Multiage Classrooms: Innovation Revisited

25Apr06

Critical Issues in Education

Maggie Stehr’s article Carson going to multiage classrooms allows us to revisit the idea of multiage classrooms in the educational setting todayMultiage classrooms date back to the “one-room schoolhouses” that served rural America from the mid-17th century. At the time, because of significantly lower enrollment levels, they were very well suited for the educational needs of the participants. As the population expanded, so too did schools, leading to an easier division of grades based on a student’s age. This allowed for at lease two significant things: (1) curriculum could be standardized, and (2) teachers could specialize according to a single age group. One flaw with this argument, however, is that homogeneity within groups is always difficult to achieve; even within a group where students are only one year apart, they will already be at different levels of proficiency (Pardini, 2005).. The idea of multiage classrooms brings many different images to the mind for different individuals and different groups of people. Although brief, Stehr’s article raises some of the conflicting views associated with this old, yet controversial, educational reform practice. While decisions regarding multiage classrooms affect everyone within a school district, the group focused on in Stehr’s article—the group offering the most resistance to the reform—is the parent group at Roosevelt Public Elementary School. Many parents, quite rightfully, question whether using a multiage classroom approach will result in lowered educational opportunities for their children, especially if their children are older. Parents also question whether teachers will be able to adequately address educational standards—a factor increasingly important when considering the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act.

While parents in Carson are justified in their doubts, I urge them to carefully consider the reasoning behind multiage classrooms. A well-designed multiage program can have many advantages compared to the traditional classroom model. Multiage classrooms, for example, are often described as environments where one can observe a stronger sense of community or even “family.” In the ideal multiage classroom, younger or less advanced students are assisted by their older or more advanced classmates; this allows the younger or less advanced students to get more help and the older or more advanced students to practice leadership. It also effectively promotes learning at an individualized pace. With the pride in the community formed, students are more likely to care for each other thus leading to fewer disciplinary problems (Pardini, 2005). Multiage classrooms also lead to a richer, more complex range of thought and a more advanced level of social development for participating students; one can often observe much higher levels of self-regulation in multiage classrooms than in traditional classrooms (Gerard, 2005).

That said, implementation of multiage classrooms is no simple task. It is not a restructuring initiative that should be approached trivially—especially considering the increased levels of accountability and testing requirements faced by schools. As Suzanne R. Mellinger, an elementary school principle wrote:

The multiage program requires an enormous amount of long-range planning and detailed daily preparations by teachers…. It takes incredibly talented and dedicated teachers to pull off the multiage program while still meeting the state’s testing requirements. (¶ 20)

In fact, considering the challenges, multiage classrooms may be an initiative which is gradually phased-in to an existing classroom model, as is the proposed method in Carson. Parents of students attending Carson’s Roosevelt Public Elementary School should be comforted that students will not be abruptly placed into a dynamically different learning environment but will only do so in successive stages. Additionally, while the school will offer multiage classrooms for fifth- and sixth-grade students, they also plan to continue to offer separated classes for those grades (Stehr, 2005).

Parents are not alone in their reluctance to experiment with multiage classrooms. While the teachers at Carson’s Roosevelt Public Elementary School are very supportive and enthusiastic to begin the program, many teachers generally have questions or concerns about multiage education. These questions usually arise because of the traditional “lesson-plan” based instructional model which appears to be at the opposite end of the education spectrum from the individualized or exploratory education that can occur in a multiage classroomA principal at an elementary school, Stephen D. Palmer (2005), encountered much reluctance from teachers when trying to implement a multiage program. He quoted one teacher as saying, “It’s like we are in a battle zone…. The multiage teachers are free to do whatever. It’s amazing what they can do and what we are not allowed to do.”. Questions arise, for example in a third- and fourth-grade multiage classroom, about how well a third-grade student can understand fourth-grade material, or about what a fourth-grader will learn from a third-grade lesson. Traditional classroom teachers may be inclined to ask, “How does one ensure that students will be engaged in a classroom where they either don’t understand the material or have already covered the material? Wouldn’t students be bored or frustrated in such an environment?”

While these questions are well intentioned, they illustrate a narrow understanding of the multiage classroom. An effective multiage classroom will create a much richer learning environment than a traditional classroom. Teachers of multiage classrooms consider their students, not the curriculum. As Sandra Stone of the National Multiage Institute put it, “If you’re a third-grade teacher, you tend to focus on, ‘This is what I teach.’ If you’re a multiage teacher, you focus on ‘These are the children I teach’” (Pardini, 2005). In the multiage classroom, nothing is scripted, and teachers are forced to reconsider the needs of each child in the classroom. This does not mean that education is unstructured but rather that the structure is more flexible and allows the teacher to help each individual student maximize their strengths while battling their weaknesses. With that in mind, and with the educational standards already established and available to teachers, there is no reason that education in the multiage setting cannot both provide a richer more interactive learning environment while still following a curriculum that can lead to improved test scores. In other words, just as it takes great teacher preparation in a traditional classroom for a lesson to be successful, so to does it take great teacher preparation in a multiage classroom to create a successful lesson or activity.

One important consideration for administrators considering the benefits of multiage education is that the rewards are not academic ones. The research of multiage education has shown that while children in multiage classrooms do not suffer academically, they typically do not show any significant academic improvement past the very early grade levels (Gerard, 2005). The personal development and the development of community that goes on in a multiage classroom, however, are equally as important, and in some ways more permanent than the education that is tested and recorded by our current methods of assessment. If teachers can properly be trained in the philosophy and methods surrounding multiage education, and if a program can be gradually incorporated into an existing traditional classroom model, a multiage initiative may be a very worthwhile alternative. This is true at larger schools as well as at smaller schools like Carson’s Roosevelt Public Elementary School, where a declining enrollment was one of the decisive factors for implementing multiage classrooms. I applaud their decision for keeping education innovative.

References

  • Gerard, M. (2005). Bridging the gap: Towards an understanding of young children’s thinking in multiage groups. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 19(3), 243-250.
  • Mellinger, S. R. (2005, March). Our long, winding road to multiage classrooms. School Administrator, 62(3), 24-25.
  • Palmer, S. D. (2005, March). Culture shock: An inside study of multiage programs. School Administrator, 62(3), 26.
  • Partini, P. (2005, March). The slowdown of the multiage classroom. School Administrator, 62(3), 22-23, 27-30.
  • Stehr, M. (2005, August). Carson going to multiage classrooms. Knight Rider Tribune Business News, p. 1.
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