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Multiage Classrooms Could Be Poised for a Comeback Across the Country

A small, but growing trend around the country is starting to unfold with educators moving towards the multiage classroom approach.

If you look at photos of school classrooms from the early 20th century, or are lucky enough to have a relative still alive who attended school during that time period, chances are their classroom was made up of children of different ages. By the mid-20th century, the multiage classroom had mostly been phased out of schools, with students being separated into classrooms based on their age. Aside from Montessori schools, the multiage classroom was a rarity in much of the 20th century and early 2000s.

The No Child Left Behind era with its grade-level standardized tests hindered the development of multiage classrooms and made any attempt at bringing them back incredibly challenging for schools.

They’re slowly beginning to gain popularity in some school districts with advocates championing the approach as a learning environment that better mirrors other social aspects of life. “To me, this is a more natural way to learn,” Virginia elementary school teacher Michael Thornton said.

Children spend time with kids of various ages in everything from sports teams to music ensembles and Boy Scouts, leading some educators to the belief that separating them into rigid age groups in the classroom is unnecessary. “I'm always surprised when people ask, ‘Why teach 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade in one classroom?’ I can't think of a good reason not to,” writes Paula Carter in Educational Leadership.

Supporters of the multiage classroom approach to teaching point to the strength of a classroom made up of different age groups as creating a family classroom dynamic. Older students bring new students into the fold and act as behavioral models and peer mentors. Much the way younger siblings will challenge their older siblings with questions, older students are given the chance to strengthen their intellectual maturity. Children can play to their skills with younger more precocious students being intellectually challenged and older students who might be struggling having more time to master the material.

Multiage classrooms tend to usually be a blend of children from three different grade levels. For example, an algebra class might be a mixture of a few advanced eighth graders learning with ninth graders and a few struggling tenth graders.

This chance for struggling students to have a little more catch up time can be crucial psychological boost to their confidence. For children who may have lapses in their education or live in households where English is not the primary language, a multiage classroom can make all the difference.

“If ninth grade ends and you are only three-quarters of the way toward mastering the material in a traditional school you will be left back, but here you stay with your class and have time in the second year to catch up,” Nathan Larsen, an assistant principal in the Bronx, New York told The Atlantic.

Perhaps one of the strongest takeaways for students in multiage classrooms are the relationships they develop with the other students. Students hold onto the bonds that they make with older and younger students and remember the students they taught or learned from. “Building a relationship with older students helps you know what to expect, and they give an example of how to stay on track,” said 15-year-old Frank Williams. “If there were any situations, I had 10th-graders right there to show me how to maneuver through them. My maturity level skyrocketed.”


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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