The Multi-Grade Approach to Learning;
An Existing Innovative Practice of Personalized Education in BC

Submitted by Heather J. Johnson, MEd,
on behalf of the
BC Rural and Multigrade Teachers’ Association
June 2015

Today’s multi-grade classrooms are not the stereotypical “single-room schoolhouses – where every student simply memorized what their teacher told them” (BC’s Education Plan, January 2015 Update, p.3). In contrast, many of today’s multi-grade classrooms already provide a 21st century model of personalized education in action.
Innovative multi-grade approaches to teaching and learning have evolved out of necessity, enabling student learning to, not just survive, but thrive on the fringes of a system that was ill-equipped to serve individual needs. Unfortunately, multi-grade teaching and learning is often dismissed as second rate; a necessary evil in times of changing enrollment until single grade classrooms can be re-established.
In the 1980’s and 90’s fluctuating urban enrollments resulted in the controversial practice of teaching two grades in the same classroom. There was a flurry of research to determine if a teacher could deliver two distinct grade-level curricula concurrently to two distinct groups of children. The results proclaimed that split grades are “simply no better and no worse” (Veenman, 1995) for student achievement than single grades. Single-grade education was, and is, so deeply enshrined in our practice that these results failed to raise red flags about the effectiveness of single-grade classrooms! That mindset continues, and has resulted in a lack of attention to, and research on, current multi-grade practice.
What is needed is a fresh, unbiased look at multi-grade classrooms in which there is a blending and blurring of curriculum and children across multiple grade levels. In these classrooms and schools (and there are many in BC), the experience of recent and current students is that of an education that is personalized, and highly-effective in developing the academic and social-emotional skills needed to successfully transition into new learning and roles after graduation. Ironically, the innovation that is possible in small schools is rarely taken seriously or applied to larger schools due to the limitations imposed by their single-grade configurations. As we look at ways of transforming teaching and learning to achieve personalized education on a wider scale, we must look to successful, innovative models that already exist, and multi-grade education is a worthy place to begin.
How does a successful multi-grade approach (its theory and practice) differ from traditional single-grade education? How does a multi-grade teaching and learning environment promote personalized education at a successful and sustainable level? These questions need to be researched. There is more to multi-grade education than the lumping together of two or more grades: below is a brief list of the challenges and benefits of multi-grade education that have posed powerful opportunities for innovation and success:

  •  Multi-year relationships exist between students and their teacher. This extended commitment deepens a teacher’s understanding of each student’s strengths, needs, and aspirations, and how these change over time. Research shows that teachers are more invested in their students when they know they will be teaching them for more than one year.
  • The school year itself becomes more efficient. Expectations, routines, and teacher-parent relationships continue, and are built upon from year to year. Not having to re-establish these every September creates more time for learning. Each school year, the teacher already knows the majority of her students; her June summative assessments are actually formative assessments, and on the first day of school in September, she knows how individual students will continue their learning. The small number of new students entering a multi-grade classroom each year are quick to learn and conform to expectations modeled by their returning classmates.
  • Differentiation is the norm. Students have direct and indirect access to ‘pre-teaching’ and ‘re-teaching’, as all levels of understanding are acknowledged and addressed. The diverse nature of a multi-grade classroom is respected and enriches everyone’s learning. Open-ended assignments and the availability of a variety of resources and activities at multiple levels are just two common practices that engage children at their own ability levels, regardless of grade.
  • Social-emotional development is healthy. Students are all role models, leaders, and supporters for one another. Research provides evidence of less aggression and negative competition in multiage settings. Instead, children in a multi-grade setting learn to compete against their own personal bests. In a mixed age setting, there are many genuine moments to develop and practice empathy. Since intellectual development is closely tied to social and emotional development, this may be an important factor in the success of a multi-grade approach.
  • The Zone of Proximal Development is ubiquitous; it is present in everything we do.
  • We learn best when we teach others, and in a multi-grade classroom, there are many genuine and appropriate moments for children to teach and help one another.
  • Students, by necessity, learn (and are specifically taught) how to work independently, and are often engaged in individual learning pursuits, whether it is by choosing topics and designing ways to represent and share their learning, by enrolling in one or more online courses, or by working with a local mentor.
  • Students also work in groups. They learn (are specifically taught) how to be helpers, coaches, and supporters for one another. Families and community are often an extension of a multi-grade school, and groups are sometimes multi-generational.
  • Curriculum (competencies, knowledge and skills) is viewed as more of a continuum than in single-grade classes. Development is the key, and there is more room for developing at individual paces from different ability levels, regardless of grade. Likewise, expanded opportunities to engage in individual interests are also present.
  • Multiage settings more closely reflect an indigenous way of learning. Age segregation is a contrived practice, not based on human development or learning theory, but a model of efficiency in manufacturing. Learning at home and outside of school is multi-age, even more so in less-westernized societies. It is only in schools that children are so narrowly confined to their own age groups.

There are not many schools in BC that are intentionally multi-grade; perhaps the time has come to consider the multi-grade classroom as a successful model for personalizing education. The BC Rural and Small Schools Teachers’ Association invites the Innovation Partnership Working Group to consider, explore and research multi-grade teaching and learning as a way to personalize education in both large and small schools. Our association is a voice for teachers in a wide variety of multi-grade classrooms. We seek to continually improve our practice as multi-grade educators, and believe there is much to be gained by involving researchers in our practice. There are a number of multi-grade teachers in our association that are willing to be part of this initiative, and we feel that involving more than one school in the research may be beneficial; very few multi-grade teachers have been specifically trained to teach such a wide range of grades together, yet there are strong commonalities across our individual practices with the diverse configurations of children we teach.
Thank you for considering our proposal. If you would like further information, please contact me initially by e-mail:
Respectfully submitted

Heather Johnson
BC Rural & Multi-grade Teachers’ Association
(Provincial Specialist Association of the BCTF)