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Multiage Education Is... 

Multiage Education Is Not... 

Advantages of Multiage Education

Disadvantages of Multiage Education

Practices Associated With Multiage Education

Obstacles to Multiage Education


Works Cited


When I was six years old I went to work with my mom for the day. She was a teacher, and I spent the day in her classroom. Since then, I have wanted to be a teacher. A few years ago, my mom began researching multiage education. The topic interested me, so I paid close attention. Since my mom and three other teachers started a multiage team two years ago, I have learned a considerable amount of information on the subject. The more I read about the subject, the more I wanted to know. I discovered there was a lot of information available on the topic, but it was not easy to find. Last summer I spent four days attending workshops at a national conference on multiage practices.

As I examined the philosophies and premises of multiage education, I became aware of quite a bit of confusion about the term and its meaning. Every teacher has their own conception of what multiage education is and each is unique. I decided to make it the topic of my Honors Project to help alleviate some of that confusion.

This thesis is intended to serve several purposes. First, I would like it to be a resource for teachers and administrators. I think multiage education is a very sound educational practice. I believe the term has negative connotations because many teachers and administrators try to implement multiage classrooms without sufficient research or planning. Educators are often criticized for jumping on one bandwagon after another without scrutinizing new programs before trying them. It is better to research multiage education before trying it than making a quick decision and experiencing unsatisfactory results. I also hope parents read this thesis because I think information will assuage many of their concerns about multiage classrooms. Many parents do not want their children to be the guinea pigs of the newest fad. Parents who are informed about educational programs can make better decisions about what is best for their children. Finally, I wanted to create a document which provided an overview of the topic and which could be readily understood by people outside of the field of education.

After establishing these goals, I determined they could not be realized if I completed a traditional thesis which remained on the shelves in the university library. I decided I wanted to publish it on the Internet so it would be readily accessible to millions of people. I also began asking teachers and parents what types of information would be useful to them, so my website could included more than just my thesis. The most common request was for lists of books and websites, so I have included those. A request I found interesting was the desire to talk to people who are teaching in multiage programs. To respond to that, I compiled a list of teachers willing to share their experiences and included that on the website as well. I would like to thank Dr. Katherine Wiesendanger, my thesis committee chair, as well as committee members Dr. Sharon Morrison and Dr. James Curl for all of their help. Also, I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Paul Strong, chair of the Honors Program. My mom deserves a special thank you for hours of editing and proofreading. 

This thesis begins by examining the background of multiage classrooms. It explains how and why the graded system began and the series of alternatives which have been explored. Programs which are often confused with multiage classrooms are clearly defined and the differences illuminated. This thesis also explores advantages and disadvantages of multiage education. I have tried to include affects on teachers, students, and parents. Finally, I have discussed some of the obstacles to the implementation of multiage classrooms.

I believe the effects of multiage education are overwhelmingly positive. Students who learn in multiage classrooms have more positive attitudes toward school and better social skills than children in traditional graded systems. Many of the criticisms of multiage education are based on misconceptions, or can easily be avoided with proper planning.

Multiage classrooms are not easy to implement. They require a lot of prior planning and research. Many teachers are reluctant to abandon their current teaching style to try something different. As a country, we need to set priorities for our children's learning and determine the best way to achieve those priorities. If we are trying to achieve a more collaborative society where people help each other learn, multiage classrooms may be a step in the right direction.

Multiage education is not a impulsive innovation. It has existed in different forms since the advent of the education system in the United States. Both students and teachers benefit from experiences in multiage classrooms and many of the potential disadvantages can be avoided or corrected. I believe multiage education is a better way to educate children than the traditional graded system. 

Multiage Education Is... 

Before examining strengths and weaknesses of a multiage program, it is necessary to share a common definition. Multiage classes are created when children of different ages and grade levels are intentionally combined in a single classroom to realize academic and social benefits. At the end of each year, the older students move on to the next grade and a new group of students enters at the lower grade. This provides the opportunity for students to spend more than one year with a teacher or team of teachers.

"Multiage classrooms are nothing new. They've been around since the days of the one-room schoolhouse, when children of many ages studied side by side under the same roof with the help of one teacher. But in the 1990s, multiage classrooms have taken on a dynamic new meaning" ( Bozzone 8 ).

This classroom situation creates an atmosphere where the students and teachers spend more than a single year together in a mixed-age learning community. The benefits experienced for students in this type of program are as a result of both learning together in a mixed-age group of children and of the extended time with a single teacher.

Hundreds of years ago, students learned in a one-room schoolhouse. In such a setting, students of all ages were educated together by the same teacher for several years. The one-room schoolhouse provided a community atmosphere where students worked and learned together (Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 20 ). A graduate of one of the last one-room schoolhouses in the United States said: "Success for many of us was a natural consequence of that environment" (Heynen ). He added an anecdote: "When the teacher called, 'Eighth-grade history,' and the eighth graders walked forward, we might have heard about the Constitution, for example. Those of us in the lower grades would have been given that lesson peripherally, indirectly, many times before we were taught it directly" ( Heynen ).

Graded education did not appear America until 1843 when Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education Horace Mann visited Prussia and was impressed by the graded system. The concept of separate grades was born of administrative practicality and puritanical traditions ( Anderson 28 ). At that time, the United States was beginning the process of industrialization and the idea of mass production was extended to the educational system. Dividing students into grades enabled teachers to specialize on a specific portion of the curriculum, and paved the way for the advent of the graded textbook. The graded system of education made the delivery of curriculum more efficient than the one-room schoolhouse system.

