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.