At our small school, like many in rural BC, children are taught in multigrade classrooms where students from more than one grade learn together. There is a special type of teaching and learning that occurs in such a diverse classroom, and it involves more than just putting students from different grade levels into the same room and hoping for the best. An effective multigrade approach is one that intentionally taps into the rich conditions for learning that are possible in a multi- age setting. When children who are younger and older learn together, one significant benefit is a student’s exposure to “pre-teaching” (listening to the teaching and learning designed for older children) and “re-teaching” (reviewing important concepts by “listening in” as they are taught to and practiced by younger children).
Many people do not realize that the invention of grade levels and the single-grade classroom was, and is, solely for administrative purposes: sorting children into groups based on birth dates is simply a quick and easy way to organize large numbers of children. The practice of compartmentalizing students and their learning into single grades was never based on models of child development, theories of learning, or current research. Rather, it was, and is, based on the efficiency modelled by Industrial Age factories in assembling products step by step, resulting in the mass production of objects. The assumption was made, and quickly accepted as learning became institutionalized, that the same model could and should be applied to educating children.
Soon the entire education system had centered its structure, supports, and expectations around single-grade education, and multigrade classrooms existed only on the rural fringes of society. But over the years, multigrade education quietly thrived by defining and refining its strengths – many of which are now internationally recognized in the OECD’s Seven Principles of Learning¹ – the most necessary and desirable conditions for a formal or informal education. By necessity, a multigrade environment is learner-centered (rather than grade-centered), provides a social context that is wider than same-age peers, values and adapts to individual differences, and recognizes how individuals can change over long periods of time.
Teaching and learning is always awash with challenges and opportunities, but during my career as a multigrade teacher, I have come to appreciate the richness and depth of learning that can occur when children who are younger and older learn to learn together. Prior to the segregation of learners and learning into grades, this is how all learning occurred, and it is how we learn best as children.
For more information on multigrade teaching and learning, visit www.multigradeteacher.wordpress.com
¹Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. The Nature of Learning:Using Research to Inspire Practice Innovative Learning Environments Project (Practitioner Guide)