Critical Issue: Enhancing Learning Through Multiage Grouping

  ISSUE: Redesigning schools to nurture the developmental needs (social, emotional, intellectual, and physical) of all children is one of the significant challenges educators face in the 21st century. The use of multiage grouping, an alternative to the conventional graded classroom, is one viable means that schools may consider in order to meet this challenge.

Overview | Goals | Action Options | Pitfalls | Different Viewpoints | Cases | Contacts | References

  OVERVIEW: Multiage classrooms utilize an organizational structure in which children of different ages (at least a two-year span) and ability levels are grouped together, without dividing them or the curriculum into steps labeled by grade designation (Gaustad, 1992). A multitude of terms has been used interchangeably and sometimes confusingly in literature pertaining to multiage education: mixed-age grouping, multigrade classes, family grouping, nongraded or ungraded education, and continuous progress model (Katz, 1992; American Association of School Administrators, 1992). For consistency and clarity, the term multiage will be used throughout this document.

"The multigrade classroom has traditionally been an important and necessary organizational pattern of education in the United States," notes Miller (1993, p. 65). Multiage education dates back to the one-room schools that were the norm in this country until being phased out in the early part of the 1900s (Cohen, 1990; Miller, 1993). From the mid-1960s through mid-1970s, a number of schools implemented open education, ungraded classrooms, and multiage grouping. Although some schools continued to refine and develop the multiage concept, many of these programs disappeared from public schools as a result of negative parental reactions and a major mismatch between the teaching methods and the curricular expectations and materials of that period (Uphoff & Evans, 1993; Miller, 1993). In some magnet schools, private schools, and preschools, however, multiage programs continued to thrive.

Interest in the potential benefits of multiage grouping has increased steadily again in recent years. The growing interest is due to a greater focus on the importance of the early years in efforts to restructure the educational system (Stone, 1995; Katz, 1992; Anderson, 1992; Willis, 1991; Cohen, 1990) and an awareness of the limitations of graded education. The realization that childrens' 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). More and more schools are implementing multiage programs because of the current educational practices embedded in the multiage model that address these issues (Cohen, 1990).

Tim Laner's Picture Tim Laner, a K-1-2 multiage teacher at Buckman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, describes a multiage classroom at the primary level. [672k audio file] Excerpted from a videotaped interview with Tim Laner (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1998). A text version is available.

Multiage education has benefits for a wide range of children. Although multiage grouping is commonly implemented at the preschool and primary levels, it also is appropriate at the intermediate, middle school, and junior high levels. The National Middle School Association (1997) has identified multiage grouping, cooperative learning, heterogeneous grouping, developmentally appropriate learning tasks, cross-age tutoring, flexible scheduling, and positive evaluations as important instructional strategies for older children. Multiage grouping also is beneficial for gifted and special-needs students (Nye, 1993). Gifted children are challenged to achieve to their potential because there is no limitation of a grade-level curriculum. Special-needs children in mixed-aged grouping typically find that their individual differences are accepted and their contributions are recognized. In addition, at-risk children and children for whom English is a second language also are likely to benefit from the multiage classroom. Mixed-age grouping may be a lifeline to children at risk because it encourages self-respect and creates a learning environment that keeps students involved and motivated. Children whose primary language is other than English typically receive special support and assistance from their multiage classmates (Grant, 1993).

The look of multiage classrooms today is quite different from their predecessors of the 1960s and 1970s. One way that current multiage programs differ from earlier models is their grounding in the work of researchers and theorists that focuses on the learning process and supports the various attributes and strategies embedded in the multiage model. Although programs in existence today differ from school to school and district to district, they all seem to share common characteristics. Examination of successful multiage programs along with the current literature reveals the importance of several critical attributes in multiage education. Many of these identified attributes can be found in a variety of settings as a part of good teaching practice; all are embedded in the multiage model:

Besides the growing research base on learning, renewed interest in multiage education is fostered by several other factors. Administrators are more supportive of curriculum change (Mackey, Johnson, & Wood, 1995) and better prepared to assume the role of facilitator and to share decision making with their staff (Fox, 1997; Anderson & Pavan, 1993). Teachers are familiar with curricular and instructional options that typify multiage classrooms, such as developmentally appropriate practices (Fox, 1997; Cohen, 1990), cooperative learning, team teaching, process writing, literature-based reading, and the use of manipulatives in mathethematics instruction (Fox, 1997; Uphoff & Evans, 1993). Both teachers and principals understand the necessity for professional communication and collaboration (Fox, 1997; Anderson & Pavan, 1993).

