Multiage classrooms are nothing new today

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Introduction

Multiage classrooms are nothing new. Back in the days of the one-room schoolhouse, children of all ages studied together with the help of one teacher. In the 1990s, multiage classrooms took on a whole new meaning (Miller, 1993). Fluctuating enrollments, teacher layoffs, and financial operating cost cutbacks have been among the top reasons for schools, especially in rural America, to look towards the multiage classroom. Multiage classrooms are the preferred cost-cutting measure but the effectiveness of multiage classroom instruction has created much concern and attention.

In the mid-1960's through mid-1970s many schools implemented open education and multiage grouping. (Miller, 1996). "Some schools tried to develop the multiage concept but many of these programs disappeared because of negative parental reactions and a mismatch between the teaching methods and the curricular expectations", notes (Miller, 1993, p.65). In the 1990s, the use of the multiage classroom began to gain strength. Schools developed mixed age and grade classrooms and began teaching them as multiage groups only to face frustration and criticism. The move to the multiage classroom was often done to save school districts money instead of a better way to educate our children. Because of this they rarely were successful and met with frustrated educators as they were never trained in the philosophy of multiage education (Miller, 1993).

However, some educators, in the mid-1990s, still wanted to change the way they educated children and continued to look more closely into the multiage class setting as a new alternative to teaching. A few teachers established multiage classrooms and developed programs that showed success. When other schools realized the success, the idea started to spread to other schools, then districts, then to states (Miller, 1996).

Many researchers have tried to determine why the traditional single grade classroom has survived so long when there is evidence that it might not be the most effective method for learning. Many have concluded that it is just been around so long that society has a difficult time accepting change. "The realization that children's' uneven developmental patterns and differing rates of progress are ill-matched to the rigid grade-level system has left teachers searching for a better way to meet the needs of all students" (Miller, 1996, p.66).

Multiage education has emerged with great force since the 1990s as a viable alternative. Our educators today see the use of multiage classrooms as a good way for children to learn from each other, play as a group together, and learn to accept the diversity of their fellow classmates. Teachers encourage children to apply skills and strategies and to help each other learn. Children keep track of their progress in learning activities, make choices in learning activities, and reflect on their growth and learning (Stone, 1994).

The multiage systems are all different in some ways but in other ways are the same. Multiage classes include at least a two year grade span where students stay with the same teacher or group of teachers. Students tend to show increased self-esteem, cooperative behavior, better attitudes toward school, increased positive social behavior, increased personal responsibility and less discipline problems (Stone, 1994). Finally, the classroom is created with the child in mind rather than just for economic reasons.

This paper summarizes recent studies to determine the effects of multiage classroom instruction on student performance. The study investigates the benefits, challenges and views of teachers, administrators and parents in one rural eastern Oregon K-12 School.

Literature Review

The effectiveness of multiage classroom instruction has been of great concern among teachers, administrators and parents. Working in a multiage classroom requires teachers to be committed to hard work considering that most have been educated to teach in single grade classrooms organized around a small ability group or whole class instruction. Based on this many parents, teachers and administrators are not sure of the multiage organization and its effect on student performance. This paper reviews recent studies to determine the effects of multiage classroom instruction on student performance. The paper reviews and analyzes various studies, showing both the benefits and challenges of multiage classroom instruction and its effect on student performance. Practices Associated With Multiage Education

Many educational practices are associated with multiage education. Not all multiage programs are the same but often use a form of developmentally appropriate instruction, team teaching, or centers in their classrooms.

Developmentally appropriate practices are a must in a multiage classroom according to Stone (Stone, 1994). These practices help every child learn at his or her own level. Most multiage classrooms are set up to work with students in groups by age, grade, or ability, but the overall practice looks at the children as one group of learners with different levels of needs (Stone, 1994).

Team teaching is another helpful aspect for success in the multiage classroom. In team teaching two or more teachers balance their time with use of flexible scheduling. The use of centers becomes attractive as the team of teachers is able to split up and devote their time amongst the centers. Centers are often used in team teaching which provides benefits for students by incorporating different learning styles and interests. The needs of children are more easily meet by developing centers that provide a range of developmentally appropriate activities (Miller, 1996).