Although it addressed curricular issues, graded education was not exempt from challenges. In 1890 C. W. Eliot, the president of Harvard University, claimed that the "grouping together of children whose capacities are widely different" was not only "flying in the face of nature" but also the "worst feature of the American school" (Osin and Lesgold ). In 1909 Maria Montessori, the first Italian woman to become a medical doctor, wrote about her success overseeing The Children's House in Rome ( Merrick 8 ). Her classes were purposefully composed of students aged three to seven and focused on individualized instruction. This structure provided opportunities for younger students to learn from watching older students. By 1913, Montessori's methods became the new trend in Europe and America, supplanting some graded schools. By 1916, there were 200 authorized Montessori schools in the United States (Merrick 8 ). Montessori schools in the United States were centered around the idea that students learn at their own rates. Interest in Montessori schools diminished by 1918 and the graded system again prevailed in the United States. The multiage concept purported by Montessori did not reemerge until the 1960s ( Merrick 8 ).

While multiage classes were not common in the United States after 1918, other countries were experimenting with the configuration. After World War II, British educators changed the way their primary schools were organized. They divided students into three-year groups and students remained with the same teacher for three years (Cornell 9 ). Then, in the 1960s the nongraded movement once again gained support in the United States. At this time, many schools combined students in mixed-age groups, but with negative results. "Because most educators were never fully trained in the philosophy of multiage education, there was a lot of anxiety and frustration" (Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 31 ). The impetus for the movement in the 1960s was to save money. It was not accompanied by necessary changes in philosophy or teaching practices. "Education reforms based solely on financial considerations rather than a pedagogical basis usually have a short shelf-life" (Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 31 ).

After these unsuccessful attempts at nongraded education the term acquired negative connotations. Therefore, educators shied away from attempting to establish similar programs and returned to the traditional graded system because there was no apparent alternative. Although the graded system did not effectively meet the needs of American children and was the subject of criticism, it prevailed because it seemed to be the best option available at the time. "Since the graded structure came into existence in the Quincy Grammar School in 1848, some people have been critical of it. Today, as in the past, critics feel that schools should be focused on the needs of children" (Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 120 ).

Educators continued to search for a viable alternative to the graded system. A movement that began with a few teachers establishing multiage classrooms soon spread to schools, districts, and finally states. According to some educators: "Multiage education is the biggest systematic change in education in the last 140 years" (Coniglio ). In July 1990 the Kentucky Education Reform Act took effect, mandating multiage classes for all primary grades (Colwell-Cornett 33 ). Since then, multiage classes have been mandated in Mississippi and Oregon, as well as Kentucky, and programs are developing in Pennsylvania, Florida, Alaska, Georgia, California, Texas, Tennessee, and New York ( Lodish 35 ). A report of a 1994 National Commission on Education determined: "Common sense suffices: American students must have more time for learning. The six-hour, 180-day school year should be relegated to museums, an exhibit for our educational past. Both learners and teachers need more time—not to do more of the same, but to use all time in new, different, and better ways. The key to liberating learning lies in unlocking time" (10 ). To facilitate more efficient use of time, the Commission also made the following suggestion: "Grouping children by age should become a thing of the past" (31 ).

As a result of research and experiences, many educators have considered alternatives to the traditional graded system. "Educators who start [multiage] programs often initiate them because they believe that the graded structure doesn't always meet children's needs and that students benefit from having the same teacher for more than one year" (Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 7 ). The current system of determining grouping of students according to astrology and arbitrary deadlines is based on several assumptions. The system assumes students of the same age are ready to learn the same material at the same rate, in the same amount of time (Stainback and Stainback 3 ). The system has been in place for over a century, yet "There is not, and there has not been, any philosophical or research-based support for continuation of graded structure" (Anderson and Pavan xi ).

Why has the graded system survived so long if there is no evidence that it is the most effective method? Researchers have speculated a variety of reasons, the most common being tradition. "Perhaps the greatest force supporting the continuation of graded education is simply the fact that it has existed for well over a century" (Gausted, "Nongraded Education" 7 ). Many researchers and educators condemn the graded system as a tradition which is no longer effective. "Although the parallel may seem harsh, staying with gradedness in the 1990s is somewhat similar to what smoking tobacco was about a decade ago: a self-destructive habit, distressingly hard to abandon, and encountering insufficient national outrage to generate policies against it" (Anderson and Pavan xi ). 

More efficient use of time may be sufficient reason to consider revising the graded system. "Some claim that schools without fixed grade levels are a better way to educate young people. But [multiage] schools are just an old idea re-emerging on the educational scene after an all-too-brief respite" (Forrest and Mayo 29 ). We must look, as professionals, for alternatives. Multiage education has emerged as a viable alternative. It is a difficult concept to define. Educators describe multiage education in very different ways. "[A multiage classroom] contains groupings of children of various ages working and playing together; clusters of youngsters learning from one another, as well as from their own endeavors; and little people fighting, arguing, displaying impatience and frustrations as they learn to tolerate the diversity of others. It is a multitude of abilities, talents, and styles as well as a spectrum of ages," one educator explained (Fogarty vii ). Another claimed the term multiage is used to "emphasize the goal of using teaching and curriculum practices that maximize the benefits of interaction and cooperation among children of different ages" ( Katz, "Nongraded" ). The term multiage often implies a commitment to specific teaching practices, as well as a grouping pattern. "Multiage classrooms are most successful when they are started with a philosophical belief about the type of experiences appropriate for young children" (Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 15 ).

