Multiage Education Is Back – Are You Kidding Me?

No, actually I am not kidding! Multiage education was never lost, abandoned, or sent packing. It did lose a lot of its charm when Horace Mann visited European schools in the 1840's and saw the efficiency and economic benefits of graded education. Multiage classrooms were relegated to rural areas, where because of a lack of population, whole classrooms of students the same age were not possible. Schools were forced to group students of mixed ages together or have no school at all.

As our country grew, graded classrooms where students are grouped in classes by their age became the norm. It became the standard without any philosophical basis or research into its effectiveness. 

My thought is that norm doesn't always mean right or best. For example, the rule for sheep is to group together and follow each other regardless of the cliff just ahead.  Norm is for people to walk right by with invisible blinders on as someone lies on the sidewalk needing help or is being assaulted. Norm is for some folks to assume that anyone who takes more time to learn something is less capable, lacking intelligence and, perhaps, something is wrong with them.

Multiage education means that students of mixed ages and abilities are grouped together for either a two or three-year period and generally with the same teacher or team of teachers. Learning is continuous, and it is expected that students have differing learning styles, rates of learning, needs, abilities and talents. Students who are not under artificial time constraints are given a chance to master content and skills before moving to more challenging material. Those who seem to grasp some particular skill or concept quickly can move forward when they successfully demonstrate their abilities.

Students moving slowly in one area might well be the faster learner in a different subject or skill. Everyone has gifts, strengths, and needs and they can be looked at in numerous ways. For example, it takes me longer to learn math concepts, but history stories I remember, though not the name of every person, place, or thing. I’ve taught students who love science but not the “scientific method.” I would let them play with the bugs, use microscopes, give oral reports, and make things blow up. (Kidding about that last part). They demonstrated their acquired knowledge of science by out talking everyone on the subject. 

Some students are physical specimens to behold…but show little interest in playing competitive sports. They prefer to watch and then write about it in their journals.   Many students have broad interests and want to participate, but they are not good enough to be picked first for recess games. Some are naturally shy and reserved around people, but then go on and major in Theatre in college – go figure. The point is that within each child there are academic areas where they excel and some in which they stumble. Socially and emotionally kids of the same age are all over the spectrum and age is not always the determining factor. Content and concepts are often grasped quickly by a majority of students in a particular age-grouped class, but others take more time to learn the same material. This is a regular occurrence in all classrooms and at all ages. Many, if not most, catch up when given the time needed; teaching and learning in the manner they learn best, a nurturing learning environment, and appropriate assessment.

If this is true, why do we group them all together by their age and expect them to all do the same curriculum at the same time and in the same way? It’s food for thought.

Multiage education is based on a philosophical belief and is chosen as a way to group students and a way to teach them. Learning is continuous and if skills and content are not mastered in a particular timeframe, or as others expect you to, don’t worry you’ll be back next year with the same teacher and most of your classmates and can pick up where you left off. It also reduces teacher stress because they know students will be back next year and they will more time. The oldest students will move on, and a new group of younger ones will enter.

I personally like the three-year family grouping the best. In this classroom, you have one year as the youngest, one year in the middle and one year as the oldest and wisest. This grouping allows for modeling to occur. Older students are being taught something, and younger ones look on and LEARN without direct instruction. When it is their turn to learn the same content they often find it easier and quicker to learn. How did that happen?

Think about families with more than one child. Usually, the second or third one walks and talks earlier than the first, and seems to “just know things” without being taught by mom and dad. I believe it is because they had models and this either motivated them to do whatever their older sibling was doing, or it made the learning just that much easier when it was time for them to learn it.

There is much more to multiage education than grouping differing ages together. In my next blog, I will write about my experiences with self-directed learning, learning styles, multiple intelligence, project-based learning, individualized education, teach teaching, peer-tutoring, and much more.



Why Multiage Education?

A fellow educator and former farm boy, someone I respect as a teacher, principal, and educational consultant, once asked me why I seemed to have a “burr under my saddle” whenever the topic of Multiage Education came up.  Ignoring his not-so-veiled reference that I was a constant and nagging irritation to anyone trying to have a scientifically researched based discussion on educational pedagogy, I offered an explanation.

