ERIC Identifier: ED382411
Publication Date: 1995-05-00
Author: Katz, Lilian G.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
The Benefits of Mixed-Age Grouping. ERIC Digest.
Goodlad and Anderson, who introduced the modern notion of the non-graded
elementary school in 1959, raised our awareness of the fact that age is a crude
indicator of what learning experiences children are ready for. Implementation of
Goodlad and Anderson's ideas originally consisted largely of organizing children
in groups by ability rather than by age, thereby homogenizing groups in a
different way! We have come to understand that the benefits of mixed-age
grouping rest on the assumption that the differences within a group of children
can be a source of rich intellectual and social benefits. The terms "ungraded"
and "nongraded" used by Goodlad and Anderson suggest what we do NOT do in
mixed-age settings separate children into grade groups by age but they fail to
describe what we try TO do. That may be better conveyed by the use of the term
"mixed-age grouping." A mixed-age group of children in which the children's age
range is larger than a year sometimes two years and sometimes more is intended
to optimize the educative potential of the mixture itself.
Although humans are not usually born in litters, we seem to insist that they
be educated in them. The time that children spend in groups in schools and child
care centers, particularly for preschoolers, amounts to replacing families and
spontaneous neighborhood groups as contexts for child-to-child interaction for
large portions of children's waking hours. More and more children are deprived
of the information and models of competencies that once were available to them
in natural mixed-age groups. The intention of mixed-age grouping in early
childhood settings is to increase the heterogeneity of the group so as to
capitalize on the differences in the experience, knowledge, and abilities of the
OPPORTUNITY TO NURTURE
When we ask a five-year-old to be
tolerant of a four-year- old's first fumbling efforts to put on his or her
jacket, or a six-year-old to be appreciative of a five-year-old's early efforts
to read, we have the beginnings of parent education. Our young children need
real contexts in which their dispositions to be nurturing can be manifested and
strengthened. Furthermore, the young children who are encouraged, comforted and
nurtured by older children will be able to emulate their older classmates when
they themselves become the older ones in a group. Children need opportunities
not only to observe and imitate a wide range of competencies, but also to find
companions among their peers who match, complement, or supplement their
interests in different ways.
WAYS OF LEARNING
Single-age groups seem to create enormous
normative pressures on the children and the teacher to expect all the children
to possess the same knowledge and skills. There is a tendency in a homogeneous
age group to penalize the children who fail to meet normative expectations.
There is no evidence to show that a group of children who are all within a
twelve-month age range can be expected to learn the same things, in the same
way, on the same day, at the same time. The wide range of knowledge and skills
that exists among children within a single-age group suggests that whole-group
instruction, if overused, may not best serve children's learning.
On the other hand, the wider the age span in a group, the wider the range of
behavior and performance likely to be accepted and tolerated by the adults as
well as by the children themselves. In a mixed-age group, a teacher is more
likely to address differences, not only between children but within each
individual child. In a mixed-age group, it is acceptable for a child to be ahead
of his or her same-age peers in math, for example, but behind them in reading,
or social competence, or vice versa.
Research on social benefits indicates that children very early associate
different expectations with different age groups. Experiments have shown that
even a three-year-old, when shown pictures of older and younger children in
hypothetical situations, will assign different kinds of behavior to an older
child than to a younger child. For instance, younger children assign to older
children instructive, leadership, helpful, and sympathizing roles, whereas older
children assign to younger children the need for help and instruction. Thus in
the mixed-age group, younger children perceive the older ones as being able to
contribute something, and the older children see the younger ones as in need of
their contributions. These mutually reinforcing perceptions create a climate of
expected cooperation beneficial to the children, and to the teachers who
otherwise feel they are doing all the giving.
Increasing the age range automatically increases the number of teachers
available, for younger children particularly. One potential problem that may
arise when children assume the role of teacher to other children is that some
older children will give younger ones incorrect information, poor suggestions,
or wrong advice. When teachers observe such interactions, they can benefit from
learning where both children need additional help, and they can correct any
misinformation that has been exchanged. Results of experiments in which children
worked in groups of three, either in same-age or mixed-age groups, have shown
that in the latter, older children spontaneously facilitated other children's
behavior. In a single-age triad, on the other hand, the same children
spontaneously became domineering and tended to engage in one-upmanship. When
groups of children ranging in age from seven to nine years or from nine to
eleven years were asked to make decisions, they went through the processes of
reaching a consensus with far more organizing statements and more leadership
behavior than children in same-age groups. When the same children dealt with
identical kinds of tasks in same-age groups, there were more reports of bullying
behavior. Other prosocial behaviors such as help-giving and sharing were more
frequent in mixed-age groups. Turn taking was smoother, and there was greater
social responsibility and sensitivity to others in mixed-age groups than in
single-age groups (Chase & Doan, 1994).