Though multiage systems vary, many elements remain constant. Multiage classes include at least a three-year age or a two-year grade span. Students in multiage classes remain with the same teacher or team of teachers for more than a year. Finally, the classroom is created for philosophical rather than monetary reasons. 

Multiage Education Is Not... 

With all of the educational jargon, terms such as multiage can easily be confused with other programs and philosophies. Some of the practices frequently confused with multiage education are looping, split-grade classrooms, and nongraded classrooms.

Looping occurs when a class of students advances to the next grade with its teacher or team of teachers. For example, in a looping situation, Mrs. Smith would teach a class of first grade students and then remain with those students another year as their second grade teacher. At the end of the second grade, Mrs. Smith would return to first grade to teach a new group of students. This practice takes advantage of additional time together for teacher and students, but does not involve children in multiple grades working together. Looping teachers gain the advantage of extra time every second year, while multiage teachers experience the benefit each year, because they always have a core group of returning students.

Combination, multigrade or split-grade classrooms appear to be similar to multiage classrooms, but differ in philosophy. "Multigrade classes are formed out of necessity; multiage classes are formed deliberately for their perceived educational benefits" (Vennman ). Combination classes are "usually created for budgetary reasons or because there are too few students to justify two different classrooms" ( Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 7 ). In this setting, teachers often complain about the difficulties of having to teach two distinct curriculums simultaneously. If you were to observe this type of classroom you might see all the fourth graders sitting on the left side of the room doing seatwork while the teacher worked with the fifth graders on the right side of the room. "A lot of it is the intent," said Irv Richardson, associate executive director of the Society for Developmental Education in Peterborough. "The best reasons are philosophical. If you say I've got eight first-graders and two second-graders, I don't see a lot of benefit to that. If you tell me you're going to combine them to meet children's needs, you've got me interested" (Kittredge 1 ). The goal of combined classrooms is "to maximize personnel and space resources rather than to capitalize on the diversity of ability and experience in the groups with mixed ages" (Katz, "Nongraded" ). These classrooms often fail because teachers treat the single classroom as if it were two separate classrooms. Teachers do not have enough instruction time for either grade level. "Sometimes, [schools] don't have enough students to justify two classrooms, so they say we'll combine the better students from the lower grades with the needier students from the higher grades," said David Gebhardt, the Massachusetts Department of Education's consultant for school approval. "And that's not appropriate" ( Kittredge 1 ). Since these classrooms are often mistakenly labeled multiage, they contribute to the negative connotations of the term. An example of this is in the following quote: "Multiage or multigrade groups may be formed as an administrative device to solve negotiated-contract problems of equal class size or as a result of a commitment to having students of varying ages working together" (Anderson and Pavan 43 ). Obviously, multiage is not a consistently defined term.

Nongraded classrooms are difficult to describe because there are so many different interpretations of the term. A generally accepted definition is: "Nongraded education is the practice of teaching children of different ages and ability levels together in the same classroom, without dividing them or the curriculum into steps labeled by 'grade' distinctions" ( Gausted, "Nongraded Education" 2 ). Thus, "nongradedness" means simply not dividing children by grade. This term could be used to describe multiage classrooms, and would be appropriate. However, the primary purpose of nongraded classrooms is often to homogenize groups of children for instruction on a basis other than age or grade ( Katz, "Nongraded" ). This contradicts the philosophy of multiage education, which relies on heterogeneous grouping. "The ungraded or nongraded approach acknowledges that age is a crude indicator of what children are ready to learn. It emphasizes regrouping children for instruction on the basis of perceived readiness to acquire knowledge and skills, and not according to age. It does not emphasize educational benefits of a learning environment in which children at different knowledge and skill levels work together" (Katz, "Nongraded" ).

There are several common misconceptions about multiage classrooms. The first is that they are less structured than traditional classrooms. In reality, multiage classrooms are more structured because teachers need to organize students working on several different tasks. Many people also think multiage classrooms are meant to equalize children of different ages and abilities (Lodish 37 ). Multiage education has the opposite purpose. Multiage classrooms are designed to capitalize on the inclusion of different ages and abilities through cooperative learning and modeling. Another misconception is that younger students will be overwhelmed. In a multiage classroom where the teacher has appropriate expectations for each child, younger children will not be overwhelmed. Younger students are not expected to work at the same levels the older students do, nor is the reverse true. All children are expected to work at their own level and pace. 

Advantages of Multiage Education

Educators, parents, administrators, and students list countless advantages of multiage classrooms. These advantages can be grouped into several categories: advantages to students because of the mixed-age environment, advantages to students because of the multiple-year experience, and advantages to teachers.

