ERIC Identifier: ED381869
Publication Date: 1995-05-00
Author: Gaustad, Joan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Implementing the Multiage Classroom. ERIC Digest, Number 97.
Multiage grouping (placing children ranging in age by three years or more in
one class) and related instructional practices such as continuous-progress
learning, developmentally appropriate practices, integrated instruction, and
cooperative learning are being implemented with increasing frequency in
classrooms across the nation. These research-based innovations offer promising
alternatives to traditional graded educational practices--IF implementation is
carefully and knowledgeably planned. Perfunctory planning that ignores the
magnitude and complexity of the change can produce disastrous results.
WHAT DO TEACHERS NEED TO KNOW?
To meet the varied needs of
multiage students, teachers need indepth knowledge of child development and
learning and a larger repertoire of instructional strategies than most
single-grade teachers possess. They must be able to design open-ended, divergent
learning experiences accessible to students functioning at different levels.
They must know when and how to use homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping and
how to design cooperative group tasks. They must be proficient in assessing,
evaluating, and recording student progress using qualitative methods such as
portfolios and anecdotal reports.
Multiage teachers must be able to facilitate positive group interaction and
to teach social skills and independent learning skills to individual students.
They must know how to plan and work cooperatively with colleagues, as team
teaching is commonly combined with multiage organization. Finally, they must be
able to explain multiage practices to parents and other community members,
building understanding and support for their use.
The critical judgment and common sense of teachers are essential ingredients
in successful implementation. Methods that sound promising in theory may need
considerable adaptation to be effective in practice. Ideally, teachers should
have opportunities to observe competent models demonstrating multiage methods,
try them out in the classroom, receive feedback on their efforts, reflect on the
experience, revise their plans, and try again.
WHAT DO ADMINISTRATORS NEED TO KNOW?
understand the principles underlying multiage organization and developmentally
appropriate instructional practices. In planning for implementation, however,
knowledge about the change process may be even more valuable. Innovations often
fail because policymakers give teachers insufficient time, training, and
psychological support (Hord and others 1987). Effectively implementing a single
innovation requires several years--and multiage teaching involves multiple,
Administrators must realize that many of the underlying assumptions of
multiage teaching conflict with deeply ingrained assumptions underlying
traditional age-graded instructional methods. Miller (1994) observes that for
many teachers, "unlearning powerfully held notions about how children learn" is
an essential part of implementing multiage practices. This process is demanding,
even for the most receptive and flexible individuals.
Multiage instructional and organizational skills differ greatly from those
used in the single-grade classroom. Veterans may feel as insecure as first-year
teachers as they struggle to learn these new skills. In one school, Miller found
that teachers with more experience seemed to feel even greater frustration in
the early stages of change.
To help teachers weather this stressful transition process, administrators
must provide psychological support as well as technical assistance. They must
create a school culture that supports teacher learning, an environment in which
it is safe to risk making mistakes. Without such support, many teachers will
retreat to safe, familiar age-graded methods.
WHAT IS THE PRINCIPAL'S ROLE?
The principal plays a key
role in creating this supportive school culture. The principal must provide
teachers with opportunities to learn multiage teaching methods, monitor the
progress of implementation, and give teachers praise, feedback, and suggestions.
He or she should be adept at facilitating positive, cooperative interactions
among teaching team members.
The principal must ensure that all teachers feel supported and endeavor to
maintain a sense of community within the school. Innovative efforts by small
groups of teachers can threaten to split teaching staff into "pro" and "con"
subgroups; avoiding intraschool strife can resemble a delicate tightrope walk.
The principal must also deal with teachers unwilling or unable to make the
transition. Finally, the principal must build support for multiage practices in
the larger community.
Facilitating this transition requires sophisticated leadership and
interpersonal skills, as well as personal characteristics such as patience and
empathy. But most administrators receive little or no formal training in these
skills. Those who possess them have generally learned them from experience, says
Fullan (1991). Principals need opportunities for professional development and
for interaction with colleagues who are facing similar challenges. They need
support from district administrators as they develop these facilitative skills.
WHAT CHANGES SHOULD BE MADE FIRST?
mistakenly think multiage grouping is the first--or even the only--element that
needs to be changed. But according to Anita McClanahan, early childhood
education coordinator for the Oregon Department of Education, mixing ages isn't
the magic key to improvement. "You have to change your methods of instruction.