“John,” I said. “Do you believe there’s more than one way to skin a cat?”

I didn’t wait for his answer because any farm boy knows there are multiple ways to skin almost anything.

I continued, “When I was about four years of age, my family was hired as farm laborers in central California. We lived in a tent near the orchards or farms where we worked. We’d all go out to the field in the morning, early, and get off work about noon or one o’clock at the latest because of the heat. The farmers relied on having enough people to pick the crops and timing the harvest was always something they worried about.  So when it was time, they hired the entire family: including the mom, dad, and any older children.  Once we finished for the day, the children of migrant and local farm workers had to go to school in large tents that had been set up by the local school district. There would be a tent for the younger children and one for the older ones. 

Now my mom, wanting a break for herself, would take me down to the tent with the younger children and leave me there with all the elementary-aged kids.  The teacher asked her how old I was and mom lied and told her I was six, just a bit small for my age.  In the class were kids between the ages of six and eleven.  I couldn’t do any of the work, and I didn’t know how to read or write.  I did know how to keep my mouth shut and listen well.  I paid attention, and some of the older kids were always coming up to me and asking if I needed some help. 

I loved going to the tent every day and hated the weekends.  The teacher knew how to make every one of us feel special and good about our progress – even me.  I couldn’t read at first but I discovered I could tell a good story, and the teacher always pointed out that I was coming along just fine.”

I looked over at my colleague and saw that I still had his attention.  Must be the storytelling skills I’d picked up early on.

“John, that was my introduction to multiage education, and it went on for six of the next seven years.  I had one break when I entered the fourth grade, and we moved out of a tent and into a real house and attended a regular school.  Everyone was ten years old, just like me. That was my introduction to a classroom group by single ages, and it seemed to work for most of the kids in the class. 

The things that bothered me, John, were that I had to wait for a test to find out if I did well or not.  Nobody offered to help me with things I didn’t know how to do. I wasn’t allowed to help anyone, either.  It was ‘cheating’ the teacher and other kids said.  John, we never got to choose anything we wanted to do.  We had to do what the teacher wanted to do, read what she wanted us to read, and then do lots of worksheets.  John, I was in the middle of Old Yeller and wanted to finish it.  Teacher said I could read it when I get to sixth grade. Sixth grade? Are you kidding me?

John, you know what?  When we moved back to California, we went to work the same farm as before.  My former teacher, Mrs. Larosa, was still there and it was like I had never left.  Some of the kids were the same, and some were different, but I felt at home.

Over the years I gave a lot of thought to multiage education and why it was the perfect way to educate me and many others.  Think about this, John:  Child Centered – we all were treated as if we had gifts and needs; Self-Directed Learning – we learned to take charge of our learning, make decisions, plan our day, assess our own work; Collaborative – we worked in all sorts of situations, sometimes on our own, in teams, or with another person.  We asked for help, and it was given freely, and I learned to help others; Developmental – we all worked to our ability and at our own pace; Constructivist – the teacher always said I was smart, had talent, and that I learned in my own special way.  Her job, she said, was to clear a path for me reach my potential. 

John, I could go on and on about multiage education and the possibilities it presents for students of all ages. I believe that the best environment is one in which children are safe, with the opportunity to make appropriate choices, pursue meaningful content, work collaboratively and have adequate time to complete their work in a friendly, threat-free atmosphere. I like democratic classrooms that give students experience in decision-making and being a part of an active community.  These are critical skills and abilities needed in life.

So, John, long story short, yes I do have a ‘burr under my saddle,’ and I appreciate you pointing it out.”

Where Have All The Nongraded Schools and Classrooms Gone?

(Feel free to sing this to the tune of Where Have All The Flowers Gone

By Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Give special emphasis to the line

"Oh, When Will They Ever Learn")

Nongraded schools have been around a long time, even before the graded school and classroom was introduced in the 1840's by Horace Mann, secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Education. 

I've put his name here because I need someone to blame for our educational shortcomings.  I know it's simplistic thinking on my part. 