The benefits of mixed-age grouping may be another factor leading educators to consider this model for their schools. Studies on nongraded programs have yielded information about both achievement and affective gains. Based on a review of 64 studies, Anderson and Pavan (1993) concluded that on achievement tests, children in nongraded groups perform as well as or better than children in graded groups. Guiterrez and Slavin (1992) synthesized the findings of several decades of research comparing the achievement of K-6 students in both nongraded and traditional arrangements. Their analysis, which reviewed research on various nongraded models, indicates that according to standardized measures, the achievement of students in nongraded programs is equivalent to or greater than that of students in graded programs. Other research results also support positive achievement effects.

Achievement effects are only one benefit of multiage grouping. This instructional approach encourages meaningful, engaged learning that often is self-directed. The organizational structure of the multiage classroom encourages children to take personal responsibility for learning (Nye, 1993). 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 centers, and reflect on their growth and learning (Stone, 1995; Nye, 1993).

Many affective gains also have been documented in multiage research. Students show increased self-esteem, more cooperative behavior, better attitudes toward school in general, increased prosocial (caring, tolerant, patient, supportive) behavior, enriched personal relationships, increased personal responsibility, and a decline in discipline problems (Mackey, Johnson, & Wood, 1995; Stone, 1995; Anderson & Pavan, 1993; Uphoff & Evans, 1993; Grant, 1993; Gutierrez & Slavin, 1992; Lodish, 1992; Katz, Evangelou, & Hartman, 1990; Miller, 1993; Villa & Thousand, 1993; Pratt, 1993). For example, preliminary results of an investigation by McClellan and Kinsey (1996) suggest thatmixed-age grouping helps children develop social skills and a sense of belonging. These affective gains are due in part to the fact that competition is minimized as children progress at their own pace and individual differences are celebrated (Fox, 1997; Stone, 1995; Katz, 1995; Anderson & Pavan, 1993). Older students in particular develop mentoring and leadership skills as a result of serving as role models and helping the younger children (Stone, 1995; Nye, 1993).

Beth Rohloff's Picture Beth Rohloff, a K-1-2 multiage teacher at Buckman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, describes the cooperation, social skills, and positive role-modeling that students display in a multiage classroom. [784k audio file] Excerpted from a videotaped interview with Beth Rohloff (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1998). A text version is available.

Because multiage classrooms emphasize the developmental process, parents usually are asked to accept a greater role in helping their children learn through home-learning activities and in-class participation. Parents also are asked at conferences to help set goals for their children's learning. Many opportunities exist for parent volunteers to come into the school as well (Privett, 1996; Nye, 1993; Anderson & Pavan, 1993; American Association of School Administrators, 1992). Parents involved in multiage programs have a greater voice in decision making at the school. They are asked for input on a variety of topics, included in discussions, and invited to join committees (Anderson & Pavan, 1993; American Association of School Administrators, 1992). (For more information on involving parents and families, refer to the Critical Issues "Creating the School Climate and Structures to Support Parent and Family Involvement" and "Constructing School Partnerships with Families and Community Groups.")

Relationships among students, teachers, and parents are enriched as a result of working together for more than one year. Both students and parents have a greater sense of security, and the relationships between school and home are more meaningful (Fox, 1997; Stone, 1995; Anderson & Pavan, 1993; Mazzuchi & Brooks, 1993). As a result of working together for multiple years, parents become more comfortable with teachers (Grant, 1993; Mazzuchi & Brooks, 1993).

Tim Laner's Picture Tim Laner, a K-1-2 multiage teacher at Buckman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, describes how a multiage program provides an opportunity to develop close relationships between students, teachers, and families. [364k audio file] Excerpted from a videotaped interview with Tim Laner (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1998). A text version is available.