Multiage Grouping and Student Performance

Many studies and reviews have been conducted on the effects of multiage grouping and how it affects student achievement. According to Mason and Burns (1996), "There are small negative effects because administers tend to place the more independent, more cooperative and more able students in a multiage age class together" (p.311). In their study, they reveal greater stress upon the teachers and declining attention to individual students. They attribute a negative effect on the students due to greater classroom demands.

Ong, Allison and Haladyna (2000) conducted a study with a group of K-3 students with Title 1 status in three school districts to determine whether the type of students taught was affected by the multiage classroom organization. They concluded that Title I students benefited from the multiage grouping as they tended to collaborate together and achieved great success in learning and retaining math, language, and reading skills in this manner (Ong, Allison and Haladyna, 2000).

At a small Nebraska school whose state rating was near the bottom on academic performance, a new administrator formed a group of eight teachers to research strategies that had been successful at other schools to try to implement these strategies into this school to see if they improved student performance. According to Melliger (2005) the teachers decided to do extensive research on multiage programs throughout the country. After the research and planning was completed, this school developed a 5/6 multiage classroom in a two year long pilot program. Extensive monitoring and recording of each student was done in each subject area and after one full year, they found that the students' test scores were at least as high as or higher in some subjects than the students in traditional classrooms. The entire school then went to multiage classrooms and students' performance continued to improve. The biggest obstacle was the acceptance by the parents. Even though they saw improvement in their children's school achievement, they had received misinformation about how multiage classrooms work (Melliger, 2005). The education of parents was found to be a key element of success of the multiage classroom. Melliger (2005) also stated that long-range planning and attention to detailed preparation by teachers is of extreme importance because it insures that all students are educated to pass the state testing, which is a leading goal among many school districts (Melliger, 2005).

Parent and Student Views of Multiage Classrooms

Research on parent and student views of multiage classrooms were conducted by Bergen (1995) she states that a study with 168 children and their parents was completed. The students were all six to eight years of age and two interviews were conducted; one at the beginning of the school year in which multiage class groupings had been implemented, and the other at the completion of the year. The findings differed for younger and older children. The parents and students were in agreement on their views regarding the younger children, who they believe benefited from the modeling of learning that was present in the classroom with the older students. The study also revealed that the older students and their parents had concerns that their children might not be learning. They felt the context lacked the challenge necessary for the eight year olds. The study did not provide the answers to the concerns about the context, so further research is needed to find a way to measure the actual performance of each child (Bergen, 1995). Overall, both parents and students were in favor of continuing the multiage classroom format but requested their concerns to be researched in depth.

Classroom Structure

Classroom observation and interviews were conducted to research the multiage classrooms serving students in grade three to five by Hoffman (2003). Teachers in multiage classrooms were interviewed and observed to obtain insights into the teaching and learning that takes place in multiage classrooms and ways in which multiage teachers address diversity within their classrooms. The study was conducted over a short period of time, with four multiage teachers and their students as participants. It was found that the teachers had four practices in common: 1) Student seating, to create arrangements with boys and girls together and thereby provide opportunities for collaboration within each group, 2) Instructional practices that encouraged student-directed learning, 3) Meeting the needs of diversity among their students. 4. Teachers organized content to make connections relevant to their students' lives. (Hoffman, 2003). The study also found that these teachers used instructional practices such as differentiated instruction, flexible grouping, social collaboration, student choice, and curriculum that was approached from different levels of interest and ability.

