How We Do It
We have students grouped in Kindergarten, 1/2 multi-age, 3/4 multi-age, 5/6 multi-age, and at the middle school level, 7/8 multi-age. We are excited that our students enjoy the many benefits of multi-age grouping (described below) and the deep relationships with their teachers due to teacher looping afforded by the structure. It is important to note that Sycamore Valley Academy classes are not structured as multi-age because of enrollment numbers, but rather for philosophical reasons. We believe multi-age classes and schools are healthier learning environments.
Borrowing from the Montessori and Waldorf traditions, The Academies classes are multi-age because of our core philosophical belief that learning should be student-centered. It marks a departure from the traditional age-grade lock step system that the vast majority of American schools have implemented since 1843, when the “one-room schoolhouse model” (which necessarily included multi-age grouping) was replaced by “a factory model that was used to classify and manage the increasing need of urban schools,...a product of the Industrial Revolution” (Stone, 1997).
Many thinkers are recognizing the arbitrary nature of single-graded learning environments. Sir Ken Robinson, creativity expert, describes how our system has come to be single-graded and our need to rethink this practice: "It's about conformity. It's about batching. You know, we still educate people by age group, for example. Why do we do that? It's because it's a managerial convenience. It's not because it answers to any model of human growth or development. We assume that all the five year olds should be educated together, all the six year olds, all the seven year olds... It's like the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. Well, I know five year olds who are a lot smarter than some twelve year olds, according to what they are doing. It's also about standardization, we all know this."
The graded system assumes, “that all children are the same in development and needs; that they can be taught in the same way... and that education is a product, not a process” (Stone, 1997). It is curriculum-centered and efficiency-minded. Even when teachers within graded schools consciously work to create student-centered environments and convey the message that education is a process, not a product, “the structure of the graded system... hinders continuous, successful progress for all children” (Stone, 1997).
In contrast, the multi-age approach assumes,
“all children, even children of the same age, are different in their development and needs; that children construct their own knowledge in their own way; that learning should be child-centered, not curriculum-centered; and that education is a process, not a product. (Piaget ,1976, Piaget and Inhelder, 1969). Multi-age classrooms also promote social learning-- children learning from each other. (Vygotsky, 1978)” (Stone, 1997).
In sum, the multi-age structure is a key piece in the The Academies model because it begins with the assumption of diversity in students, not sameness, and it is compatible with the learning outcome we aim for: producing life-long learners and instilling a mastery orientation. In addition, multi-age classrooms are healthy learning environments, and yield significant academic and social advantages over single-grade classrooms.
Academic Advantages of Multi-Age Grouping
Both ends of the achievement spectrum, gifted or high-achieving students and lower-achieving students, will particularly benefit from this structure at The Academies. Indeed, “age-segregated classrooms are particularly difficult for children whose development differs from the norm” (Pratt, 1986). The opportunity to progress on a continuum toward mastery, rather than aim toward externally-imposed targets dictated by grade level will liberate students and unleash greater motivation and feelings of success. Research indicates that this affective advantage translates to greater achievement for students. “Statistical analysis demonstrated that students from multiage classrooms achieved greater academic outcomes in relation to their abilities and demonstrated greater increases in academic achievement than students of the same and higher abilities from single-age classrooms, [even] when all classrooms employed developmentally appropriate teaching practices” (Kinsey, 2001).
Social/Emotional Advantages of Multi-Age Grouping
There are other, nonacademic benefits to adopting multi-age grouping as well: “The general picture that emerges from...studies is one of increased competition and aggression within same-age groups, and increased harmony and nurturance within multi-age groups” (Pratt, 1986). The harmonious culture of our school will likely yield social/emotional benefits for individual students. A healthy school culture - one of cooperation across ages, grade levels, and other differences - will positively impact academic achievement as well, since academic success is more likely when students have healthy self-concepts and social self-concepts.
“Building on results from a study reporting increased frequencies of prosocial behaviors of students in multi-age classrooms (McClellan & Kinsey, 1999), Kinsey demonstrated that higher teacher ratings of student prosocial behaviors were significantly related to greater student achievement outcomes on both standardized and report card assessments” (Kinsey, 2001).
Multi-age classes are truer to the world outside the formal classroom, where individuals interact with differing age levels constantly. As SVA students transition into other educational systems, namely high school and college, they will be well accustomed to the wider range that is common in higher education and also adept at interacting with peers both older and younger than they are.
In our classrooms, when all relationships are functioning effectively, grade-level peers stay together with a teacher who remains constant for the duration of the multi-age span. This model fosters strong teacher-student relationships, a sense of belonging and community, and increases the teacher's sense of responsibility for student growth. The multi-age structure makes differentiation a necessary and regular part of teaching because “teachers of multi-age classes are more likely to see their students as diverse than as similar and to provide developmentally appropriate (that is, differentiated) curricula” (Lloyd, 1999).