In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve looks at the opportunities for learning that can occur in multi-grade and multi-level environments.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:17 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:44 Exploring multi-grade and multi-level learning. All of my learning and teaching experiences have influenced me to be in favor of opportunities that give students the chance to participate and learn in mixed-age and mixed-ability groupings. If we go way back in my history back to 1956 when I entered 1st grade – no kindergarten in the community where I grew up. I actually went to 1st grade in the same one room school house that my mother attended for grades 1-8. At that time in the building, 1st graders and 2nd graders were learning together. Across the yard, there was another small one room school where some 2nd graders were learning along with 3rd graders. Just to complete the picture, at the back of the yard, there were two outside toilets, one for boys and one for girls. Interesting – at the end of 1st grade, some of my classmates stayed in that building and completed 2nd grade along with the 1st graders, while others of us traveled across the yard to the other building where we completed 2nd grade along with the 3rd graders.
Steve: 02:31 No one had to fail 1st grade. A rather progressive concept for 1956. When I finished 2nd grade, I went to 3rd grade in the brand new comprehensive elementary school that the community built. And now rather than students attending these small one-room schools around the area, we were all transported to that new elementary building with indoor plumbing. But when we got there, there were three 3rd grade classrooms and so 2nd graders and 3rd graders and 1st graders and 4th graders were all separated and now learning with students of the same age. The opportunity to not fail a grade was no longer present. Progress?
Steve: 03:44 Heather Johnson, a multi-age teacher, supporter and author 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 – that’s listening to the teaching and learning designed for older students and re-teaching, reviewing important concepts by listening in as they are taught to and practiced by younger children.” Almost all the learning that I did outside of school occurred in multi-age and multi-level settings. Around the ages of 11 and 12, participating in Boy Scouts and 4-H, youth groups and choirs, I was always learning with students four to five years older than me. As a freshman in high school, I learned to play soccer, a new sport at our school with juniors and seniors and with an exchange student who was highly skilled. At the same time, I joined the high school band and worked with Sophomores, juniors and seniors. Thanks to my more skilled teammates and band members, I was able to engage in much more complex learning events then I could participate in. I could take part in complex performances while my personal role as an early learner was simpler. Interesting – at that same school that offered those extracurricular activities in multi-age settings, I attended PE and music classes only with freshmen.
Steve: 06:03 In an article in The Atlantic, Stewart Miller writes the following: “Multi-Age advocates say that 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 of school on sports teams or in art programs that are more age flexible than our classrooms. Little League Baseball teams, for instance, might group five to eight year olds in one division and nine and 10 year olds in another allowing children to play up or play down based on their skills. Then those same students go to schools and are segregated with other students of the exact same age but not necessarily the same development and they’re expected to reach certain benchmarks and move on at the year’s end, no matter what.”
Steve: 07:14 In my first teaching assignment, I had a combination classroom of fifth and sixth graders. At the end of the year, my sixth graders moved on and my fifth graders moved up a grade level and provided models for my new incoming students. The two authors, Miller and Johnson that I’ve quoted earlier in this podcast, both comment on this concept. Miller’s suggests: “On the social side, younger children look for guidance to older students who know the ropes while the older students in the class organically learn about mentoring, leadership and collaboration. Johnson stated it this way: “Multi-Age classrooms naturally create many opportunities for children to practice and develop both compassion and leadership skills in a real life environment.”
Steve: 08:28 I gained another respect for multi-age and multi-level learning when I observed in several vocational classrooms and shops. It was not uncommon for some of the staff that I worked with to have first, second and third year students in the shop at the same time. I recall watching a teacher walking around the room identifying something that a student needed to learn and quickly turning to another student and suggesting that he teach her that. When I met and talked with the teacher later, he shared with me that he had in his mind that he should not be teaching anything that could be taught by someone else in the room. I remember the power with which that hit me and at the time I thought about learning a second language. Haven’t taken a German class all through high school and realizing only German 1 students were in that classroom trying to begin to learn German and it dawned on me after watching that vocational classroom.
Steve: 10:10 Wow. Would it make a lot more sense for the teacher to have German 1, German 2 and German 3 students in the classroom at the same time and while the German 2 students were teaching something to the German 1 students, the teacher could be working with the German 3 class. And the teacher could actually carry on a conversation with German 2 and German 3 students as the German 1 student observed. And kind of similar to my situation of being a freshman in a band with seniors, I could start to engage in the language in a simplified version while I was still part of a meaningful more complex conversation rather than the silly kind of practices my teacher had to create for us because all of us on the same level had none of the skill. In an earlier blog titled multi-age learning environments, which you can find on my website, I had the opportunity to speak with members of the Francis W Park Charter Essential school in Devonne, Massachusetts. They have 7th to 12th graders at the school and they group them in multi-age multi-level settings.
Steve: 11:54 One of their teachers, Maria Cuna, a math science teacher, provided an explanation of how to work with students that just made a ton of sense to me. She said her design to a lesson approach is called 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 or age level, 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 multi grade classroom, it’s a little bit more of parent to the teacher and thus planned for.”
Steve: 12:55 I thought that was powerful. That in that setting, it’s an expectation both on the part of the students as well as on the part of the teacher. Perhaps our sorting of students by age and previous learning actually confuses teachers regarding what students need to maximize learning. I have personally observed the same teacher providing less effective instruction on the exact same content to students who were in a class labeled “regular” from students who were in the same content class labeled “honors.” Perhaps we really could increase teachers’ awareness and teachers’ understanding and teachers’ willingness to approach learning from where the student is at and to take the student as far as they can go by increasing the differences. Although I think in many of our classrooms today, the same differences exist even though we are calling it a 9th grade science class.
Steve: 14:25 In many ways, as a beginning teacher, I was actually teaching and learning on a multi-age multi-level team.
Steve: 14:41 You see there were four of us who were teaching 5th and 6th grade students as a team. Two of us were 22 old having just graduated from college, having our first teaching experience. One teacher was also a first year teacher who had raised a family before entering college and our team leader was a 50-ish year old person with 25 plus years of teaching experience. We also had a student teacher who was a college senior. The staff of the school for 5th and 6th grade consisted of five of us with very differing ages and levels. The school had five teams that were quite similar in the mix. I’m just now realizing the brilliance of the school leader who hired and created those initial teams.
Steve: 15:58 I’ve written about these thoughts in a earlier blog and I received a response from Michael Chirichello that I want to read to you. He wrote, “Thanks Steve for resurrecting the memories of your first teaching experience. When I was appointed to the school in which you taught as the superintendent and CSA, the structure was still alive and well. 13 years later, I departed and soon afterwards that school became like what most every other school is today. Traditional age-locked grade level. Sometimes educators thing that what was is better than what can be. Perhaps some of your followers will once again see the value of the multi-age approach to education. I encourage all of us to think about what possibilities might structure better learning opportunities for students rather than structuring for easier organization and management. I wrote back to a Michael who had followed me in the school that I’ve described and I told him thanks for reinforcing many of those experiences from my early career that have continued to set the stage for the personal focus that I have on learning rather than on teaching and administering. Love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for listening in.
Steve [Outro]: 17:56 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley ponders out loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.