Collective Classrooms

Kylie Ladd examines the approach taken by some schools to teach children in multi-age classes.

I’m standing in the middle of the biggest classroom I have ever seen, one of four at Spensley Street Primary School in Melbourne’s inner north. Within each large open-plan room, 85 or so students are arranged into four multi-age classes, roughly equivalent to kindergarten to Grade 2, Grades 2 to 4, Grades 3 to 5 and Grades 4 to 6. Each class has a designated teacher, so that there are at least four teachers in the room at any time, but the organisation of the classroom is fluid. Students generally work within their own class and with their own teacher, though some move between classes as interest, ability and circumstances dictate, and occasionally the whole room comes together to be instructed or discuss topics as one large group.

For the past 30 years, Spensley Street Primary has abandoned the idea of conventional grades and opted instead to form multi-age classes. I have to confess that when I first heard about the school I was unconvinced. How on earth could all those children work together productively? Wouldn’t students get lost in the crowd? Wouldn’t the classrooms be too noisy and overwhelming? How could any teacher cater for such a range of abilities? Seeing it for myself, though, I am impressed. It’s true that there is a lot of activity and movement, but it is controlled and purposeful, no louder than a standard, much smaller classroom. Children of different ages are working together, sometimes with the older ones helping the younger, but more often as a team. Others sprawl on the many couches lining the walls, reading to themselves, while knots of students gather to confer at a central table or bank of computers. The mood is cooperative, friendly, relaxed; the children appear self-sufficient and confident.

Spensley Street Primary is somewhat unusual in having such large multi-age classes, though according to the Australian Association of Multiage Education, this approach to education is gaining in popularity throughout the country. Multi-age classes are those where students from at least two, but more commonly three, year levels are brought together and taught as one class. They differ from composite classes in that the age range of children is usually larger and they are formed on the basis of a pedagogical belief in the practice, rather than administrative necessity or to balance uneven numbers of students. A child entering a multi-age class will generally remain with his or her teacher for the next few years, moving in that time from being among the youngest in the class to the oldest. Although there will be some change in the student cohort every year (older children leaving for the next level; younger ones coming in) the bulk of the group remains the same. While some schools are composed entirely of multi-age classes, others are gradually adopting or trialling the practice by having just one or two such classes.

Multi-age teaching acknowledges that children naturally learn at different rates and different times, and provides a structure that enables children to work at the level they are capable of. The practice is one of the core tenets of the Montessori schools, where children are grouped in three to six-year spans in the belief that this way they can learn at their own individual pace, and in a manner that is child, rather than curriculum, driven. In contrast, educational researcher Professor Lilian Katz points out that single-age grades do not allow for developmental differences and may actually penalise children who fail to meet normative standards, when in fact “there is no evidence that a group of children who are within a twelve-month age range can be expected to learn the same things, the same way, the same day, at the same time”.

Those who teach or work with multi-age classes believe that these have a number of advantages over the single-grade model. Dr Nita Lester, who holds a PhD in education, agrees. “Academic development is enhanced in a multi-age class, as each child works at his/her own level of ability. Students are organised into groups of similar abilities, regardless of age. As a result, success is the norm, while failure is reduced because the work is at the appropriate developmental level for the child.”

Multi-age classes allow children to learn from and with each other, rather than being purely led by the teacher. As Amy, a student teacher who experienced a placement at a multi-age school, says, “I immediately noticed a difference in the way children in a multi-age class interact. The Grade Fives I was working with really helped the younger children in their class, showing them what to do and keeping them on task. Before my placement I would have thought that might disadvantage the Fives, though it’s obviously great for the younger ones – but now I’ve seen how much the Fives get out of it too, in terms of consolidating their own learning, developing responsibility and increased belief in themselves.”

Studies comparing multi-age and straight classes consistently find either the same or slightly improved academic scores from children in the former. Of more significance, however, are the social benefits derived from multi-age grouping. “Students in multi-age classes seem to be more adaptable, more accepting of each other, less exclusive and cliquey. I believe they are more inclined to accept people as they are, because they realise that everybody is different and we all have our own strengths and weaknesses,” notes Jeannie, a teacher at Spensley Street Primary.

The multi-age system is not without its limitations, however. Teachers must be vigilant to ensure that younger children are not overwhelmed or intimidated by older ones, and that older students do not take advantage of their smaller or slower peers. Teacher-student or even teacher-parent personality clashes can have a greater impact in a multi-age class, where all parties must work together for two or three years rather than just one. Some States have mandated curricula and/or tests for specific grades, which can be difficult to accommodate in a class where children are working above or below their nominal level.

Many parents of multi-age students might also be concerned about the teacher’s ability to manage and direct such a wide range of ability and needs. Teachers might need additional support and guidance in their first year or two of working with a multi-age class, but specialist training is not required. Most experienced multi-age teachers actually think it is easier to teach a multi-age class… there is always a proportion of the class with experience of the routines and expectations, teacher and student know each other better, and peer tutoring can occur either incidentally or formally. Resources for multi-age classes are also improving, with syllabus documents in NSW and Victoria now written for stages of learning rather than year grades, a model that lends itself perfectly to multi-age teaching.

“It takes quite a lot of work, but it isn’t harder – once it is established it has an energy of its own,” says Jeannie, who has taught multi-age classes for more than 20 years. “Teachers and students get to know each other much better and develop meaningful relationships, which in turn aids learning. On top of that, it’s the way of the world – in no other situation do people work or mix only with those of exactly the same age. I really don’t think I’d teach any other way.”

Illustration by Louise Grant