Many of our great-grandparents learned in one-room school-houses alongside children from early elementary to high school ages. Today, children are typically in a classroom of peers whose ages differ by a year or less.
Multi-age Grouping vs. Single-Age Classrooms
Multiage grouping refers to a classroom whose students range in age by two or more years. Research done in the 1990s touted the benefit of such classrooms, but today, we find fewer references to this style of classroom.
Despite interest in multiage classrooms in the 1990s, multiage grouping has lost favor with educators in the United States in recent years as more emphasis is placed on passing standardized tests – now based on the common core.
In 2005, Priscilla Pardini warned that the approach had “fallen victim” to testing demands. Multiage-Education.com still lists works from the 1990s such as the 1995, The Benefits of Mixed-Aged Grouping by Lilian Katz and Developmentally Appropriate Practice: What Does Research Tell Us? from 1997 in their links.
Today a search on edutopia.org yields little about the topic. While not addressing age, one blogger did address mixed-ability groups, stating [sic] “students prefer to learning in groups of their peers and friends” and suggesting inventive ways to achieve a heterogeneous ability grouping such as grouping students by preferred pizza toppings. Ability grouping, while working in some ways like age-grouping, still assumes children are all approximately the same age.
Theories Supporting Multi-Aged Grouping: Lev Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development
Despite the lack of current emphasis, multi-age grouping of children, such as that which occurs in one-room school houses or in home-schooling groups, has many benefits, and works as described by psychologist Lev Vygotsky who identified the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD).
Vygotsky found that children were able to reach new levels of understanding when they were in the ZPD. This zone was the spot where, with a little help from a knowledgeable other, a child could master a new task. Vygotsky noted that a” more knowledgeable other” (MKO) could help the child make the leap to the next stage. While this MKO might be a parent or a teacher, older children can also fill that role.
Benefits of Multi-Aged Grouping
Multiage classrooms offer benefits to students. Researchers Sandra Stone and James F. Christie concluded, “literacy-enriched play environments combined with mixed-age learners provide a social context that facilitates literacy behavior.” Or, in layman’s terms, young kids learn to read faster in multiage groups.
Other research has been mixed about academic benefits, but still found other advantages to the approach. Pardini summarizes the findings: “If the link between multi-age education and improved student achievement was found to be less than definitive, the approach was shown to foster gains in other areas. Students in multi-age settings were found to have higher self-esteem, more positive self-concepts, less anti-social behavior and better attitudes toward school than their peers in single-grade classes.”
Re-examining How We Group Children
Many parents and educators question the wisdom of emphasis on testing and the resulting age-based classrooms that come with it. A multiage group is more natural, such as that which is found in a home setting, and homeschoolers actively seek this approach.
The social benefits alone speak for the need to re-examine how we group children. The one-room school-house may never return, but multiage classrooms consisting of groups of children whose ages range by a couple of years should not be discarded in favor of filling in ovals on tests.