Both teachers and children benefit from the increased participation, communication, and support of parents (Fox, 1997; Anderson & Pavan, 1993). A parent's willingness to be part of the school team enables teachers to be more effective, resulting in a better education for children (American Association of School Administrators, 1992). To encourage parent and family participation, schools can emphasize building support for multiage education through effective communication, involvement strategies, and shared decision making.

Teachers benefit from being in a multiage setting as well. Teachers involved in team teaching see greater collaboration and communication among their colleagues. Teaming also increases skill development among the staff (Fox, 1997; Anderson & Pavan, 1993). Teachers report being revitalized by the challenges of multiage practice, and they feel more confident in their teaching because children's development is seen in a less fragmented way. This renewed interest and confidence allows teachers to refocus on children's whole development in the classroom.

Beth Rohloff's Picture Beth Rohloff, a K-1-2 multiage teacher at Buckman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, states that teaching a multiage class has given her a greater understanding of children's development and allowed her to refine her teaching skills and expectations. [392k audio file] Excerpted from a videotaped interview with Beth Rohloff (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1998). A text version is available.

The increased learning time in a multiage setting also is beneficial to teachers; it allows teachers to spread out the curriculum over longer periods of time for maximum learning. Teachers also benefit because there is no need to spend a great deal of time at the beginning of each school year assessing and getting to know children. Also, less time is devoted to developing class routines because the previous year's students are able to assist new students.

Clearly, many benefits exist for the students, parents, and teachers of multiage programs. These benefits, coupled with current research on learning, provide a strong argument for implementing a multiage program. Miller (1996), however, cautions that the adoption of multiage practice involves a great deal of change; sufficient forethought, planning, and participation by key stakeholders (anyone who may be affected by the change) are essential to creating a multiage program that is lasting and productive. The active involvement of administrators and school board members is essential in creating support and providing ongoing professional development for multiage practice. At least a full year of planning, reading, discussion, and observation of successful multiage programs--prior to implementation--is strongly recommended (Miller, 1996; Nye, 1993; Grant, 1993; Gaustad, 1992).

A team of volunteers consisting of teachers, parents, administrators, and school board members can be formed to initiate the study period. It is essential to involve all stakeholders from the beginning to ensure a successful transition. "The implementation of multiage instruction and organization is best viewed as an evolving long-term change at the deepest levels of belief about how humans learn," notes Miller (1996, p. 17). It is important to keep everyone clearly updated on the evolution of the program (Miller, 1996; Nye, 1993; Anderson & Pavan, 1993; Gaustad, 1992; Calkins, 1993). Through readings, discussion, and observation, the team can come to consensus on the basic principles they hold. This ability to reach consensus can be a measuring stick for determining the readiness of the school for multiage education (Anderson & Pavan, 1993). Team members can reflect on how the school's beliefs compare to those of multiage education. Then they can decide if the time is right to move into planning for the critical attributes or if further discussion and education are required.

As a stepping stone, staff can begin preparing for a change to multiage practice in more gradual ways by implementing looping, in which a teacher stays with a class of children for two or more grade levels, or a by developing a pilot program for multiage education. Such approaches help prepare teachers and administrators for implementing the multiage classroom.

After a team determines to move forward with planning a multiage program, special consideration needs to be given to teacher preparation and support. Several studies have revealed that teacher and parent understanding and support of multiage education is the paramount factor in a program's success (Miller, 1996; American Association of School Administrators, 1992). While each team must consider the skills and knowledge of its staff when creating a professional development plan, practical training in multiage teaching is a necessity (Miller, 1996). School visitations and contact with experienced multiage teachers can be a powerful element of training (Miller, 1996; Privett, 1996; Gaustad, 1992). The need for administrative support clearly signals that administrators and school board members should be included in such professional development activities.

Schools that have successfully implemented multiage programs recognize the potential need for professional development in varied instructional strategies such as: cooperative learning, literature-based reading, process writing, manipulative math, and other developmentally appropriate practices (Anderson & Pavan, 1993). Regardless of the staff development plan a school may adopt, teachers need time for training and for sharing ideas about the ways they assist children and approach their teaching. Allocating time for collaboration and planning must continue after a program is implemented. Experts agree that teaching in a multiage setting requires more preparation time and long-range planning (Gaustad, 1992; American Association of School Administrators, 1992).

