The Multi-Age Classroom

People learn and work at different rates, so why do we have everyone on the same rate-of-mastery schedule unless something is “wrong” with them? What if we could have students working on similar skills at the same level in the same classroom without labeling them as “smart”, “special needs”, or the dreaded “normal”? (It’s amazing how often a student falls through the cracks because she was “normal” and therefore didn’t require more effort than kids with the other two labels.)

In current multi-age classrooms, teachers are looking more toward grouping by skill level than by school grade level so that students move between mastery groups when they’re ready without encouraging a feeling of “low” or “high” learners. Because they’re able to master their skills in their own time, multi-age classroom students tend to show better retention and a more genuine sense of self-esteem. It also encourages peer teaching and mentoring among students, supporting social growth and collaboration. Also, to facilitate appropriate activities, integrating disciplines becomes necessary.

Preparing teachers to function in a multi-age classroom is a challenge because the grade level system has been in place for so long that traditional teachers tend to think only in the methodologies that best suit a lecture-based, single-age/discipline classroom. The multi-age classroom, in general, resembles the Montessori classroom (which is multi-age by design) — filled with student-directed projects within the topical structure presented by the teacher. It does encourage the teacher to take on a more flexible teaching style, acting as facilitator and resource as often as authority and disciplinarian.

The fluidity of the multi-age classrooms means that students can move between skill levels once they’ve proven their mastery over the topic they were working. This proof of mastery can come in many forms, but increasingly is proven through projects and practical exercises. The need for grade levels and the pressure for social promotion aren’t as necessary, creating a less stressful learning environment for those children who just need a little more time to learn a specific concept or those children who zip through a concept and need a new direction.

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