Mann looked to Europe for guidance and examples of highly functioning school systems that lead to an educated and productive workforce.  Thus, an assembly line model where children of the same age are assigned to a grade level and learn specific curriculum designed for that grade was introduced.  Teacher training schools began to focus on preparing teachers to teach primary, intermediate, or junior high or high schools.  Teachers began to specialize in a particular age (grade) group and sometimes on a particular subject.

On the other hand, Nongraded education is the practice of placing, grouping and teaching students of varying grades, ages, skills, needs, and gifts in the same classroom.  The individual child becomes the focus and drives program, curriculum, and the teaching that occurs.  Teachers, naturally, have a different philosophy about teaching and learning and certainly need a broader range of skills and knowledge.  They particularly need a deep understanding of human growth and development, learning/teaching styles, and how learning occurs.  They must be able to group students according to skills, interests, and knowledge rather than age, and still address social and emotional differences between each student.  They do all this while they maintain an eye on helping each student become a self-directed, autonomous learner.  Once they reach this level, and it can and does occur in elementary school, the teacher can become more of a guide-on-the-side, so-to-speak, and guide rather than be in charge of everything a student learns.

Another premise of a nongraded program is that learning is continuous and often does not occur in the formally designed time frames we find in graded classrooms.  Each student is different and learns at different rates and in different ways.  Here a teacher's knowledge of human growth and development, learning styles, and multiple intelligences, is vitally important.

Think about how a child learns to talk and walk.  Nobody sets out a plan and time frame to teach their children to talk and walk.  They do it when they are ready.  They babble and cry and one day say "dada."  Sorry Mom!  They are carried around until they crawl around.  One day they just get up and stumble around taking those first steps.  So, I ask, why can't reading and math and a ton of other things come when kids are ready for them? 

I believe in choice.  Parents, children, and even teachers should have a choice in the kind of schools and programs available to them.  Every state and school district should have diversity among their offerings because, well, it's their right and they pay for it.  Graded, Nongraded, and the new kid on the block, Charter Schools (which can be graded or nongraded,) all have their place.

So, if I am correct in my thinking, where have all the nongraded, multiage and continuous progress schools gone?  They once were a big part of our educational system, especially from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-twentieth century. Today, the number of schools in the United States is shrinking.  In Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands, Germany, Finland, and Canada the concept is growing and, in many cases, has become the norm.  These are countries that outscore us in Math, Science, and Reading.

One would think that academic and social research studies do not support nongraded programs.  However, research studies (J. Goodlad, R. Anderson, B. Pavan), as a whole do support nongraded education as a viable alternative to graded education.  Again, generally, research studies show that academically, students in nongraded, multiage programs do as well, if not better than students in graded classrooms.  This means that we can stop worrying that our children will be harmed in nongraded programs with well-trained teachers and good leadership.  And, as frosting on the cake, socially the nongraded programs lead to improved student attitudes toward school, peers, and schoolwork, along with fewer discipline issues and better attendance. 

So, where have all the nongraded schools gone?  I believe it is a mult-faceted problem with many issues.  Here are some:

  • No Child Left Behind requirements and testing
  • No extensive training programs for teachers and administrators in university programs featuring nongraded and multiaged theory and practice
  • No general support from school systems for innovation and diversity in program offerings
  • It is harder to teach multiple ages and there are not a lot of support systems in place
  • Sometimes the classroom environment needs changing and there is little money for it
  • Teachers need a variety of curriculum and school districts usually go for a set adoption of texts for each grade level, leaving little funds for schools that need a variety of materials and use a complex variety of approaches
  • We need better research and more long-term studies.

* * *

In summary, nongraded schools are still in use across the United States and in other countries, but frankly, not always well designed, implemented, supported and appreciated as good for kids.  Instead of being treated and utilized as a viable and researched based pedagogy for any school and grouping of students, it is relegated to small rural schools, multiage programs, or, gasp, as an alternative for failing schools and programs: a program born of desperation.  This is, of course, just my opinion.

