Q: What is multi-age?
A: Multi-age classrooms, also referred to as mixed age or mixed grade classrooms, are classrooms where students learn and grow together across more than one grade level. Multi-age classrooms include groups of students that have an age span greater than one year.
Q: Why multi-age?
A: One of our 10 Foundational Principles (#3) is that we respect diversity among children and variation in their development. We believe in a developmental, child-centered approach to engaging children in curriculum and authentic learning experiences. We all develop and learn at different paces. We believe multi-age classroom models honor the whole-child and allow for greater flexibility and differentiation in meeting children’s needs. A multiage classroom provides a safe, nurturing space for children to develop academic skills as well as social-emotional skills. A focus on collaboration, leadership development and a project based curriculum helps prepare children to contribute and thrive in a democratic society. We believe, as educational philosopher John Dewey did, that education should “guide people to use their diverse gifts and talents for productive, interactive lives in order to promote a progressive society that values freedom, individualism, and the overall betterment of society” (Wadlington, 2013, p. 30). Multi-age classrooms more closely model the world we live in and help children experience democracy firsthand.
Q: What does the research say about multi-age learning?
A: Since our objective in school is to educate the whole child, a multi-age setting that capitalizes on social and academic benefits is preferable to a single-grade level that tends to hold a more narrow view of success. The research below highlights these benefits:
Multi-age learning is not just limited to academic skills, but broadly engages each child’s intellect, intelligences, interests, and understandings of morality (DeVries & Zan, 2012; Katz, 2015; Noddings, 2010).
Multi-age offers children the “extraordinary opportunity to cultivate imagination, curiosity, creativity, and innovation” (Stone, 2019).
Student attitudes toward learning, school, self-concept, and personal and social adjustment were higher in the students who had participated in combination and multi-age classes (Veenman, 1996).
Mixed-age play is more creative and more imaginative, as well as more cooperative and less competitive (Gray, 2011).
Younger children or novices benefit from collaborative learning from older children, or experts, who model more sophisticated approaches to learning within authentic contexts such as projects (Kallery & Laupidou, 2016) and older children solidify mastery as they explain their approaches to younger children (Dowling, 2003; Roopnarine & Johnson, 1984).
The broadening of the learning community enriches the learning experiences for all children in mixed-age settings (Doherty, 2012; Gray, 2011, 2013).
Children challenge themselves to continue growing and learning as they have an innate drive to explore and learn (Curtis, 2017) and children see learning as “discovery, exploration, play, excitement, and joy” (Stone, 2004).
Children in multi-age classrooms learn to become autonomous, self-directed learners (Gray, 2014, 2017; Stone, 2004).
Parents of students in multi-age classrooms have noted that it provides a rich resource for children of diverse abilities, cultural backgrounds, and socioeconomic conditions, where they are able to appreciate and learn from one another (Leggett & Newman, 2017; Nieto, 2017).
Q Why do students remain with their teachers for two years?
A: While this is not always possible due to variables such as enrollment, configuration and staffing changes, we hope that the shift to an all multi-age building will allow more of our students to have more two-year experiences. Over the course of two years, teachers have the opportunity to get to know their students on a deep and personal level and adapt the learning to meet their needs. Studies have shown that having a caring, supportive, reliable relationship with a trusted adult is a protective factor for children’s well-being and mental health. In a two-year experience, the teacher is able to respond to each child with respect, supporting students potential (Curtis, 2017).
Q How is it to be determined who is going to be in what class?
A: The placement process at Wickliffe has always been a thoughtful one. All aspects of a child are considered; academic, social-emotional, personality, friendships and connections. Placement teams spend hours looking over class placements with the goal of creating classroom communities that are simultaneously balanced and diverse.
Q: How are the standards and curriculum met for both grade levels in a multi-age classroom?
A: Multi-age education takes a different view of learning--one that focuses on the whole child and that follows a non-linear path. We view this learning path for each child as a unique continuum, one in which “each child, at their own pace is learning to read, write, solve problems, think critically, socialize and grow emotionally, physically, and morally on their own continuum” (Stone, 2019). Our progress reports focus on this continuum. Our job as progressive educators in a multi-age classroom is to facilitate this journey and weave in the standards and curricular resources that can support them along the way. The teacher in a multi-age environment is able to explore deep learning with every child (Abeles, 2016) and the “organizational structure of multi-age supports teachers in providing ‘continuous learning’ for every child” (Mack, 2008; Wasserman, 2007 as cited in Stone, 2019). One way we do this at Wickliffe is through living out Foundational Principle #5, which is that we engage in thematic studies and foster authentic and emergent learning experiences.
As a public progressive school, we believe in being transparent about the challenges and tension that comes along with balancing our philosophical approach to learning along with the mandated grade level and priority standards set by the Upper Arlington City School District. For example, there are some program based resources that we are required to use to help teach specific content areas (i.e. math and phonics). These resources have value and we use them to support our students. The time set aside to engage with these resources, however, can feel compartmentalized and this challenges one of our Foundational Principles (#8) regarding use of time and space in a flexible manner. We believe that there is room for a progressive lens in all aspects and resources we use to support children’s journeys, and continue to ask “how might we?” as we engage in thinking around instructional planning and practices.
Q: Will the older and gifted students be challenged in a multiage classroom?
A: Yes. A multiage classroom can be a more challenging environment with greater opportunities for advanced students, including leadership roles. Students exhibit a greater understanding when given the opportunity to teach others. Studies show that when older students teach information and skills to their younger classmates, the academic performance of older students improves dramatically (Veenman 1995). Another researcher found that older-grade children benefit from taking responsibility for younger students, as well as develop an increasingly sophisticated understanding of that responsibility (Naylor 2000). Students in a multi-age classroom get the chance to be the oldest members of a group every two years. Some students in single-grade classes may go through childhood without having many opportunities to be in a leadership role. We also know that older and/or gifted does not always mean socially and emotionally advanced, too. Being a part of a multi-age community empowers students to learn from and with peers who may have strengths in social-emotional even if they are not the same age.
Q: How will intervention be addressed in a multi-age classroom?
A: Multi-age classrooms provide increased opportunities to meet children where they are, which lends itself well in supporting a wide-range of abilities. Through authentic assessment, teachers know where children are in their learning and where they are going (Renwick, 2017; Stone, 1995, 2004). Our program will continue to utilize those assessments within the framework of a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) that supports students through classroom-based differentiation and interventions. MTSS also focuses on collaboration and direct intervention with our support staff of Reading Specialists and Intervention Specialists.
Q: Do other schools in the district employ multi-age teaching?
A: Yes, Barrington has a multi-age class in their progressive program. The other elementary schools in the district are all single grade levels.
Across the country, there are both public and independent schools that use multi-age teaching. Many of these schools are progressive, but some are not. Montessori is another approach that employs multi-age teaching. We continue to build relationships and connections with some of these schools through the National Progressive Education Network.
Q: Is this configuration of the multi-age models permanent?
A: Our work at Wickliffe is always evolving and we will continue to reflect and evaluate the efficacy of our configurations going forward. We consider this continued examination to be best practice and believe it ensures that we are responding to the needs of our community.