• by Felix Montes, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • April 1996 •
Multiage grouping refers to classroom settings where students of varying ages are kept in the same class for several years, with the same teacher. Some multiage classes have students who, if placed in a regular grade system, would correspond to the traditional pre-kindergarten to first grade classes. In a multiage setting there is a common curriculum and, in general, the class is purposefully organized as a unit for pedagogical reasons. This is different from multi-grade grouping, where different grades are taught by the same teacher in the same classroom, but different curricula, activities and even physical distribution of the class are kept according to grade.
The following are seven advantages associated with multiage education (Veenman, 1995):
- Students can form meaningful relationships that enhance their sense of belonging as they relate to students of different ages.
- Older students can tutor younger ones achieving the benefits of a tutor-tutee relationship: increased self-esteem, greater sense of purpose and faster cognitive development for both.
- Younger students have older models exhibiting a wide range of behaviors they can emulate.
- Students relate to each other and to their teacher for longer periods of time, promoting a more stable development and a sense of family and community.
- Since the emphasis is not in passing from one grade to the next, there is less anxiety about achieving at a specified pace, and, conversely, there are more opportunities for the development of cognitive and social skills.
- Older students can revisit past topics as they are introduced to younger students, providing another opportunity for learning them. Older students can also help younger students by providing insights into these topics that might make them more understandable.
- Individualized instruction is not only appropriate but inherent to a multiage setting, where it is obvious that different students have different needs.
In sum, multiage promotes the development of the whole person. Students are not cast into a system for the purpose of filling in their brains as soon as possible. The purpose is to provide students with a rich environment where they can develop their social, behavioral, cognitive and emotional persona. It provides an opportunity for creating a truly student-centric curriculum.
Multiage and Minority Students
It has been widely documented that most early childhood education practices are at odds with best practices for minority students. Limited-English-proficient (LEP) students, for example, are generally viewed as needing intensive doses of drill, repetition and structured English instruction, along with a sustained injection of the prevalent culture dogmas. But, such approaches stem from a deficit model about language learning that is highly inadequate to prepare language-minority students to acquire English and to study academic content (Cárdenas and Cárdenas, 1995). English-only preschool programs force students to quickly shift to English and lose their native language. Research has shown that this method does not work, and, for many students, this early language shift negatively affects communication within their families, which in turn has adverse affects on their family structures, eventually disintegrating these families. Parents who have not learned English are unable to pass along their cultural heritage and values to their children, and many young minority adolescents become involved in gangs and disengaged from their families as a result of the inferiority implied by the forced early shift of language and culture (IDRA, 1995).
Can multiage education provide an alternative? This clearly depends on the underlying philosophy of the instructional approach. Multiage is only a grouping strategy. Assuming that the teachers’ and the school’s educational philosophy is based on doing what it takes to make the school compatible with the needs of the minority students, the multiage environment is promising.
Because of the seven advantages listed above, a multiage environment provides ample opportunities for the students to grow into the new language while at the same time preserve their native language and culture. Multiage grouping can fertilize the grounds where developmentally appropriate practices can flourish. Native cultural activities can easily be incorporated into a multiage environment to make learning more meaningful to the students. When the appropriate pedagogical model is at the base of its application, multiage grouping can liberate schools from the rigid mold that inhibits creativity, exploration and experimentation.
Multiage Grouping: Theoretical Background
The literature in the area of multiage grouping is abundant. Multiage grouping was adopted in England in the 1960s and in many other countries to ameliorate limited educational resources, such as teachers and classrooms (see for example, Veenman, 1995). Much of the current theoretical work in this area is based on the pedagogy of Lev S. Vygotsky (1896-1934), who underscored the role of social interaction in the development of the higher psychological functions.
Vygotsky proposed that all learning is mediated by the child’s social interaction (1978). Learning first happens in the interaction at the social level, then it is internalized at the psychological, personal level. One consequence that Vygotsky derived from this hypothesis is that not only is the content learned but so also is the context, the way in which the learning happens. Thus, the child eagerly internalizes the subtle clues we emit about values, power and social organization along with the math, science and history we might be teaching. Multiage grouping can potentially provide an environment where these contextual, social interactions can be arranged in a beneficial manner for all the students.
Another Vygotskian construct that supports the multiage grouping model is the zone of proximal development concept (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky proposed that a child can more easily learn from an older one because the two share a developmental zone. The older child operates at the younger child’s zone of proximal development to make the material accessible yet challenging enough to stimulate growth. Multiage then seems to be the ideal grouping model for this natural development to occur.
