A Multiage Alternative for Schools
Ken Robinson’s video presentation (posted on Mikode by Kitty Jellinek 09/12/11) describes the underlying need for change in educational systems around the world. The factory model, at the macro level, persists in schools despite many attempts to change school structures.
Many schools have changed at the micro level by introducing multiage grouping in classrooms. Though this has brought about some change in classroom practices, the concept is challenged by the current focus on national testing through NAPLAN. A greater understanding of multiage grouping will go some way to improving classrooms and student achievement.
Following are my thoughts on multiage groupings.
Multiage Groups: Why Do We Need Them?
At the beginning of every school year, almost every child who will turn five years of age in that year, begins their education. Students then continue with a chronologically alike group for a further twelve years. The educational offerings are designed around the needs of the majority of the age cohort for each of those twelve years, irrespective of different individuals’ needs and abilities.
Queensland’s Wiltshire review into curriculum recommended ‘… a move away from the ‘lockstep’ approach based on chronological age to a multi-level approach as a means to early-age prevention and intervention relating experiencing difficulties with literacy and numeracy.’
What is a Multiage Classroom?
Quite simply, a multiage class is one in which the teacher is responsible for students in at least two year levels, with teachers teaching that class group over a period of several years.
In a single year level class, the chronological age range can encompass almost two years. Obviously, a multiage class will extend this range considerably. In a single year level, just the spelling achievement age range of a typical class group will vary by as much as four years.
A multiage class is formed as a deliberate educational strategy and differs considerably in intent from a composite class, which is formed for administrative convenience (usually because there are insufficient student numbers to form single year level classes.)
In a multiage class, the teacher is responsible for students over a longer period of time. Again, this is unlike a composite class, which may be disbanded when the administrative need prompting its formation no longer exists.
A multiage classroom is clearly an organisational system which is based upon a student-centred, developmental philosophy of learning. It has continuity as its underpinning platform, and addresses such social justice issues as inclusivity, behaviour management in a supportive school environment, and many aspects of human relationships education.
What is the Philosophy Behind Multiage Classrooms?
Conventional school organisation involving single year classes has had the student fit the curriculum offered. Multiage classes, on the other hand, demand that teachers focus more on needs-based teaching, thus adapting curriculum to fit the student. This, coupled with a more developmental approach to teaching, ensures that students receive highly relevant instruction based on individual needs, all of the time.
How are Students Taught in a Multiage Class?
A variety of organisational patterns is necessary for effective instruction in multiage classes. Groupings may include ability groups in such areas as language and maths, friendship groups for activities like art, or mixed ability groups where a variety of roles is required.
The type of grouping is determined by the nature of each activity, and can be negotiated by both students and the teacher. A wider repertoire of teaching strategies is also essential in order to fully meet the needs of students.
Specialist teachers, Religious Education personnel and other ‘visitors’ who interact with the class also need to focus on the needs of the class group, rather than an offering which is delivered to a year level. A yearly rotation over two or more years assists in the effective provision of such programs.
Making Teaching More Effective
The intimate knowledge about students’ abilities and needs that a teacher accumulates is not so easily lost in a multiage classroom. This is because the student returns to the same teacher for a second or third year. There are no end-of-year stops, then several weeks (or longer) at the beginning of the year to re-establish classroom learning patterns and behaviours. At least half of the students return to the same classroom each year, with the older students playing an active leadership role to induct new students into classroom routines.
One of the great advantages that multiage classrooms enjoy is the opportunity for students to engage in peer tutoring practices as a natural, and not contrived, learning strategy. Children have a wide range of older, younger, quicker, slower other children with whom to practise their skills and share their learning, and on whom they can lean for support. Their attitudes to learning, and to each other, are quite different.
As stated previously, there is an increased responsibility placed on teachers in multiage classrooms. This extends to ensuring that all students are learning from their instruction for the whole time they are under the teacher’s care. Strategic planning at all levels is important in multiage classrooms, and this requires time and commitment.
Since continuity of programming becomes more of the teacher’s responsibility, there is less need at a school level to prescribe what is taught each year level. There is an increased responsibility, however, to focus on student outcomes, both individually and collectively, at a school level. Such outcomes need to be carefully monitored. When the results of school level monitoring are provided to teachers, their class programs should be adjusted accordingly. There is a need for regular ‘placement reviews’ so that students are not locked into a learning environment where they may not be learning effectively. This is best done at the end of each semester, with the majority of changes occurring at year’s end when other students are also changing from one class to another.
Multiage grouping, as a strategy, was growing in Queensland and the other states, but is now declining due to the pressure placed on schools and teachers to perform well in the nationalised norm-based testing regime.
Advantages of Multiage Classrooms
Multiage classrooms offer advantages in many ways. Teaching to difference (i.e. meeting the individual needs of students) is one great advantage. As there is no fear of repeating a year, students can take a semester, sometimes two, to achieve their potential. There is also greater flexibility with enrolment changes and transient students. In addition, a teacher’s evaluation of a student’s performance is geared towards achievements, not a grade level.
Continuity is another important benefit. Class stability can be maintained over a 400 – 600 day learning period, or longer. There are no end-of-year stops, then several weeks (or longer) to re-establish classroom learning patterns and behaviours. The focus is on learning stages which are developmental, rather than year level stages.
Classroom management also benefits from the multiage set-up. Discipline problems tend to be negated by the caring, sharing atmosphere of the classroom. In the upper primary school, the less desirable effects of the peer group are effectively negated. In the multiage classroom, peer tutoring has more meaning and greater individualisation of learning occurs. There is a greater sharing of planning and resources amongst teachers, and better use of the physical resource offered by double teaching spaces.
Relationships tend to be strengthened by the multiage structure. There is no trauma on the first day back at school. Students and parents know where they are going, and all are welcomed by a familiar face. There is greater opportunity for parent involvement as contact with individual teachers extends over a longer period of time. Children at all levels are more accepting of their classmates, based on mutual admiration, rather than on hierarchies. There is a greater awareness by teachers and parents as to what education really entails, and how to go about it.
Draconian practices such as the national testing adopted throughout the Australian states have effectively eradicated an innovation which was child-centred and needs-based.