One major advantage to children inherent in multiage classrooms is the modeling that takes place. Modeling is described as "Probably the strongest instruction piece you can have" (Thompson ). Modeling is the natural process by which younger students pick up behaviors they observe in older students. "Direct tutoring by the older child is not required" (Merrick 14 ). Modeling occurs even when it is not intended. "If older students and younger students are in close proximity while engaging in learning activities, the younger students will seek to imitate the behaviors modeled by the older students" (Merrick 14 ). Younger students will imitate academic and social behaviors demonstrated by older children. "Nothing is more interesting to a child than another child who has the skills that he or she wants to acquire" ( Merrick 14 ). In addition to this unintended, natural modeling, older students can also provide direct instruction to younger students. When the one student shows another student how to do a task, it introduces the concept to one student and allows the other student to practice the skill and develop nurturing behaviors (Goularte 14 ). "When older children 'teach' newly learned skills to younger classmates, they strengthen their own understanding of these skills" ( Lodish 37 ). In 1978, Vygotsky introduced the "zone of proximal development" ( Stone, "Creating" ). "In this concept, a child's level of potential development can be enhanced by more capable peers. The wider range of ages and abilities in mixed-age groupings encourages greater cross-age interaction, whereby children naturally help and support each other" (Stone, "Creating" ). Modeling also benefits the older students when social behaviors are involved. Self-regulatory behavior improves when older students need to remind younger students what the rules are (Katz, "The Benefits" ). Modeling and tutoring benefit both the older and the younger students and occur more naturally in multiage classrooms because of the age span.

Another benefit to students in a multiage classroom is the increased similarity of their classroom to the real world. "Certainly, grouping students strictly by age does not reflect a naturalistic life-like setting in which people of different ages learn from each other" ( W. Miller 4 ). When children interact outside of schools, in families, neighborhoods, ball teams, and scout troops, they are not divided by age. "[The children] simply do not think being in a class with kids of different ages is all that unusual. In fact, their classroom has just caught up with the rest of their lives" (Larosa and Moon 24 ). Age segregation has increased consistently since schools became graded. In 1918 the standard deviation of age among children in a ninth grade classroom in this country was 14.1 months. In 1952, the span had dropped to 8.6 months (Pratt 46 ). "By the mid-twentieth century, classrooms were more narrowly segregated by age than ever before" (Pratt 46 ). Classrooms with such a narrow age span are unrealistic. Adults work with colleagues of many different ages. "A larger age span is more reflective of the child's society outside school" (Lodish 36 ). 

Research on primates shows that mixed-age groups are more natural than our forced, structured graded system. "Almost all of the 193 living species of monkeys and apes grow up in societies characterized by diversity of age" (Pratt 44 ). In fact, "the higher the primate is on the evolutionary scale, the more heterogeneous is the age composition of the play group" ( Pratt 44 ). Groups containing different ages are not only normal for primates, but for humans as well. A 1981 study of urban children examined with whom children interacted in their leisure time. The research showed children associated with same-age peers only six percent of the time ( Katz, Evangelou, and Hartman ). The same children spent 55 percent of their time with children a year or more older or younger than themselves and 28 percent of their time interacting with adults (Katz, Evangelou, and Hartman ). "Mixed-age play groups were the norm for children in most cultures of the past" (Gausted, "Nongraded Education" 16 ). As one educator asked: "If children spontaneously form heterogeneous groups, why do adults typically segregate them by age?" ( Katz, Evangelou, and Hartman ). Research shows that children choose to play with other children of all ages. The practice of separating them for educational purposes, based on the year they were born, is not a sound one. Multiage classrooms reflect the world outside the school walls. One teacher says her most important job is "To set up an environment for 'real' learning--a place where students discover their own autonomy and learn how to help each other. Just like real life" (Goularte 9 ).

The aforementioned benefits are substantial, but perhaps the most significant benefits to children in a multiage environment are the social effects. "Research showed students in multiage classrooms developed positive attitudes about school and improved social skills" ( Goularte 10 ). In general, students in these programs develop leadership skills, nurturing behaviors, and a greater sense of community. They also are more accepting of individual differences.

Every year or two, depending on the length of the program, students in multiage classrooms become the experienced students in the room. This phenomenon leads to the natural assumption of leadership roles in play and classroom activities. Children who would be reluctant to take charge in a graded classroom have a greater sense of responsibility because they are the oldest in the class, and try various leadership roles. "A younger student has less understanding of expectations and procedures and so starts as a follower. Over time, the student matures and becomes more comfortable in assuming a leadership role in the classroom" (Anderson and Pavan 17 ). The assumption of these responsibilities increases the confidence of the older students as well. Since older students develop their leadership skills, younger students are given opportunities to engage in more complex activities than they could initiate on their own. "Multiage classes allow students to develop both leadership and followership skills" ( Anderson and Pavan 17 ). 

Multiage classrooms provide older students with the valuable experience of developing their nurturing skills as well. These skills, crucial to parenting, manifest themselves naturally in a mixed-age setting. "Mixed-age grouping can provide older children with the opportunity to be helpful, patient, and tolerant of younger peers' competencies, and thus give them some of the desirable early experiences of being nurturant that underlie parenting and helping others who are different from oneself" (Katz, "Nongraded" ). The presence of younger children also helps antisocial older children. "Younger children are particularly helpful in reducing the isolation of socially withdrawn older children" (Pratt 49 ). Also, helping others can help older students' sense of self-confidence. Being needed and admired by less able students improves a student's self-concept (Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 48 ). The opportunity to be caring nurturers often gives older children the chance to surprise themselves as well as others. One teacher reports: "I watched one of my students, a child who is generally angry and sullen with his peers, teach his buddy place value concepts using a gentle manner that caught me by surprise" (Goularte 14 ). Because of this added nurturance, multiage classrooms "can provide a therapeutic environment for children who are socially immature" ( Katz, "The Benefits" ). As younger students benefit from the extra attention and support, they are learning how to do the same for the next class. "Exposure to older children as nurturers provides young recipients with models of behavior they can emulate when they become the older members of a group" ( Katz, "Nongraded" ). Thus the tradition continues year after year, benefiting all students in the room. 

