Frequently Asked Questions
This page is devoted to answering some of the more commonly asked questions about multiage education. If you have a question that has not been included here, please email me. If it is a question that would be of interest to others viewing this site, it may be added to the list.
- How is a multiage class different than a multi-grade or split class?
- How can I tell if my child’s class is a split class or a multiage class?
- Should multiage classes have fewer students than single grade classes?
- Will the oldest age group in the multiage class get behind their peers in a single grade class?
- Will the high achieving (and gifted) older student receive enough challenge in a multiage class?
- Will some of the younger children be intimidated by their older classmates?
- Isn’t it better for students to have a different teacher each year?
- What happens if the student and teacher do not get along?
- What if a student needs a more structured learning environment?
- How will children be prepared for a competitive world?
- Will multiage students end up with gaps in the curriculum?
- Will the children be doing work at other grade levels or just their own?
- What are some of the difficulties of implementing multiage education?
- Can/should a classroom teacher initiate a multiage classroom?
- What are the benefits of multiage education?
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
1. How is a multiage class different than a multi-grade or split class?
The differences between these two types of classes have to do with the pedagogical approach of the teacher. In a multiage class, the students are taught and assessed according to developmental stages, rather than age or grade designation. A split class maintains distinctive graded groups within the class where students are expected to cover their grade-level curriculum. Teachers in a split class attempt to juggle multiple curriculum requirements in one year; whereas a multiage teacher develops integrated, in-depth, multi-disciplinary class project over two or three years. Multiage students remain with the same teacher for more than a year. Each year, they experience a new class position as they transition from a ‘novice’ to a ‘mentor’. Students in a split class usually move on to a new teacher each year. For a more thorough explanation, read the following article.
Multiage and Multi-Grade: Similarities and Differences
by Dennis M Mulcahy, PhD
2. How can I tell if my child’s class is a split class or a multiage class?
This question would be easier to answer if mixed-age classes clearly represented “either one or the other”. However, many teachers of mixed-age classes set-up and manage their classrooms with aspects of both ideologies. Learning environments that are more similar to an authentic multiage class depends on the teacher’s knowledge and experience with a developmental approach to learning, and the degree of support for multiage education within the school community.
3. Should multiage classes have fewer students than single grade classes?
Learner-centered instruction, as in multiage classes, requires a higher demand of teacher time than in classes where direct, whole-class instruction is prevalent. So when comparing to a traditional style of single grade class, where the teacher is curriculum-centered, the answer to this question is ‘yes’. However, comparing the multiage class to a single grade class, where the instruction is more learner-centered, than the answer to this question would be ‘no’. It makes sense that the higher the number of students there are in a class, the more difficult it is to offer personalized guidance.
4. Will the oldest age group in the multiage class get behind their peers in a single grade class?
Multiage teachers focus instruction on students’ learning needs rather than on grade-level curriculum. The teacher’s attention is not divided between the age groups (as in some multi-grade classes). Therefore, students have the advantage of continuous learning, and in some cases will be ahead of their peers in a single grade class.
5. Will the high achieving (and gifted) older student receive enough challenge in a multiage class?
The learning environment of a multiage class is ideal for high achieving students. Instruction is customized to student’s stages of learning, rather than being confined to a grade-level set of outcomes. Curriculum is presented through in-depth topics, allowing students to explore specific aspects that interest them. Students with independent work habits are given some freedom to develop individual and group projects during class time. Older children are given ample opportunity for leadership roles.
6. Will some of the younger children be intimidated by their older classmates?
One of the interesting observations made by staff at Port Williams Elementary is that the young children in multiage classes did not fear their older classmates. When the children had the opportunity to get to know older children in the safe environment of their classroom, they developed more open, trusting interaction with them. The older children often took on a role of ‘protector’ and mentor.
7. Isn’t it better for students to have a different teacher each year?
The benefits of continuing with the same teacher a second or third year outweigh the advantages of changing teachers each year. The better a teacher knows a student, the easier it is for the teacher to provide appropriate instruction. Students can continue a second year using the same routines and expectations established with their same teacher. It is less stressful for the teacher, student and parent to work together when they have had the opportunity to get to know each other for longer than one year.
The following verse by Sig Boloz conveys the same perspective:
All educators have had at least one experience of starting a career in a new school. We have had the experience of not knowing exactly what to expect, of not understanding the rules-- written or unwritten— and of not recognizing whom to trust and whom to avoid. There is little strength in starting over when it is not your choice. There is little effectiveness in bridging from the obscure to the unknown. Few principals would choose to face each and every year with an entirely new staff. Few teachers would wish to begin each and every year in a new classroom, in a new school, with unknown materials and unclear procedures. Why, then, do we not question the effectiveness of asking most students to face each and every year with a new teacher?
© Sigmund A. Boloz
8. What happens if the student and teacher do not get along?
In the case of larger schools, where there are class options for age groups of students, it is possible for students to transfer to another class, rather than remain with the same teacher for a second year. However, this decision would not be made until considerable effort was made to reconcile the differences. There may be no choice of other class placements in small schools. The ideal goal is that the student, teacher and parent develop a workable relationship based on mutual respect and integrity.
