By Nell Sears, Director of Studies
Friends School of Portland, ME
Look inside a multi-grade classroom and you’re likely to see small groups of children working on different aspects of a bigger project. You might also see them working together at stations to solve problems. Sometimes you’ll see older children teaching younger peers, and other times you’ll see them grouped into age levels. Any time you look, what you’ll see is classrooms set up to empower the students to do a lot of the work of the classroom, and to do it in flexible groups.
The concept of mixed-age classrooms certainly isn’t new. It was the norm in one-room schoolhouses across the country where children of all ages were taught in a single classroom. Schools now take a more strategic approach to the concept, choosing to have only two grades together, or combining certain grades and leaving other classrooms as single grades.
There are many advantages to multi-grade classrooms. Younger children benefit from modeling by older children, who get to be leaders and helpers. It expands academic opportunities; if children are taught in ways that work for different learners, then it’s possible to group students together to work on different skills. This has practical advantages; a third grader with great reading skills can get the benefit of fourth grade-level reading but is still in the right place for their social emotional health.
A less tangible advantage is that multi-grade classrooms support a culture where grade levels aren’t that important. Children develop friendships in all grades. They become accustomed to being with and working with people of different ages — a skill they’ll need throughout their lives.
The Friends School uses a combined approach where all elementary school classrooms after kindergarten are comprised of two grades. One advantage of this, says Nell Sears, Director of Studies at the school, is that students are able to stay with the same teacher for two years. "In any class, it takes a while for students and teachers to get to know each other,” Sears explains, “but that relationship is a prerequisite for deeper learning. Staying with a teacher for two years achieves that prerequisite but still allows for changes to keep the learning experience fresh.”
Mixed-grade classrooms work best when they are thoughtfully designed, intentional, and built with input from the school community. It can be tricky to juggle different developmental levels in one classroom. Schools must be ready to support students with learning challenges who enter classrooms as the younger grade, or they can become stressed by comparing themselves to the older kids. “Multi-grade classrooms require teaching in a certain way,” Sears says. “The social aspect is a really important part of a teacher’s job.”
The trick, says Sears, is to be flexible and thoughtful about structuring combined grades. When her school considered expanding, says Sears, “we realized that we could go to traditional grade levels. But the faculty was very clear that we wanted to continue to commit to this model because of the advantages.”
“Academically, there’s more flexibility,” explains Nowak. “A first grader working at a high level in a subject can join second graders and be challenged. Or, conversely, if a second grader needs more time to work on a skill, then can work with others — first graders — who are still practicing that skill.”
She points to the social and transitional advantages, as well. “About half the class already knows the routine and class culture so it makes it a lot easier to settle into the new year. And kids who have a hard time with transitions or take a while to adjust to a new room and teacher have a much easier time settling back into their second year in a classroom, rather than starting fresh every year.”
Sears says that schools considering multi-grade classrooms should start with a clear process that drills down to see what the purpose of transition is and what the benefit would be; a sort of cost-benefit analysis. The needs, design, and experience will be different for different schools, but adaptability and open communication among faculty are essential, Sears says, adding that when considering a move to multi-grade classrooms, schools would be wise to see how the model works — and doesn’t work — in other schools. The most valuable advice, she says, is to get out and see how mixed age classrooms work in many different settings.