In a group of children of different ages, competition is reduced and the atmosphere is generally collaborative. The group becomes a supportive family. "Competition among students is replaced by a growing sense of community" (Hime and Moore 45 ). There is less bullying, more taking turns, and greater social responsibility. Work in cooperative groups also improves because of the varying ages. "When groups of children ranging in age from seven to nine years or from nine to eleven years were asked to make decisions, they went through the process of reaching a consensus with far more organizing statements and more leadership behavior than children in same-age groups" (Katz, "The Benefits" ). The children in a multiage classroom form a cohesive group and learn to support each other rather than to compete. "Cooperation is fostered in mixed-age groups by the different expectations children have of those older and younger than themselves" (Gausted, "Nongraded Education" 16 ). This cooperation is beneficial to students. As one team of teachers said: "We will never lose our commitment to team teaching in a multiage setting as the best possible method of creating a true community of learners" ( Lawson and Williams 77 ).

In a graded classroom, students are expected to be at approximately the same level academically and to learn at the same rate simply because their chronological ages are the same. Since multiage classrooms include students of different ages, they are expected to be at different levels. "With multiage grouping, there's no forcing square blocks into round holes" ( Forrest and Mayo 29 ). Multiage education is beneficial because it capitalizes on student differences. Many graded classrooms are divided into three groups for reading and math. "Grouping in K-1-2 spans is no different, except the differences are considered natural and normal. There is no 'dumb' group" ( Cornell 15 ). This improves students' self-confidence. "Anyone who thinks children in the lowest reading group don't feel dumb doesn't know young children well" (Cornell 15 ). Students in multiage classrooms are not ostracized for being in a lower group as they might be in graded classrooms. "Age-segregated classrooms are particularly difficult for children whose development differs from the norm" (Pratt 51 ). But children are not the only ones who sometimes judge based on expected levels of achievement. "The wider range of ages and abilities in a multiage classroom discourages misleading age-graded expectations and helps teachers focus on students' individual learning needs" ( Gausted, "Building" ). This acceptance of other people's unique strengths and weaknesses is a valuable practice for students to learn. "Working with different age levels lead children to respect individual differences" ( Faulkner and Faiveley 76 ). As students learn to accept differences in their peers, they also learn to accept their own strengths and weaknesses. "The wider the age span in a group, the wider the range of behavior and performance likely to be accepted and tolerated by the adults as well as by the children themselves" ( Katz, 'The Benefits" ). Multiage classrooms create an atmosphere which enables students to allow themselves and their peers to be individuals. They also encourage teachers to meet each student's individual needs.

All of these social benefits contribute to more positive attitudes of students in multiage classrooms. There is not a substantial body of research demonstrating academic benefits to children in multiage classes. "Multiage grouping does, however, tend to be associated with better self-concept and attitude toward school" (Pratt 50 ). The fact that students in multiage classrooms have better mental health is supported by research. A compilation of 42 research studies examining mental health published between January 1968 and December 1990 showed significant benefits of environments not divided by grades. Though these studies termed the classes graded and nongraded, the characteristics of the nongraded classrooms fit my description of multiage classrooms. "All these studies except two either favored (in whole or in part) the nongraded groups or reported no significant difference" (Anderson and Pavan 47 ). Fifty-two percent of the studies indicated that students in nongraded classrooms had better mental health and 43 percent showed no significant difference (Anderson and Pavan 47 ). "Boys, blacks, underachievers, and students of lower socioeconomic status were more likely to perform better and to feel more positive toward themselves and their schools in a nongraded environment" ( Anderson and Pavan 53 ).

In multiage classrooms, children are encouraged to learn at their own pace. "Age grouped education is inherently unstable and inefficient. If it is enforced completely, numerous children will necessarily be waiting bored while others struggle to keep up" (Osin and Lesgold ). Multiage classrooms eliminate the wasted time waiting for everyone else to catch up. Advanced students can learn more in multiage classrooms than in traditional classrooms because there is no preconceived ceiling.

"The multiage classroom becomes a positive, nurturing, and safe environment for its students. When this type of environment is provided, the result is happy children" (Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 40 ). "Multiage education emphasizes building upon strengths--which builds self-esteem. It also focuses on the whole child, not just his academic skills; a child's gift for social interaction or artistic expression is valued as well" ( Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 40 ). When students are happier in their school environment, they learn better and are less likely to cause discipline problems ( Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 41 ). In a multiage classroom at Mt. Vernon Elementary in Virginia: "Children are happy learners, test scores of our students have been among the highest in the city, and parents are participating and engaging in their child's learning" (Clark 64 ).

