ERIC Identifier: ED335178
Publication Date: 1991-05-00
Author: Miller, Bruce
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Teaching and Learning in the Multigrade Classroom:
Student Performance and Instructional Routines. ERIC Digest.
The multigrade classroom is an organizational pattern widely used in
schools in the United States. Typically a feature of small-scale schooling,
multigrade classrooms are today getting a closer look. This Digest, written
for practitioners, parents, and policymakers, brings together recent information
on the topic. It considers the history of the multigrade classroom, its
effects on achievement and attitude, and the requirements of teaching and
learning in multigrade classrooms.
HISTORY AND BACKGROUND
In 1918, there were 196,037 one-room schools, representing 70.8 percent
of all public schools in the United States. By 1980, less than 1,000 of
these schools remained (Muse, Smith, & Barker, 1987). But the multigrade
classroom persists. For example, in a study consisting of multigrade classrooms
of only two grades, Rule (1983) used a sample from a suburban district
outside Phoenix, Arizona. Of the 21,000 elementary students in the district,
approximately 17 percent were in classrooms that combined grades. In rural,
small elementary schools the incidence of students served in multigrade
classrooms may well be much higher.
Although rural, small schools may combine grades to save money, in the
guise of the "ungraded classroom," multigrade organization has also been
a feature of urban and suburban districts. In the 1960s and 1970s, "open
education" and individualized instruction became influential curriculum
and instructional models. Such models were commonly implemented with multigrade
classrooms. Energized by developmental theories of learning, a large influx
in federal money, and student-centered models of instruction, open education
became a major educational innovation. As a result, multigrade classrooms
received new attention.
Numerous studies compared the effectiveness of "open" classrooms (multigrade
organization with student-centered ethos and methods) and "regular" classrooms
(single-grade organization with traditional ethos and methods). We have
learned a great deal from these innovative efforts. Working in an open,
multigrade school requires serious, ongoing teacher training and a commitment
to hard work.
Most teachers have been trained to work in single-grade classrooms.
Their knowledge of teaching method is based on whole-class instruction
and small-group instruction (with groups often formed on the basis of ability
or achievement level). When placed in a multigrade setting, teachers of
the 60s and 70s discovered that the time requirements and skills needed
to be effective were simply not part of their prior training and experience.
Although the premises of "open" and "regular" (traditional) education can
differ sharply, this finding still applies to multigrade classrooms in
THE NORM OF THE GRADED SCHOOL
The large-scale innovations of the 60s and 70s have virtually ended.
But the multigrade classroom persists, especially in small, rural schools.
Yet, here, as elsewhere, most people view graded schools as the natural
way to organize education. This norm can be a handicap for anyone (whether
out of necessity or by theoretical design) who wants to--or who must--work
with multigrade classrooms or schools. Teachers of multigraded classrooms
who face the biggest challenge may be those working in school systems in
which single-grade classrooms are the norm.
For many rural educators, multigrade instruction is not an experiment
or a new educational trend, but a necessity imposed, in part, by economic
and geographic conditions. In an environment dominated by graded schools,
the decision to combine grades can be quite difficult--especially if constituents
feel shortchanged by the decision. Nonetheless, recent proposals for school
restructuring reflect renewed interest in multigrade organization (Cohen,
1989) and in small-scale organization generally. Such work may eventually
contest the norm of the graded school.
EFFECTS ON STUDENT PERFORMANCE
Many teachers, administrators, and parents continue to wonder whether
or not multigrade organization has negative effects on student performance.
Research evidence indicates that being a student in a multigrade classroom
does not negatively affect academic performance, social relationships,
Miller (1990) reviewed 13 experimental studies assessing academic achievement
in single-grade and multigrade classrooms and found there to be no significant
differences between them. The data clearly support the multigrade classroom
as a viable and equally effective organizational alternative to single-grade
instruction. The limited evidence suggests there may be significant differences
depending on subject or grade level. Primarily, these studies reflect the
complex and variable nature of school life. Moreover, there are not enough
such studies to make safe generalizations about which subjects or grade
levels are best for multigrade instruction.
When it comes to student affect, however, the case for multigrade organization
appears much stronger. Of the 21 separate measures used to assess student
affect in the studies reviewed, 81 percent favored the multigrade classroom
If this is the case, why then do we not have more schools organized
into multigrade classrooms? One response is that history and convention
dictate the prevalence of graded classrooms. However, there is a related,
but more compelling, answer to be found in the classrooms themselves and
in information drawn from classroom practitioners.
INSTRUCTIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL ROUTINES
The multigrade classroom can be more of a challenge than the single-grade
classroom. Skills and behavior required of the teacher may be different,
and coordinating activities can be more difficult. In fact, such a realization
is one reason graded schools came into being in the first place (Callahan,
At first look, the skills needed to teach well in the multigrade and
the single-grade (multilevel) classroom appear to be quite similar. The
differences between the two sorts of classrooms may be more a product of
socialization and expectation than of fact. Clearly, if a teacher in either
sort of classroom fails to address differences among students, the effectiveness
of instruction suffers. Likewise, teachers are harmed when they have not
been adequately prepared to teach students with varying ages and abilities--no
matter what sort of classroom they work in.
But what does the research tell us regarding the skills required of
the multigrade teacher? When student diversity increases, whether it be
in a multigrade or single-grade classroom, greater demand is placed on
teacher resources, both cognitive and emotional.
Six key instructional dimensions affecting successful multigrade teaching
have been identified from multigrade classroom research (Miller, 1991).
Note that each of these points has some bearing on the related issues of
independence and interdependence. It is important to cultivate among students
the habits of responsibility for their own learning, but also their willingness
to help one another learn.
1. Classroom organization: Instructional resources and the physical
environment to facilitate learning.
2. Classroom management and discipline: Classroom schedules and routines
that promote clear, predictable instructional patterns, especially those
that enhance student responsibility for their own learning.
3. Instructional organization and curriculum: Instructional strategies
and routines for a maximum of cooperative and self-directed student learning
based on diagnosed student needs. Also includes the effective use of time.
4. Instructional delivery and grouping: Methods that improve the quality
of instruction, including strategies for organizing group learning activities
across and within grade levels.
5. Self-directed learning: Students' skills and strategies for a high
level of independence and efficiency in learning individually or in combination
with other students.
6. Peer tutoring: Classroom routines and students' skills in serving
as "teachers" to other students within and across differing grade levels.
In the multigrade classroom, more time must be spent in organizing and
planning for instruction. Extra materials and strategies must be developed
so that students will be meaningfully engaged. This additional coordination
lets the teacher meet with small groups or individuals, while other work
Since the teacher cannot be everywhere or with each student simultaneously,
the teacher shares instructional responsibilities with students. A context
of clear rules and routines makes such shared responsibility productive.
Students know what the teacher expects. They know what assignments to work
on, when they are due, how to get them graded, how to get extra help, and
where to turn assignments in.
Students learn how to help one another and themselves. At an early age,
students are expected to develop independence. The effective multigrade
teacher establishes a climate to promote and develop this independence.
For example, when young students enter the classroom for the first time,
they receive help and guidance not only from the teacher, but from older
students. In this way, they also learn that the teacher is not the only
source of knowledge.
Instructional grouping practices also play an important role in a good
multigrade classroom. The teacher emphasizes the similarities among the
different grades and teaches to them, thus conserving valuable teacher
time. For example, whole-class (cross-grade) instruction is often used
since the teacher can have contact with more students. However, whole-class
instruction in the effective multigrade classroom differs from what one
generally finds in a single-grade class.
Multigrade teachers recognize that whole-class instruction must revolve
around open task activities if all students are to be engaged. For example,
a teacher can introduce a writing assignment through topic development
where all students "brainstorm" ideas. In this context, students from all
grades can discuss different perspectives. They can learn to consider and
respect the opinions of others (Miller, 1989).
Cooperation is a necessary condition of life in the multigrade classroom.
All ages become classmates, and this closeness extends beyond the walls
of the school to include the community.
REWARDS AND CHALLENGES
There are many rewards for teaching in the multigrade classroom, but
there are challenges, too. Instruction, classroom organization, and management
are complex and demanding. A teacher cannot ignore developmental differences
in students nor be ill-prepared for a day's instruction. Demands on teacher
time require well-developed organizational skills.
The multigrade classroom is not for the timid, inexperienced, or untrained
teacher. Clearly, the implications for teacher educators, rural school
board members, administrators, and parents are far-reaching.
Callahan, R. (1962). Education and the Cult of Efficiency. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Cohen, D. (1989). First stirrings of a new trend: Multigrade classrooms
gain favor. Education Week, 9(14), 1, 13-15.
Miller, B. (1991). A review of the qualitative research on multigrade
instruction. Research in Rural Education, 7(2), 3-12.
Miller, B. (1990). A review of the quantitative research on multigrade
instruction. Research in Rural Education, 7(1), 1-8.
Miller, B. (1989). The Multigrade Classroom: A Resource Handbook for
Small, Rural Schools. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 320 719)
Muse, I., Smith, R., & Barker, B. (1987). The One-Teacher School
in the 1980s. Las Cruces, NM: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and
Small Schools. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 287 646)
Rule, J. (1983). Effects of multigrade grouping on elementary student
achievement in reading and mathematics. Dissertation Abstracts International,
44(3), 662. (University Microfilms No. ADG83-15672)