I’m reprinting, in three parts, with a little added commentary, a piece I wrote 20 years ago on a classroom that was working well by imitating the natural learning that happens in a home. Part I described what the multi-age classroom looked like. Today’s part II covers some of the research, which was newer at the time, and possibly less adulterated by “experts.”
Howard Gardner’s “theory of multiple intelligences”[i] for instance, has had an effect on how information is offered to students. Gardner has identified seven intelligences—distinct ways that we come to know our world. These are verbal/linguistic; logical/mathematical; visual/spatial; body/kinesthetic; musical/rhythmic; interpersonal; and intrapersonal. Schools, as well as standardized tests, have concerned themselves mostly with only the first two. Students who could be geniuses in several other intelligences but weak in those two could be labeled dull and slow. Children who are otherwise bright fail school—or, more precisely, school fails them.
Child development experts base much of their work on the theories of Jean Piaget.[ii] Piaget was more concerned with how a child learned than with what the child learned, and how ways of learning differ according to development. Further studies have led to a teaching approach referred to as “developmentally appropriate practices.”
Developmentally appropriate practices emphasize allowing a child to develop at his or her own rate. No two first graders are expected to be at the same level in their gradual development of reading, for example. Recognition of beginning sounds comes before recognition of beginning and ending sounds, which in turn precedes phonetically sounding out entire words and full sentence comprehension. Reaching a new stage of development is an accomplishment for each child, regardless of whether his peers have already reached that stage. Developmentally appropriate practices are flexible enough to allow development at a personalized rate, much the way a gardener allows roses to bloom according to their own timing. (Please note the real meaning of kindergarten—a garden of children.)
Multi-age classrooms, or non-graded classrooms, are a logical step in allowing the flexibility of developmentally appropriate practices. While developmentally appropriate practices are recent improvements, multi-age classrooms were around long before grade separated schools. What we call a traditional school is actually only a century old. Grade separation was an attempt to efficiently handle as many students at a time as possible. This was done at a time when schools were assigned the task of taking children of low income families off city streets and educating them. Ironically, the students the education system targeted to save are the very ones most likely to fail, be retained, and eventually drop out of school.
There is no research showing that students learn better with same age peers. There is a growing body of research showing the opposite.
In a multi-age school environment, students are not expected to be the same age. Nor are they expected to know the same things or be at the same developmental level as the rest of the class. In this classroom it is all right to know less than someone else. It is expected. Just as in the real world, there will always be someone who knows more about something than you. And there will also be someone who can benefit from something you know.
Some of the most difficult problems facing current school systems disappear in a multi-age classroom. The question about when to retain students, a difficult, life-affecting decision, is simply irrelevant. No one is held back for developing at a slightly different rate from others born in the same year. No one is labeled slow learner; everyone is labeled learner at his or her own comfortable pace. Theoretically, even mainstreaming special education students becomes easier in this environment.
What about incentive, if there is no threat of retention to force a student to learn? Real learning, the ability to think, comes because it is natural and interesting. Threat of failure is, at best, a negative incentive.
Mrs. Crane is constantly finding incentives and encouragements for students to do more than required. She does it without requiring homework. Fifteen minutes of reading at home is all that’s expected. Students keep track of their reading minutes, and most read far more than the assigned quarter hour. They also may do their own math, science, or writing projects at home. Students do it because it is their choice, because learning is a joyful part of life rather than a tedious duty.
How is progress measured? Progress is measured continuously. Portfolios, personalized goal charts, examples of student work are used in addition to formal evaluations. Mrs. Crane can sit down with a parent at any time and show exactly how the child is developing. A mini-grant for a video camera is added this year, giving parents a visual record of their child’s progress. The portfolio approach can be more satisfying to parents than report cards and comparison with classmates. It can also be healthier for the child’s self-esteem.
There is added stability in the multi-age classroom of having the same teacher for two or more consecutive years. Teacher and students already know each other at the beginning of the school year, reducing the slow start-up time inherent in the current system.
One thing I’ve found is that research is often interpreted differently by different people. It’s possible the term “developmentally appropriate practices” could be interpreted to fit square peg students into round holes, to insist that students fit standard expectations, rather than as intended to adjust methods to a particular child’s development. So knowing the right buzz words is no guarantee of a curriculum’s effectiveness. Seeing the way something is put into practice is a better indicator.
As for the portfolio approach of grading, I thought it made very good sense. The portfolio approach was also used in the gifted magnet school my children later attended. What I needed to see, as a parent, was the progress my child was making—comparing where he was to where he’d been. The “data mining” that is being pressed on schools through Common Core provides an overwhelming amount of data, but coldly, without anything like teacher and parent getting together to share delight over a child’s specific growth.
I clearly liked what was happening with my child in this classroom. In Part III I’ll share the views of some of the other parents.