When creating the multiage program, the purchase of teaching material well suited to the principles of multiage practice must be thoroughly planned (Miller, 1996; Stone, 1995). This planning applies to space and facilities as well. Adequate space must exist in order for teachers to prepare the proper learning environment. Several instructional areas need to be established within the multiage classroom: a large group meeting area, a place for small group instruction, and independent workspace. Children should be able to move freely without feeling crowded (Fox, 1997; Stone, 1995; American Association of School Administrators, 1992).

Careful attention also must be given to the development of a system for managing authentic student assessment, reporting to parents, and adding standardized testing if required by state laws or district policies. In the multiage setting, teachers dealing with widely varying developmental levels need a comprehensive, user-friendly system of authentic assessment that is neither overburdening to teachers nor results in reduced teaching time (Anderson & Pavan, 1993). A portfolio system can meet the criteria by enabling teachers to collect information in an ongoing fashion as a part of daily learning. Portfolio assessment accomplishes three main goals: documenting student growth and progress, supporting and guiding instruction, and communicating information about students to both parents and children (Stone, 1995).

Another way to assess student growth and plan instruction is the use of learning descriptions, an assessment tool that lists student abilities and accomplishments in various content and developmental areas. With this tool, which typically is used in primary groupings, teachers can document students' patterns of growth over time and can have a continuous record for communicating with parents.

Finally, during the planning stage, decisions need to be made regarding the continuous progress attribute of multiage education. For most children, the increased learning time in multiage programs results in extra time to accomplish necessary learning by the end of a multiage cycle, so that children who appear to be slightly behind during the first year, catch up by the end of the cycle (Grant, 1993; Stone, 1995; Mazzuchi & Brooks, 1993). Helpful activities can be built into the curriculum to support children who are experiencing specific difficulties, and there is time to revisit concepts more than once (Stone, 1995; Anderson & Pavan, 1993; Mazzuchi & Brooks, 1993). Multiage progams can be based on two classroom configurations to allow for this progress: overlapping age ranges at different levels, or combining a specific number of grade levels in each multiage classroom. Programs that have overlapping age ranges allow teachers to make decisions about moving children to the next level based on accomplished learning, as opposed to age or grade level. Programs that are based on grade level have other options to ensure continuous progress.

Consideration also should be given to the transition of students from a multiage setting to a graded setting. Eventually, children will move from the nongraded primary or elementary level into a graded system. Results from a number of multiage programs demonstrate that elementary students from multiage settings adjust very quickly and easily to the social environment, routines, and expectations of the next graded level (Anderson & Pavan, 1993).

A key step in implementing a multiage program is ongoing evaluation. Program evaluation provides valuable feedback, indicates whether goals are being reached, and offers suggestions for new strategies. In addition to monitoring student progress, schools can use an evaluation and self-assessment tool to evaluate their own progress in implementing various components of the multiage model.

Simply grouping children of a variety of ages together in a classroom will not yield the benefits documented in the research pertaining to multiage education. In order to obtain these benefits, thoughtful planning must occur (Katz, 1992). Time must be taken in preparing teachers and the community. Goals must be established to reflect the multiage philosophy and its critical attributes. Education, open discussion, and a strong commitment to realizing those goals must exist in order to create a multiage program that continues to be an important and necessary pattern of education.


  ACTION OPTIONS: Administrators and teachers can take the following steps to plan and implement multiage education:

  IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: The multiage model is labor intensive and requires more planning, collaboration, and professional development than the conventional graded classroom (Miller, 1996; Gaustad, 1992; American Association of School Administrators, 1992; Cushman, 1993). Sufficient planning time must be arranged to meet the needs of both teachers and students. Insufficient planning, staff development, materials, support, and assessment procedures will impact the success of the multiage program (Fox, 1997; Miller, 1996; Nye, 1993).

The multiage model also requires a new approach to curriculum development and teaching. The conventional school curriculum does not address the needs of the multiage class. Teachers must be given time and resources to create a developmentally appropriate curriculum. Team teaching can be difficult for some teachers; there is a need for constant communication. Personality traits and teaching styles must be taken into consideration when creating teams of teachers (Cushman, 1993).