It's what we DO with the groups of children that makes a difference" (Gaustad
Multiage ORGANIZATION facilitates the use of developmentally appropriate
practices. It may help teachers focus on students' individual needs by
introducing so much diversity that age-graded methods become unworkable
(Miller). But teachers need opportunities to learn multiage instructional skills
before classroom organization is changed.
Where to begin is much less important than beginning well. It is best to
build solid knowledge and skills in one area, then gradually move into other
curriculum areas and add additional strategies. Thematic teaching, hands-on
math, cooperative learning, assessment using portfolios--any developmentally
appropriate approach can be a good place to start. Most work equally well with
single-age and multiage groups, and all ultimately connect and overlap.
Organization can also be changed gradually. Teachers of different grade
levels often introduce multiage grouping by mingling their students for
occasional projects. Grant and Johnson (1994) suggest LOOPING, in which a
teacher stays with a group of same-age children for two years, as a natural step
toward teaching children of mixed ages. Some schools have successfully made the
change in one great leap, but as Miller reports, this takes a heavy toll on
HOW IMPORTANT ARE SUFFICIENT TIME AND MONEY?
time and money are essential ingredients in creating and maintaining the
multiage classroom. Multiage teaching takes years to master, and long-term staff
development is expensive. So is hiring substitutes to enable teachers to attend
workshops and plan changes with their colleagues. Other expenses include
developmentally appropriate instructional materials for children, books and
videotapes for adult learners, and outreach efforts to build community support.
Effective multiage teaching is more time-consuming than age-graded teaching.
One group of Oregon teachers listed daily preparation time, weekly team planning
time, monthly inservice and curriculum development time, and occasional staff
development time as essential on an ongoing basis (Oregon Department of
Education and Ackerman Laboratory School 1994). Creative scheduling can free up
some time, but hiring additional teachers or paraprofessionals will likely be
necessary. Raths and Fanning (1993) also suggest teachers be given computers for
the "incredibly labor-intensive" clerical aspects of qualitative assessment.
Simply telling teachers to "squeeze it all in somehow" is NOT an option.
Teachers often donate immense amounts of unpaid personal time during
implementation, but few can maintain such sacrifice on a long-term basis, nor
should they be asked to. Administrators must accept the challenge of
communicating to the public that educational quality cannot exist without
adequate financial support, and enlist their aid in providing these resources.
Fullan, Michael G., with Susan Stiegelbauer. THE
NEW MEANING OF EDUCATIONAL CHANGE. 2nd Edition. New York, New York: Teachers
College Press, 1993. 401 pages. ED 354 588.
Gaustad, Joan. NONGRADED EDUCATION: OVERCOMING OBSTACLES TO IMPLEMENTING THE
MULTIAGE CLASSROOM. Oregon School Study Council Bulletin, Special Issue, Vol.
38, Nos. 3 and 4 (November and December 1994). Eugene, Oregon: Oregon School
Study Council. 84 pages.
Grant, Jim, and Bob Johnson. A COMMON-SENSE GUIDE TO MULTIAGE PRACTICES.
Columbus, Ohio: Teacher's Publishing Group, 1994. 124 pages.
Hord, Shirley M., and Others. TAKING CHARGE OF CHANGE. Alexandria, Virginia:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1987. 98 pages.
Miller, Bruce A. CHILDREN AT THE CENTER: IMPLEMENTING THE MULTIAGE CLASSROOM.
Eugene, Oregon: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory and ERIC Clearinghouse
on Educational Management, 1994. 123 pages.
Oregon Department of Education and Ackerman Laboratory School. MIXED AGE
PROGRAMS 1993-1994. Salem, Oregon: Author, 1994.
Raths, James, and John Fanning. "Primary Program Reform in Kentucky
Revisited." In SECOND YEAR REPORTS TO THE PRICHARD COMMITTEE, 1-23. Lexington,
Kentucky: The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, September 1993.
This Digest is based on a publication the author wrote for the Oregon School
Study Council: NONGRADED EDUCATION: OVERCOMING OBSTACLES TO IMPLEMENTING THE
MULTIAGE CLASSROOM, OSSC Bulletin Series, November/December 1994, 84 pages.