Strategies for Teaching in Multiage Classrooms

A study into the strategies for teaching children in multiage classrooms was conducted by Stone (1994) in a K-3 multiage classroom. Stone (1994) states, "Teachers should focus on teaching children rather than teaching curriculum" (p.102). Teachers often become frustrated when they try to teach grade specific curriculum in a multiage classroom, but if they have appropriate instructional strategies, they find multiage classes to be exciting and rewarding. The research found the success of the multiage classroom focused on developing children's social skills and teaching broad academic subjects such as writing, math, and reading. It was felt that this method helped the students to see themselves as progressive and successful learners. Stone (1994) also stated that a teacher must guide, nurture and support the learning process and not just be a "giver of knowledge" (p.103). Social interaction in mixed-age groups was felt to be of high importance. Cooperative learning groups and peer tutoring were found to be an effective strategy. Very little large-group instruction took place; small groupings based on the interests of the children were the norm.

According to Stone (1994), assessment by the teachers was conducted primarily through portfolios, which was seen as the ideal to document the progress of each individual child. By use of portfolios, children could be assessed on their own personal achievement and potential and not in comparison with other students. The teachers found the portfolios to also be an instruction guide as the portfolios showed each student's strengths, weaknesses and interests. The results of the assessment showed that multiage classrooms were successful (Stone, 1994).

Students Motivation and Ability to Learn

A student's motivation and ability to learn is influenced by what is happening in different areas of his or her life. Multiage classrooms involve students from different grades and age spending most of their learning time together (Miller, 1996). The learning environment is patterned like a family. The children tend to motivate other students and themselves increasing their ability to learn. (Miller, 1996). An example of this is when third graders are educated with fifth graders and perform a task; the instructor will then congratulate them as a group. This then motivates the students to perform other tasks some challenging them to learn more. Students also learn to respect others and to solve problems together (Miller, 1996).

Teachers in multiage classrooms tend to require students to use skills that represent daily life situations (Hopping, 2000). An example of this is in real life there are people with higher abilities and those with lower abilities in various aspects of life, all living in society together. Similarly, in multiage classrooms, students interact with one another at different ability levels. In a students lives they are likely to live with people of lower or higher ability levels than themselves. In a multiage classroom, teachers have students participate in activities that will force them to compare their knowledge to complete a task. The teachers observe activities such as, demonstrations, presentations, exhibits to aide them in assessing each student. The results are then recorded into individual portfolios. This allows the teachers to clearly see each student's strengths and weaknesses. (Hopping, 2000).

Benefits of the Multiage Classroom

Educators, parents, administrators, and students identify many benefits of multiage classrooms. These benefits are grouped into several categories: students benefit due to mixed-age environment, because of the multiple-year experience (Stone, 1994). Older students also tend to provide instruction to their younger classmates. When a student shows another student how to do a skill, it introduces the skill to one student while helping the other student strengthen his or her own understanding of the skill. "Children need opportunities to learn cooperatively and to experience the value of collaboration" (Stone, 1994, p.104). "Ultimately, social interaction leads to a better understanding of learning" (Stone, 1994, p. 104).

The similarity of a child's life to the world around them helps benefit a student in a multiage classroom. "Certainly, grouping students strictly by age does not reflect a naturalistic life-like setting in which people of different ages learn from each other" (Miller, 1996, p. 14). When a child takes part in a team sport, neighborhood game, or just playing with friends, it is not uncommon for him to interact with other children of various ages. To a child the multiage classroom setting is therefore more natural to his own life outside of school (Miller, 1996).

In a multiage classroom older students have the opportunity to help their younger classmates, this in turn teaches them to be more helpful, understanding, and patient of the younger students. The older students thus gain self-confidence, and self-esteem. When students remain in the same classroom for more than one year, they have the opportunity to aid the younger students with class procedures (Miller, 1996). The transition time for the new students is then shortened. Students who continue on in the same classroom also have become familiar with each other and time is not needed to transition into a new setting each year. The youngest, shyest children become comfortable asking for help from their older classmates. "The older students teach the younger ones the classroom procedures, read them stories, and help them in other academic areas." (Cushman, 1990, p.30). "The older students then gain leadership and nurturing skills" (Cushman, 1990, p.30).