* * *

Note:  Joe Rice, is a 26-year veteran teacher, reading specialist, preschool through 8th school principal in public education, and has an additional 17 years as head of a preschool through 12th private independent school.  During these years, he founded and led a magnet school dedicated to nongraded and multiage education in Washington State and led a progressive multi-dimensional school in Hawaii


The world we live in has changed so much in the past century. The fact is that only a few of the very wise and daring were able to foresee the major changes in war, politics, communication and travel.  Who among us was able to predict the breakup of the Soviet Union, the growth of religious fundamentalism, the creation and growth of the Internet, ordinary people buying a seat on a rocket into space, or the tragedy of 9/11?  Were any of these events predicted or expected in the manner in which they occurred?  Probably not.  Will there be major events in the 21st century that defy our predictive powers today?  Will they come in biology, space travel, nanotechnology, robots, global wars, or in the environment?  How about a new ice age or global warming?

If one were to ask middle and high school students to predict the future, what would they say?  If they are like most adults, they will find themselves expecting events similar or minor extensions to what they already know.  They must learn to “expect the unexpected” or they will never be prepared for the unexpected challenges of life. Students today cannot be afraid to think outside of the box or to make mistakes. I remember reading a quote that said, “ It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all.” I am saying that students need to think the improbable, the unlikely, and the impossible. 

We all want our children to grow up and be successful in all that they do.  But there will be times when they are caught off guard.  The answer lies in flexibility and creativity.  They must act in a way to give themselves the most options as events unfold and the ability to react to unexpected results.  I have often heard that people who reap the greatest rewards in life are those who were prepared for the unexpected and quickly able to take advantage of these opportunities. I believe that you must use your mind and imagination when thinking about the future.  To prepare yourself for that future – expect the unexpected.

In my experience, the most creative thinkers are found in preschool through third grade.  These children have the ability to dream the impossible and create the unimaginable. They are not hindered by thoughts of what should be or that there is a right way and right answer to every question.  All things are possible to them. Parents and educators must find a way to keep imagination alive and creativity flowing in all our children regardless of their age and grade level.









Zorba The Greek

Where does one get inspiration that helps guide your career as an educator?  Depending on the person it could come from almost any person, place or thing. The quote below is from the novel Zorba The Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. It got me thinking.

     “I remember one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree, just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out.  I waited awhile, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient.  I bent over and breathed on it to warm it.  I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life.  The case opened, the butterfly started slowly crawling out and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled;  the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them.  Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath.  In vain.

     It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun.  Now it was too late.  My breath had forced the butterfly to appear, all crumpled, before its time.  It struggled desperately and, in a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.

     That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience.  For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature.  We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.”

Monday Mornings

Yesterday's writer's class at Edmonds Library is a great way to start the week. We begin our meetings with a bit of writing fun…a story starter, usually four to six words to start, 15 minutes to write, and then you read. It is so spontaneous, you never know what we will come up with!

Here's the starter……..

I wanted to tell her…… amazing I thought she was. How beautiful and graceful, assertive, but gentle, all at once. 

     The words just wouldn't come out and I couldn't get up off the bench. So I just stared, perhaps a bit too long because the guy she was with walked over and stood in front of me.

     "Do you have a problem? You keep staring at us," he said. I looked up at his six-foot-six frame that blocked the sun from my eyes. 

     "Ah, no," I stuttered, somewhat proven by his presence. "I was just looking. I've always wanted to find one as magnificent and peautiful. Where did you…" I let my voice trail off as I noticed his hands opening and closing.

     I looked up. "Never mind. I'll be on my way." I said as I got off the park bench and moved away.

     I glanced back as he walked back, bent down and ran his hand across her smooth, golden hair. I was jealous. I thought, Man, that is the most spectacular Golden Retriever I have ever seen. Clearly she's a show dog.



It's finally done...

Everyone is getting ready for fall in the Pacific Northwest!

Everyone is getting ready for fall in the Pacific Northwest!

Fall is here and I can finally say my memoir is done. Well, sort of. I still have to send it to the publishers and agents, but it has gone through numerous edits and I think it's ready to go. I may even decide to self-publish. We'll see how it goes. My wife made a temporary cover and designed my website too.

So, there's no excuse. I'm ready to blog!!!