For most teachers accustomed to a grade grouping model, multiage grouping represents a unique challenge. As with any liberating experience, this presents so many possibilities that teachers might be bewildered. Teachers are asked to be creative and to experiment with new things, but how can they actually know that what they are doing is having the appropriate impact on the students? Here is where action research skills are invaluable for the effective multiage grouping implementation.
Action research offers the means for teachers to improve their classroom practices through cycles of observation, reflection, planning and execution (Johnson, 1995). Action research is also a means to enhance teachers’ collaboration among themselves and with administrators and practitioners (Montes, 1995). It empowers teachers with the tools that let them know what works and what does not. It also suggests a mechanism for feedback and adjustment.
The IDRA Multiage Model
The IDRA model of multiage grouping synergistically combines the rich tradition of educational research with action research and the necessary alignment of the schools with the minority students they serve. The first two components are discussed above.
The classic theoretical work that speaks to the third component is known as the theory of incompatibilities (Cárdenas and Cárdenas, 1995). José Cárdenas and Blandina Cárdenas found that many problems associated with minority students in the school system (dropping out, low performance, high retention) originate in incompatibilities between the characteristics of the students and those of the instructional programs that are supposed to serve them, “An instructional program developed for a White, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking middle-class school population cannot be, and is not, adequate for a non-White, non-Anglo-Saxon, non-English-speaking or non-middle-class population” (1995). Based on this theory, which has been proven again and again since its inception in 1975, the following philosophical axioms are included as an intrinsic component of the IDRA multiage model:
- Minority children can learn. Past failures are the result of inadequate programs. Teachers can use action research techniques to systematically attune the program to the student’s real life conditions.
- Cultural pluralism is a necessary condition in our schools and our society. The student’s culture ought to be celebrated by its incorporation into the learning process in meaningful ways. The native language is to be cherished. The student’s heritage is to be valued.
In summary, the IDRA multiage grouping model does the following:
- Incorporates current theoretical understanding on how students learn as a student-centric curriculum is dynamically created.
- Promotes the integration of minority students into the educational system, into their families and into society.
- Empowers teachers to dynamically change classroom conditions through action research to make education work for all the students.
- Celebrates cultural diversity by its meaningful incorporation into the daily school planning and activities.
IDRA was recently awarded a grant to implement a multiage research project titled, Multiage Early Childhood for Limited-English-Proficient Students: A Research Study. This is a three-year research study funded by the Office of Bilingual Education of Minority Languages and Affairs (OBEMLA) in the U.S. Department of Education. The goals of the study are the following:
- To conduct teacher initiated research on the effects of multiage grouping on limited-English-proficient students’ learning and development;
- To test the theoretical underpinnings of early childhood multiage programs and their applicability for limited-English-proficient students (e.g., ungraded environment, developmentally appropriate learning, emergent literacy and language acquisition);
- To determine the feasibility of expanding the approach to the second grade at the research site; and
- To develop and refine a model for early childhood multiage programs for limited-English-proficient students.
The project is being implemented in collaboration with a school in San Antonio, Texas. IDRA provides all training and technical assistance. The teachers do the actual action research as they implement their multiage classes. The expected results of the project are twofold. On one hand, the project will increase capacity among teachers to conduct and use research on multiage programs for limited-English-proficient early childhood students. On the other hand, a more rigorous, fact-grounded model for multiage grouping on limited-English-proficient students’ learning and development will emerge as the results of the study are analyzed.
Cárdenas, José A. and Blandina Cárdenas. “The Theory of Incompatibilities,” Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy (Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon & Schuster, 1995).
Johnson, Roy L. “Action Research: Implications for Student Assessment,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1995), 22(5).
IDRA. Multiage Early Childhood Education for Limited-English-Proficient Students: A Research Study, grant proposal (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1995).
Montes, Felix. “Technology Support for Teacher-Researchers,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1995), 22(5).
Veenman, Simon. “Cognitive and Noncognitive Effects of Multigrade and Multiage Classes: A Best-Evidence Synthesis,” Review of Educational Research (Washington, D.C.: American Educational Research Association, 1995), Winter 95, 65 (4).
Vygotsky, Lev S. Mind in Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978).
Dr. Felix Montes is a research associate in the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]