All of the advantages I have mentioned are a result of combining students of different ages in the same classroom. Students also benefit from having more than one year with the same teacher or team of teachers. "When teachers and students are together for two years in a row, they reap both academic and emotional bonuses" (Hanson 29 ). Students in a multiage classroom experience less pressure to learn at a specified rate. "A student who needs more time to master the continuum of skills and concepts can spend two years in a class without failing a grade or being held back" (Faulkner and Faiveley 75 ). This is especially beneficial in the lower primary grades. The first grade curriculum contains numerous new skills and concepts, while significantly less new material is introduced in second grade. Many first graders are retained when what they need is to spend an extra month or two on the first grade curriculum (Hime and Moore 45 ). "In most American schools today, by third grade most classroom rosters will reveal a spread of 3 years, not 12 months" ( Cornell 15 ). Some of these students have been retained, and some have been accelerated. "Both decisions result in trauma for the individuals involved" ( Cornell 15 ). Students in multiage classrooms benefit from extra time to master necessary material without the stigma of having failed. "The students would still be with chronological peers, but would have the extra time to master skills and concepts" (Hime and Moore 47 ). Reducing the number of students who are retained is a significant benefit, especially for those students. "Dozens of studies have found that retaining students actually contributes to greater academic failure, higher levels of dropping out, and greater behavioral difficulties, rather than leading to success in school. Students who are held back do worse in the long run than comparable students who are promoted, in part because they give up on themselves as learners" (Darling-Hammond ).

Because students in multiage classrooms have the same teacher for more than one year, their learning is more continuous. "A teacher who works with the same group for two or more years is also in a better position to evaluate each youngster's cognitive process and to prevent fragmentation or necessary repetition of instruction" (Milburn 58 ).

Another benefit is the lack of anxiety students feel during the summer when they know they will be returning to the same teacher and many of the same classmates. For students without a significant adult at home, having a teacher for more than one year can make a world of difference. "Our experience indicates that the most important variable in a positive elementary school program is the constant attention of a single teacher/caregiver with whom the child can develop a predictable and meaningful relationship. As children reach the ages of eleven and twelve, peers become more important and teachers less important to children. But especially in these first stages of independence, children need one teacher there as an anchor, as well as an object for rebellion" (Wood 20 ). 

Parents also benefit from the consistency of multiage classes. "Parents whose child is in a multiage program have an opportunity to establish a strong relationship with the child's teacher over a period of several years" ( Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 81 ). This improved rapport may help parents feel more comfortable to discuss specific concerns they may have about their children. 

Teachers also experience advantages working in a multiage classroom. The most significant advantage is the additional time to work with the same group of children. They teach each child for two or three years, depending on the program. This provides time for the teacher to ensure each child's learning and to establish a relationship with each child. "We felt less pressure to 'get it all in,' since we would spend two years with the same group of students" (Lawson and Williams 75 ). "Simply knowing we had two years instead of one with this new class lifted that awful pressure from teachers and students alike. The two-year cycle allowed us to put our energies where they belonged-- toward learning, at whatever pace" (Hime and Moore 45 ). Teachers are able to utilize the time over the summer for remedial or enrichment work. Also, there are fewer new students each year for the teacher to assess. Continuity for both students and teachers is also a benefit. "Since children learn on a continuum, the greatest advantage is not disrupting that process between grade" (Matthews ).

The benefit of extra time also facilitates a strong relationship between teacher and student. Jim Grant comments: "We don't change doctors or dentist every year, and for good reason. So why should we change teachers? ... Everybody knows each other and what to expect, and they get right to work without spinning their wheels for days or even weeks" ( W. Miller 7 ). "In a multiage classroom the teacher has more time to establish relationships with the children, learn their strengths, and to do in-depth evaluation of each child's progress" (Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 60 ). Once a relationship has been established between child and teacher, the child feels more comfortable and is more likely to take risks and experience academic growth. "Recent research has found that students experience much greater success in schools structured to create close, sustained relationships among students and teachers. In high achieving countries like Japan, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland, teachers often stay with the same students for two or more years and teach them more than one subject so that their teaching is informed by greater knowledge of the students and how they learn" ( Darling-Hammond ). 

Disadvantages of Multiage Education

There are many perceived disadvantages of multiage education, but some of these disadvantages are based on misconceptions, not actual practices. Common criticisms of multiage settings are that the older students will spend all their time tutoring rather than learning and that children are too different to combine grade levels.

Many parents express concern that the older students in a multiage classroom will spend their time tutoring the younger students and will not learn anything new. First, multiage education has not been shown to have any negative effects on academic achievement. In a compilation of 57 studies, published between January 1968 and December 1990, the majority of research favors classrooms not strictly divided by grades ( Anderson and Pavan 46 ). Students in graded classrooms performed better on standardized tests in only nine percent of the studies, while 58 percent of the studies showed significantly higher scores by students in nongraded classrooms ( Anderson and Pavan 46 ). Thirty-three percent of the studies showed no significant difference ( Anderson and Pavan 46 ). "Older children are as academically challenged in the top half of a mixed-age class as they would be in a single-age class when there is an equally demanding curriculum and individual attention to learning style and academic level" (Lodish 37 ).