9. What if a student needs a more structured learning environment?
Structure is an interesting concept based on one’s perspective. Multiage is highly structured because in order to orchestrate small group instruction and independent projects, there has to be a set of negotiated rules and routines worked out between the teacher and students. I find that ‘structure’ is teacher specific. Some teachers can manage more freedom and flexibility than others. It doesn’t have to do with multiage or single-age classes necessarily. There are teachers of single-age classes that offer more movement than the traditional model of classroom; and there are multiage teachers that limit the amount of movement and noise within their class.
10. How will children be prepared for a competitive world?
Being prepared for competition has to do with a person’s self-efficacy. When children believe that they are competent, they are better equipped to face competition. In a nurturing learning environment such as multiage, competition is not imposed; but is offered as challenges for students to choose (when they feel ready). Through experiences of hard work and successful challenges, children can develop a positive perception about their ability to reach a goal.
11. Will multiage students end up with gaps in the curriculum?
When student learning is being monitored by one teacher over a number of years, it is less likely that they will end up with gaps in their conceptual and skill development. Content topics in curriculum guides are addressed over a span of years included in the multiage grouping. Over this span of years, students in multiage classes will cover the same topics as their peers in single grades.
12. Will the children be doing work at other grade levels or just their own?
Multiage teachers constantly monitor the instructional needs of the students. The intention of the teacher is to engage students in activities so that they will experience success with an appropriate level of challenge. Sometimes, this takes the form of open-ended activities, which can be explored in different levels of depth, quality, and complexity. On the outside, this may appear that all the students are “doing the same work”. Sometimes, the teacher pulls together a small group of students of similar achievement level for explicit instruction in a specific area regardless of their age. Sometimes the students are working independently, making choices from a menu that clearly indicates level of difficulty.
13. What are some of the difficulties of implementing multiage education?
The biggest challenge to multiage implementation is the misunderstanding about ‘what it is and is not’. Not all teachers and administrators have had an opportunity or reason to learn about multiage education and neither have most people in the parent community. For many, when you talk about multiage, they are picturing split class in their minds.
For more than a century, most schools in North America have used a structure of same-age grades. This has led to an assumption that children of particular ages should be learning specific things at the same rate and in the same way. If not, they are labeled different than the norm.
Some schools rush implementation because of administrative expediency. Situations such as a shortage in teachers or a shift in demographics, may force a school to combine grades. Learning about this change a few weeks or months prior to implementation hardly gives enough time for teachers and parents to prepare for acceptance and understanding of a multiage approach.
Setting up and managing a multiage class requires extra work initially for the teacher. It is crucial that the teacher be willing to explore foundational learning theory that supports multiage education in order to develop compatible ideology and pedagogy. The teacher will need to re-configure the curriculum into manageable class topics in order to be accountable to the regional school system. Both of these pursuits take substantial effort and time and ideally would have at least a year before implementation takes place. Unfortunately, teachers are not always given a choice in taking a multiage class. All too often, it is the inexperienced teacher who ends up with the mixed-age class, and can be overwhelmed by learning basic teaching strategies as well as planning an extensive curriculum.
The increased pressure of accountability and standardized testing makes many teachers reluctant to consider a way of teaching other than “covering the curriculum”. Ideally, a school community could take the pressure off teachers by supporting alternative curriculum delivery, focusing on their child’s learning progress (rather than standardized scores), and appreciating the benefits of the multiage program. Parents and educators could engage in discussions that revolve around the goals they want in education for the children, and whether multiage education can achieve these goals.
14 Can/should a classroom teacher initiate a multiage classroom?
At the very least, the decision to create one or more multiage classrooms must be a school based decision with the informed support and approval of the district office. Implementation should only take place after considerable study and preparation by all those who will be involved including parents. The literature generally suggests a lead up period of two years.
However, teachers who find themselves in an enforced combined classroom due to a decline in enrolment (traditionally referred to as a multi-grade classroom) can begin the process of moving in the direction of multiage by adopting some multiage approaches where and when feasible.
15. What are the benefits of multiage education?
The benefits resulting from a multiage structure impact on how a teacher will respond to the class; how a student relates to classmates and the teacher, how a student views himself as a learner and community member, and ultimately, how a student achieves their goals.
Summary of benefits of multiage
Benefits for students
- Positive, nurturing environment
- Peer support, mentoring
- Opportunities for leadership
- Individual pace for learning
- Small group skill instruction
- Longer time with teacher
- Increased self-esteem, confidence
Benefits for parents
- Stronger relationship with teacher
- More opportunities to take an active role in child’s education
- Child is more positive about school
- Child is given appropriate support/challenge depending on their individual achievement level
- Child learns to be pro-social, independent and responsible
- Child learns to self initiate
Benefits for educators
- Stronger relationship with students and parents
- Better able to address individual student needs
- Longer time to monitor students to recognize effectiveness of teaching
- More stimulating, creative work environment
- More job satisfaction
- - “pushes” teacher to use differentiated instruction and to perform at a high level of teaching
- - fewer discipline problems in class
allows staff more options for placement of high maintenance students and/or difficult combinations of students