Observations of four- and five-year-olds in a group found that when the
teacher asked the older children who were not observing the class rules to
remind the younger ones what the rules were, the older children's own
"self-regulatory behavior" improved. The older children could become quite
bossy, but the teacher has a responsibility to curb the children's bossiness in
In a mixed-age group, younger children
are capable of participating and contributing to far more complex activities
than they could initiate if they were by themselves. Once the older ones set up
the activity, the younger ones can participate, even if they could not have
Research indicates that mixed-age groups can provide a therapeutic
environment for children who are socially immature. Younger children will less
quickly rebuff an older immature child than the child's same-age mates. Younger
children will allow an older child to be unsophisticated longer than will his or
her age peers (Katz et al., 1990).
Even four-year-olds spontaneously
change the way they speak to suit the age of the listener. They change the
length of the sentence, the tone, and the words they use. Studies of cognitive
development suggest that cognitive conflict arises when interacting children are
at different levels of understanding, regardless of their ages. If two children
are working on a task that one understands well and another does not, the latter
is likely to learn from the former if he or she understands the task very well,
and if they argue. Only if one understands something very well can explanations
be varied during argument (Katz et al., 1990).
RISKS AND CONCERNS
Every method of grouping children has
risks. One concern with mixed-age grouping is ensuring that younger children are
not overwhelmed by older or more competent ones. Teachers have an important role
to play in maximizing the potential benefits of the age mixture by encouraging
children to turn to each other for explanations, directions, and comfort.
Teachers can also encourage older children to read stories to younger ones, and
to listen to younger students read.
Teachers can also encourage older children to take responsibility for an
individual younger child or for younger children in general. Teachers can
encourage older children not to gloat over their superior skills, but to take
satisfaction in their competence in reading to younger children, in writing
things down for them, in explaining things, in showing them how to use the
computer, in helping them find something, in helping them get dressed to go
outdoors, and so forth.
Teachers can show older children how to protect themselves from being
pestered by younger children, for example, by saying to the younger children, "I
can't help you right this minute, but I will as soon as I finish what I am
doing." Teachers can also help younger children learn to accept their own
limitations and their place in the total scheme of things, as well as encourage
older children to think of roles and suitable levels that younger ones could
take in their work or in their activities. The basic expectation is that the
children will be respectful and caring of one another (Lipsitz, 1995).
When teachers discourage older children from calling younger ones "cry
babies" or "little dummies," they help resist the temptation of age
stereotyping. Every once in a while one can observe a teacher saying to a
misbehaving first grader something like "that behavior belongs in kindergarten."
The teacher still will expect the first grader to be kind and helpful to the
kindergartners during recess, though he or she has just heard kindergartners
spoken of in a condescending way! A mixed-age group can provide a context in
which to teach children not only to appreciate a level of understanding or
behavior they themselves recently had, but also to appreciate their own progress
and to develop a sense of the continuity of development.
Anderson, Robert H., and Barbara Nelson Pavan.
(1993). NONGRADEDNESS: HELPING IT TO HAPPEN. Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing
Company, Inc. ED 355 005.
Chase, Penelle, and Jane Doan, Eds. (1994). FULL CIRCLE: A NEW LOOK AT
MULTI-AGE EDUCATION. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman Publishers, 1994. ED 371 864.
Katz, Lilian G., Demetra Evangelou, and Jeanette A. Hartman. (1990). THE CASE
FOR MIXED-AGE GROUPING IN EARLY EDUCATION. Washington, DC: National Association
for the Education of Young Children. ED 326 302.
Lipsitz, Joan. (1995). Prologue: Why We Should Care about Caring. PHI DELTA
KAPPAN 76(9, May): 665-667.
Miller, Bruce A. (1995). CHILDREN AT THE CENTER: IMPLEMENTING THE MULTIAGE
CLASSROOM. Eugene, OR: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management. EA 025 954.