A multiage philosophy develops students of a particular age or grade to work at a variety of academic and developmental levels. It is supported by an environment in which materials and learning strategies include individual as well as group needs (Miller, 1996). "Lessons may be presented to the group as a whole or with different levels and abilities. Students sometimes work in groups based on ability rather than age or grade. The lines drawn between ages and grades tend to disappear. This structure looks at the students as one group of learners with varying levels of needs rather than a grade level" (Cushman, 1990, p. 28).

Benefits to Teachers

Teachers also experience advantages working with students in a multiage classroom. One of the largest benefits to teachers is that they have additional time to work with the same group of children. Usually they teach each child for two or three years and this gives time for the teacher to assess each child and his or her strengths and weaknesses. The teachers know the majority of students and where they were performing at the end of the previous year. Instead of spending weeks getting to know all the students personally and academically, a teacher only needs to assess the new students who have entered the class each year. (Cushman, 1990).

Challenges to Teachers

The challenges of the multiage classroom can be frustrating and intensive to the teacher. Negative reactions from parents and fellow staff are an ongoing concern. A successful multiage classroom takes a lot of initial and continued planning. Planning curriculum, lessons, and schedules needs to focus toward the philosophy that views children together regardless of age or grade, and views the whole classroom as one community of learners. Teachers need time for training to teach in a multiage classroom. They also need extra time for sharing ideas with fellow teachers to assist them in their approach to effectively teach in the multiage classroom (Cushman, 1990).

Labor Intensive

Most multiage classrooms require a lot of planning and development to arrange them in a way that will successfully meet the needs of students, parents and teachers (Veenman, 1995). Time to meet the needs of different ages with open-ended assignments and projects is very important. Time is also the requirement for students to observe others, help each other and interact. Insufficient planning is likely to interfere with the success of the multiage classroom and the students' learning process. The time it takes to create the assignments to meet all the students' needs and the time to complete them successfully can be very labor intensive upon the teacher (Veenman, 1995). In interviews conducted with teachers in a 1995 study, Veenman (1995) shared his findings from the interviews with the teachers in Holland: "Interview data showed the teachers in the multigrade classes to be less satisfied with their jobs than their counterparts in single-age classes as a result of the heavy teaching load and demands for classroom management." (Veenman, 1995, p. 321)

Teachers sometimes also find it difficult to work together with a team because of the need to constant communication. Differences in personality and teaching styles must be carefully considered when creating a team to teach in a multiage classroom to lessen the frustration upon the teachers (Cushman, 1990).

Younger children feel overwhelmed or intimidated

A great challenge when placing children of different ages into the same classroom is that younger children are likely to feel overwhelmed and intimated by older classmates. (Hoffman, 2003). Another point of concern is that younger children might be expected to accomplish developmentally inappropriate tasks and feel unnecessarily pressured (Stone, 1994).

Older children are not sufficiently challenged

Older children may not gain new skills because the younger children are constantly asking for their help to solve problems or acquire a skill. The older children run the risk of just repeating skills that they already know. The concern that the older child will not be academically challenged with demanding curriculum is a large area of concern among parents. Another point of concern with the older child is not providing enough attention to learning their own academic level in the multiage classroom (Veenman, 1995).

Teachers tend to relax

Teachers tend to set up groups in ways so that the less competent students can learn from the more competent students. (Lester, 2005). As the students tend to help each other out, teachers tend to relax as they feel the less competent are being taught by the more competent students. Teachers need to encourage the younger children to practice skills on their own and provide the older students with challenges. This is a challenge for the teacher as it takes time and careful planning to implement into their multiage classrooms (Stone, 1994).

Difficulties in designing the curriculum

Difficulties in designing curriculum that will be taught and the process in which it will be taught is an ongoing challenge within the multiage classroom (Hopping, 2000). Most teachers are trained to teach in single grade classrooms which target a small ability group or whole class instruction. Teachers who are placed into multiage classrooms face difficulties in their efforts to design a curriculum that will effectively teach students in different grades and ages. Teachers also find it difficult to design a curriculum that meets the guidelines set forth by the department of education without offending the expectations of parents and students in multiage classrooms. Teachers often times will integrate topics, selecting fewer for the year, to allot more time on each topic (Sims, 2008).

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