Are multi-age classes the future of learning?

Soundview School was one of two featured schools in a recent IB Community Blog article about multi-age education.

Traditional age-based classrooms may be the norm, but they don’t have to be.
They could in fact be detrimental to learning. Two IB World Schools share their
experiences of multi-age teaching with IB World magazine.

Today’s education system resembles a factory system as children are still educated
by batches, grouped by their age and then into year levels, according to Sir Ken
Robinson, author and international education advisor. Schools may recognize that all
children develop at different ages, but not enough are doing something about it.

Robinson offers a new approach in his book Creative Schools. It includes alternative
methods of personalized schooling such as multi-age classrooms, flexible
curriculums, and teaching that reflects students’ individual learning objectives.

In a multi-age classroom, students from (typically) two grades learn together in an
environment that encourages mentoring between students, social and leadership
skills, increased achievement and collaboration. Students can learn at their own rate
and from each other.

Advocates of multi-age education say it puts learners at the centre; socially and
academically. They add that the traditional approach of dividing students into single
grades based on an arbitrary birth-date range is illogical as children spend much of
their time outside school, in extracurricular activities, which are more age-flexible
than classrooms.

But critics argue that multi-age classes are more challenging because of
standardized testing at certain grades, as well as the difficulty of teaching children in
a wider age and ability range.

Benefits to students

The multi-age approach works very well for both teachers and students at Soundview
School in Lynnwood, Washington, US.
The candidate Primary Years Programme (PYP) clusters K-2 [five to six year olds]
and grades 3-5 [eight to 11 year olds]. In the Middle Years Programme (MYP), the
school teaches design, physical health education (PHE) and music as grades 6-8 [11
to 14 year olds] experiences.

Matt Stenovec, IB Coordinator of Soundview School, says: “We have always done
some multi-age teaching in the MYP in PHE and music, but we decided to expand it
out to design too as we've found that working on all-school projects together as a
group leads to a richer experience.

“Older students working to mentor our younger students has been a success, and
the younger students being ‘pulled up’ by the older students works very well. In
middle school, younger students bring a fresh perspective to their solutions during
design projects.”

Stenovec adds: “The IB curriculum fits in with multi-age learning as it allows us to
meet learners where they are and assess everyone in the classroom at an
appropriate level.”

Xi’an Hi tech International School has seen benefits for the whole school community,
after its MYP and IB Diploma Programme (DP) Music Teacher Lars Jefferson
suggested combining music classes for MYP students aged 13 to 16.

Each grade level has a separate music class weekly, in addition to two multi-graded
classes. Daun Yorke, Head of Secondary and MYP Coordinator at the school,
explains: “The weekly grade-level music classes provide time to really drive home
and reinforce the conceptual understandings, common to the big choral and band
classes. The power of students meeting in the multi-grade groups twice per week
has been heard and felt.

“The groups, within a short time, have become cohesive units and the fruits of their
collective labour were shared at a whole-school concert. As well as fostering a love
of music in our students, these classes strengthen our overall community. Students
are working beyond a single grade-level towards a common goal.”

Jefferson adds: “Our multi-level band and choir have worked remarkably well.
Students focus on the aesthetics of sound production. Students with rudimentary
skills gain from the experience of more seasoned students, while experienced
students share their knowledge. In the end, every student is able to perform to the
best of their ability.”

Making adjustments

Of course, a move to multi-age classrooms does involve schools rethinking
timetables, planning and teaching practices to some degree.
“The students come in from all different directions from their graded classrooms and
getting them to a common calm starting point in these multi-grade groups takes
some intentional orchestration on the teacher’s part,” says Yorke. “Mr Jefferson uses
strategies to quiet the mind such as mindful breathing when the students come into
the classroom.”

Stenovec says that Soundview School has had to make some adjustments. “When
you have six to eight year olds all in the same room, you need to meet all their
individual biological needs,” he says. “We have included more free inquiry in the
morning, while doing break out groups in mathematics or literacy. This allows
students to pace their day to their needs.”

He adds: “In any class of any configuration you will need to serve a variety of
learners at a variety of developmental levels. But we’ve put special emphasis this
year on best practices in differentiation (adjusting learning experiences to best suit
the needs of the child), scaffolding (activating prior learning before engaging in new
instruction), and executive function coaching, which is good teaching, regardless of
the level of student.

“For example, if the goal of a unit includes research, the teacher may spend a lesson
or two on how to plan out an appropriate research plan and pace work so that the
student can complete it on time. We were using these approaches before, but now
we’ve found that we need to reorient our focus more towards them in our new multi-
age configuration.”
Multi-age classrooms has also helped Stenovec, and his colleagues, become more
collaborative in their planning and delivery as they now have more than one teacher
per grade.

“We now deliver 16 PYP units per year as opposed to 40 units each year, which has
allowed us to do deeper dives into the collaborative planning process,” he says.
“However, we also need to plan out the units two to three years in advance, since
each teacher will have a student for at least that long as they loop with them in three-
year increments.”

Learning from other students

There are plans to continue a multi-age approach at both Xi’an Hi Tech and

Yorke says: “We are excited about our MYP students working together during the
school day and sharing these powerful, aesthetic learning experiences across usual
pre-set age boundaries. Our community is reinforced through coming together,
joining forces and making beautiful music.”

MYP student Noya Liu adds: “We can get to know each other through these multi-
grade groups and increase our communication and teamwork ability across grades.
Working with this diverse group can help us learn about our own shortcomings and
improve upon them.”