Part of this misconception stems from the belief that the older children will always be helping and the younger students always in need of assistance. Research proves this is not the case. In a recent study, five to seven year olds were observed during their free choice time in a multiage classroom. During the 15 hours they were observed the occurrences of assistance were categorized. An older student helped a younger student 42 percent of the times (Stone, "Standing" ). A student helped a same-age peer 33 percent of the times and 24 percent of the occurrences involved a younger student helping an older student ( Stone, "Standing" ). Also, students emulate each other without requiring direct tutoring. Children often acquire behaviors by simply observing and then imitating social models. "It is interesting to note that these models are often just pursuing their own interests, and are not consciously trying to teach anything" ( Bandura ).

Another concern about multiage classrooms is that children of different grades are too diverse to be effectively educated in the same classroom. This concern is based on the erroneous assumption that students in graded classrooms are all the same. However, "age and development are not always on a parallel time-table" (Faulkner and Faiveley 75 ). In fact, "Children put together because they are close in chronological age, still have academic, social, and emotional needs that span several years" (Clark 60 ). All children in a multiage classroom will not have the same degree of readiness for any given lesson but children in a graded classroom are no different. "In any first grade class, there will be a four-year span in pupils' readiness as suggested by mental age data. Furthermore, children progress in all subjects at different rates" (W. Miller 4 ). One multiage teacher observed: "I was most surprised by how little the age corresponds to the ability and how difficult it becomes to guess who is what grade after a while" (Bosen ).

While these two concerns are based on misconceptions, there are several potential drawbacks to multiage classrooms which must be considered. One is the possibility that older or gifted and talented students may be neglected. "Every effort needs to be made to challenge advanced learners" (Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 26 ). This is a possibility teachers must be aware of and address. As long as teachers provide enriching, challenging experiences for all children, the advanced children will be very successful. The same concern could also apply to a traditional graded classroom.

At the other extreme, there is the possibility younger students will be overwhelmed or frustrated in a multiage setting. As in a graded classroom, children should not be expected to accomplish developmentally inappropriate tasks. Appropriate expectations and support will ensure that the younger students progress without feeling unnecessarily pressured.

Other potential disadvantages of multiage classrooms are a result of concerns about the multi-year experience itself. Because children are grouped together for more than one academic year, considerations need to be made in the case of a dysfunctional class or an incompatible relationship that directly affects the child's ability to perform successfully in that classroom.. A change in the composition of the class needs to be made if it includes a group of students who do not work well together, or if there is a personality clash between a teacher and student or a teacher and parent. Administrators need to be willing to alleviate these situations rather than insisting students remain in an uncomfortable situation for more than one year. "It seems every few years a school ends up with a class with an unusually difficult combination of students" (Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 26 ). This type of class should be reorganized to minimize the difficulties. A difficult class should not be perpetuated. If a situation occurs when a teacher does not interact well with a student in the class or with a parent, every effort should be made to switch that student to a different situation. Team teaching situations lessen the impact of this type of conflict because the children have more than one teacher with whom to interact. Neither the teacher nor the student will benefit from a second year in an uncomfortable situation.

Another potential drawback which can be eliminated by appropriate actions at the administrative level is an unbalanced multiage class. There is a tendency to assign at-risk students to multiage classrooms because of the perceived benefits. "Keeping too many high-impact students together in a multiple year placement is a form of tracking" ( Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 26 ). Also, the classroom should be academically balanced, not overloaded with students with special needs. "Steps must be taken to assure that the multiage classroom does not turn into a special education room or a dumping ground" (Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 26 ). 

A final potential disadvantage is the possibility of creating too much diversity in a multiage classroom. If the number of students in the class is small, students will have limited choices for establishing same-age, same-sex friendships (Lodish 40 ). The first response to this concern is the fact that children do not necessarily need same-age friends. "While age is a determinant of friendship, children and adolescents choose friends who are at an equivalent level in terms of development rather than chronological age" (Pratt 49 ). In a study observing 15 hours of free time in a classroom of five through seven-year olds, 90 percent of the children chose to play in mixed-age groups (Stone, "Standing" ). The second response is for teachers to provide opportunities, such as recess or field trips, for students to mix with other classes. Another possibility is forming a team teaching situation. If the classroom has two teachers and twice the expected number of children, children will have the same number of same-age peers with whom to interact as they would in a traditional classroom. 

Practices Associated With Multiage Education

There are many educational practices associated with multiage education. These practices are not found in all multiage programs but are often used in this type of classroom. Some of these practices are developmentally appropriate instruction, team teaching, and centers.

There are two competing philosophies central to understanding the way people learn. Some people subscribe to the psychometric view. Supporters of this philosophy believe children have mental abilities which can be quantified by tests (Stone, "Standing" ). They also believe knowledge is acquired and that the goal of education is to produce students who score higher on tests ( Stone, "Standing" ). The opposing view is called developmentally appropriate instruction. This way of teaching is usually associated with multiage education, but it is also employed in many traditional graded classrooms. Educators who employ this practice believe children have developing mental abilities and that knowledge is based on personal construction (Stone, "Standing" ). They believe the purpose of education is to facilitate development ( Stone, "Standing" ). 

The use of developmentally appropriate practices is essential to the success of a multiage classroom. The result of not using this type of practices is frustrated younger students and bored older students. Developmentally appropriate practices ensure every child is learning at his or her own level. Each child's needs are being addressed and his or her mental abilities are developing.