Teachers who have not received professional development on working with different ages in the same classroom may initially be resistant to multiage practice. They may think of the class as a split class or combined class and try to teach a different curriculum for each grade level in the class. This type of instruction does not fit the critical attributes of multiage education (Stone, 1995). Focusing on the needs of individual children and using a multiage curriculum are essential in multiage classes.

Care must be taken when determining the composition of the multiage class in terms of student ability and age ranges. Multiage groups must be kept heterogeneous. Schools should avoid ability-grouped classes and grouping high-achieving younger students with low-achieving older students (Stone, 1995). Also, selecting a three-year multiage model, as opposed to a two-year model, can pose other difficulties; a multiage teacher's workload and time commitment increases in direct proportion to the mixed age span (Grant, 1993).

It may be tempting to begin creating a multiage program quickly. Many promising practices and innovations have been put into use impulsively without a basic understanding of critical factors. These programs have failed and made the public question valuable practices. Issues such as teacher readiness, staff ownership, parental involvement, and collaborative planning must be considered if the multiage program is to have a positive and lasting effect (Fox, 1997; Miller, 1996; Nye, 1993).

Katz (1996) addresses some of the potential risks of mixed-age grouping: Younger children may feel intimidated or overwhelmed by more competent classmates, and they may become burdens to older ones by continually asking for help. Older children may not be sufficiently challenged in the classroom, and they may become overbearing or bossy with younger children. To remedy these situations, teachers can offer reassurance to younger children that skills will develop over time; teachers also can encourage younger children to practice skills on their own instead of interrupting the older children. Likewise, teachers must remember to provide challenges for the older and more experienced children; this approach is important in every classroom, even when student age is not a factor (Stone, 1995; Katz, 1992). With regard to potential behavioral problems, the risk of bullying in mixed-age groups actually is less than in traditional graded schools because older students develop leadership skills and patience when working with younger children.

The classroom size and layout may not be conducive to multiage practice. The room should be large enough to provide adequate space for individual, small-group, and large-group work. The room arrangement should establish areas for learning centers and provide separate sections for active and quiet activities. Children should have easy access to learning materials and manipulatives (Fox, 1996b).

  DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Although it promotes multiage grouping as an effective educational strategy, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (1996) recognizes that multiage education is only one way to achieve child-centered practices in the primary grades. Cushman (1993) suggests that schools should provide developmentally appropriate strategies in graded as well as nongraded classrooms, and children should be placed where it is expected they will do best. By providing a variety of options within a school, all children--regardless of class placement--will have the opportunity to experience a developmentally appropriate education.

Many educators and parents believe that single-age or single-grade classrooms are better equipped to meet the needs of children. They tout the advantages of a set curriculum designed to focus on a specific level of development, a narrower span of developmental and ability levels, and a sequence of skills taught.

Others believe that looping is a viable alternative to multiage grouping since it allows children to enjoy the benefits of working with the same teacher for more than one year while retaining the conventional graded organizational pattern.

  ILLUSTRATIVE CASES: Following are examples of successful multiage programs:


Shirley Anderson, Principal
Lincoln School
200 W. Maple St.
Mundelein, IL 60060
(847) 949-2720

Mark Bessen, Principal
Lake George Elementary School
69 Sun Valley Drive
Lake George, NY 12845
(518) 668-5714; fax (518) 668-5876

Cheryl L. Fox, K-12 Districtwide Curriculum Director
Grand Rapids Public Schools
1331 Franklin S.E.
Grand Rapids, MI 49501-0117
(616) 771-2082

National Alliance of Multiage Educators (NAME)
Society for Developmental Education
10 Sharon Road
Peterborough, NH 03458
(800) 924-9621

National Multiage Institute
Center for Excellence in Education
Northern Arizona University
P.O. Box 5774
Flagstaff, Az 86011-5774
(520) 523-4280
Contact: Dr. Sandra Stone, Director

Russell Yates, Multiage Teacher
Chimacum Elementary School
P.O. Box 278
Chimacum, WA 98325


This Critical Issue was written by Debra Johnson, a freelance writer who also is a multiage resource teacher at Lincoln School in Mundelein, Illinois, in collaboration with Cheryl L. Fox, K-12 districtwide curriculum director, Grand Rapids (Michigan) Public Schools.

Date posted: 1998
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