particularly at the higher grade level. But I am also convinced that if enough teachers , administrators and parents took the time to learn about it, they would be grateful for an alternative structure to ‘grades’, that is already outdated.
When I talk to groups about “Multiage”, I often ask them to jot down three words: academic, social/emotional, and employment. Then I ask them to arrange them in priority order according to what they feel is the most important reason for sending their children to school. When I talk about the research findings, no one can deny that their children would have a better education in multiage classes. When compared to children in single age classes, children in multiage classes are superior in independence, dependability, confidence, responsibility, co-operation, interaction skills, social skills, study habits and attitudes toward school. (Aren’t these the traits that current employers are looking for?) Researchers also found that children in multiage classes do as well academically, if not better, than children learning in single age classes. No matter what reason is placed in number one position, it would appear that multiage can provide a positive learning environment.
As for Meredith, she is now 13. She has the choice of two choir camps this summer on the same site – Junior Choir Camp (ages 8 – 13) and Youth Choir Camp (13 – 18). Without any hesitation, she chose to return to Junior Choir Camp, and I’m sure “Old Doll” will be going too!
Note: 2004 Old Doll continues to give Meredith joy at University!
Marion Leier was a multiage classroom teacher at Port Williams Elementary, Annapolis Valley Regional School Board until she retired in 2005