Team teaching is not essential to multiage education, but it does have many benefits in a multiage setting. A team teaching situation usually involves two teachers and a class which is equivalent to two classes in number. These teachers may work in a larger classroom, or in two separate classrooms with frequent interaction. "Team teaching is not a requirement for a successful multiage classroom, but it has definite advantages in many respects" ( Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 61 ). Teachers who team teach can provide emotional support for each other during the period of adjustment at the beginning of a multiage experience and throughout their teaching careers. They can also benefit from one another's knowledge, and capitalize on one another's strengths. Children in team teaching situations have the opportunity to interact with more than one adult, to get second opinions, and experience different teaching styles. Teachers also benefit from a second set of eyes, not only for management purposes, but for diagnostic and assessment purposes as well.

"Learning centers are classroom areas, settings, or materials that allow students to: explore, reinforce, or extend their understanding of subject are material; work alone, with a buddy, or in small (like or mixed-ability) cooperative groups; use a variety of learning styles and hands-on materials" (Forsten ). Learning centers are often implemented in multiage classrooms but they are not an essential element. Centers can "Help teachers manage and balance their time by allowing flexible scheduling. Use of centers can fall along a continuum from occasional or supplemental use to all-day instruction" ( Forsten ). Centers are sometimes perceived as a necessary part of multiage classrooms, but multiage classrooms can exist without them, and centers can exist without multiage practices. Centers provide benefits for students especially in multiage classrooms. They can incorporate multiple intelligences, different learning styles, and students' interests. "Providing a range of developmentally appropriate activities that meets the needs of children of various ages can be done very effectively in a center-oriented situation" ( Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 10 ).

Developmentally appropriate practices, team teaching, and learning centers can all occur in traditional graded classrooms. They can also be implemented in multiage classrooms. There are two points to remember, however. First, "Many of the elements crucial to the success of multiage education are in place in some forms in most schools" ( Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 33 ). Second, "Combining children into mixed-age classrooms without adjusting teaching and assessment practices is asking for a failure" ( Grant, Johnson, and Richardson Multiage 10 ). 

Obstacles to Multiage Education

There are several obstacles preventing multiage education from widespread use. Those deterrents are logistical limitations, constraining attitudes and habits of teachers. These obstacles must be overcome for multiage classrooms to achieve widespread acceptance.

The most significant logistical concern is planning. Beginning a multiage classroom requires a considerable amount of planning by the teacher, administration, and community. "Too many educators are implementing multiage classrooms and schools with insufficient forethought, planning, and participation of key stakeholders. I can think of no better way to destroy a potentially sound educational practice" (B. Miller ). Any educational change must be preceded by planning, and multiage classrooms are no different. In addition to the planning, after implementation educators, parents, and students all need to adjust to the change. "Having to get used to it is a small price to pay if it solves a major problem of the educational system" (Osin and Lesgold ).

Staffing multiage classrooms is another logistical concern. In schools where teachers are excited about multiage, there may be resentment on the part of teachers in traditional classrooms. They may feel multiage classrooms are being assigned too many of the gifted students or are being granted special privileges. In schools where multiage is an unpopular concept, teachers may be forced into teaching in a manner in which they are not comfortable. Both of these situations must be avoided.

Another logistical concern is support for the program. Multiage programs which lack administrative or community support are doomed. Administrators need to be aware of this obstacle and resolve it by providing support for teachers of multiage. Teachers need to receive training and the administration must be careful to keep the classes balanced, academically and behaviorally. Community support can be achieved by informing parents and listening to concerns. A few parents who feel their concerns are being ignored can spread their dissatisfaction very quickly. Standardized tests given at specific grades, and graded textbooks also make the switch to multiage classrooms a difficult one. "The biggest disadvantage I see is the system of assessment and the packaged curricula which are so very grade level specific" ( Samsimonis ).

In addition to these logistical obstacles, attitudes of some teachers also stand in the way of multiage education. Understandably, many educators resent the tendency of administrators to embrace every innovation which comes along (Anderson 30 ). The only solution to this obstacle is information. Teachers' skepticism can be assuaged if they can see that multiage education is better for children. The limited acceptance of the slogan "All children can learn," also poses an obstacle to the multiage movement. Since multiage education is based on this belief, teachers who do not believe it is true also do not believe multiage classrooms can be effective. A third constraining attitude is the conviction that some students are only motivated extrinsically. Teachers who subscribe to this belief maintain that some students thrive on competition and that the cooperative atmosphere of a multiage classroom will be detrimental.

None of these obstacles is insurmountable. Planning and education are the solutions which need to be implemented. Many teachers would be more likely to teach multiage classrooms if they understood them. 


I can look around the room in any one of my college classes and see students ranging in age from 20 to 45. In discussions about literature, it is enlightening to hear how a students from different generations interpreted the author's message. My younger brother knew how to drive before he turned 16 because he had been in the car when I was learning. Explaining a math problem to a friend helps me to better understand how it is done.

All of the elements of multiage education exist in the world beyond the school walls. We interact with people of different ages. We learn from the experiences of others. We explain things to colleagues and friends. We do not expect the person sitting next to us to know exactly the same things we know. Why do we question these practices when they are transferred to the educational system?

The advantages of multiage classrooms have been proven by extensive research. Most of the disadvantages can be attributed to misinformation of alleviated by planning and organization. Multiage classrooms provide a more realistic, comfortable setting for students. Students will enjoy learning more if they are comfortable.

There is more information available on multiage education than could ever presented in a single thesis. I encourage you to do your own research and to consider what type of educational practices are best for our children.