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.”