Exploring Multi-Grade and Multi-Level Learning | Steve Barkley

Exploring Multi-Grade and Multi-Level Learning

My learning and teaching experiences have influenced me to favor opportunities for mixing age and learning levels in classrooms. Let’s go way, way back in my learning history. In 1956, I entered first grade (no kindergarten was offered) at the same one room school that my mother had attended. While she completed grades 1-8 there, it housed first and second grade at my time. Across the yard was another one room building that held second and third grade. To complete the picture, in the back of the yard were two outside toilets:  boys and girls.  After finishing first grade some students went to the other building taking second grade mixed with third graders while others stayed and did second grade mixed with first graders. No one had to fail first grade. Rather progressive. For third grade, I moved to the new district elementary school. Three separate sections of third grade with no chance to learn with second or fourth graders. Progress?

Heather Johnson, a multi-age teacher, writes, “An effective multi-grade approach is one that intentionally taps into the rich conditions for learning that are possible in a multi-age setting. When children who are younger and older learn together, one significant benefit is a student’s exposure to “pre-teaching” (listening to the teaching and learning designed for older children) and “re-teaching” (reviewing important concepts by “listening in” as they are taught to and practiced by younger children).”

Students playing instruments in the middle school band

Almost all the learning I did outside of school occurred in multi-age and multi-level settings. At age 11 and 12 in Boy Scouts, 4-H, youth groups and choirs, I was learning with students four to five years older than me. As a freshman in high school I learned to play soccer (a new team sport at our school) with juniors and seniors and an exchange student who was highly skilled. I joined the high school band with sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Thanks to my more skilled teammates I was able to engage in much more complex learning events. I could participate in a complex performance while my personal role, as an early learner, was simpler. Interestingly, I attended PE and Music classes with only freshman.

In Inside a Multiage Classroom, (The Atlantic), Stuart Miller shares,“… multi-age advocates say the traditional approach of dividing students into single grades based on an arbitrary birth-date range is illogical. Children spend much of their time outside school on sports teams or in arts programs that are more age-flexible than classrooms. Little League baseball teams, for instance, might group 5 – 8 year-olds in one division and 9- 10 year-olds in another, allowing children to “play up” or “play down” based on their skills. Then the same kids go to school and are segregated with others of the exact same age, but not necessarily the same development, and they are all expected to reach certain benchmarks and move on at year’s end, no matter what.”

My first teaching assignment was a fifth and sixth grade combination. At the end of the year, sixth graders moved on and the fifth graders, moved up to guide and provide models for my new incoming students. Miller and Johnson both identified this social opportunity from multi-age:

Miller: On the social side, younger children look for guidance to older students who know the ropes, while the older students in the classroom organically learn about mentoring, leadership, and collaboration.

Johnson: Multi-age classrooms naturally create many opportunities for children to practice and develop both compassion and leadership skills in a real-life environment.

Vocational teachers gave me a new understanding of the value of multi-age and multi-level when I observed their labs and shops with first, second, and third year students in the same sections. I recall a teacher telling me that he worked to not teach anything that could be taught by someone else in the room. It made me wonder if it wouldn’t be better for students to study a new language with first, second, and third year students together. Might first year students learn more by being around classmates who are using the language? I think so.

I had the opportunity to record a podcast with staff from the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, grades 7-12 in Devons, Massachusetts, who work with students in multi-age groupings. Maria Cuna, a math/science teacher, provided an explanation of her approach to lesson design: low floor/high ceiling.  “What that means is that every student can access the material, but they may all be accessing it at a different place. Even when you have a classroom that has all the students at the same grade and age, they still need to have lessons that are low floor/high ceiling because students are always accessing information from different places. When you have a multi-age and a multi-grade classroom, it’s a little bit more apparent.”

Perhaps our sorting of students by age and previous leaning actually confuses teachers regarding what students need to maximize learning. I have personally observed the same teacher provide less effective instruction on the exact same content to students in a class labeled “regular” from what she provided to one labeled “honors.”

Reflecting for this blog, I realized my initial teaching experience had me learning on a multi-age, multi-level team. Four of us taught the fifth and sixth grade students. Two of us were 22 years old having just graduated from college, one teacher was a first-year teacher who had raised a family before entering college, and our team leader was fiftyish with 25 years teaching experience. We also had a student teacher who was a college senior. The staff of the school consisted of five similarly styled teams. Each of us had the opportunity to learn, teach, lead and follow.

What possibilities might structure better learning opportunities for students rather than structuring for easier organization and management?

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3 Responses to “ Exploring Multi-Grade and Multi-Level Learning ”

  1. Michael Chirichello Says:

    Thanks Steve for resurrecting the memories of your first teaching position. When I was appointed to the school in which you taught as the Superintendent and CSA, the structure was still alive and well. After 13 years, I departed, and soon afterwards, hat school became like what most every other school is… a traditional age locked grade level school. Sometimes educators think was was is better that what can be… perhaps some of your followers will once again see the value of the multi-aged approach to education.

  2. Michelle TeGrootenhuis Says:

    I’m very interested in this. I’m fortunate enough to be following Travis Lape, Director of Innovation at Harrisburg Schools in South Dakota. Here’s a link to one of his videos. I hope to see this in action sometime soon.


    Thanks for the post reminding me to follow up on learning more about this.

  3. Steve Barkley Says:

    Michael— thanks for the reinforcement that many of those experiences from early in my career have continued to set a stage for a focus on learning rather than “teaching” and “administering”

    Thanks for the video– I loved it and will recommend to others.

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