Multiage Education

Why are we creating a multiage classroom?

The research supporting multiage classrooms indicates that academic achievement is the same as, or better than, the academic achievement of children in same-grade classrooms. Students in multiage classrooms tend to have significantly more positive attitudes toward school, themselves, and others (Stone, 1998; Veenman, 1996). The Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) lists the following benefits of multiage classrooms:

  • Children are able to spend several years with the same teacher. This allows the teacher to develop a deeper understanding of a child’s strengths and needs, and is therefore in a better position to support the child’s learning.
  • Children have several years to develop, and are able to see themselves as progressive, successful learners.
  • Children are viewed as unique individuals. The teacher focuses on teaching each child according to his or her own strengths, unlike in same-grade classrooms that often expect all children to be at the same place at the same time with regard to ability.
  • Children are not labeled according to their ability. For example, children in same-grade classrooms may be labeled “below grade level” or “low.” These children may stop trying, while those labeled as “above grade level” or “high” may not feel challenged.
  • Children develop a sense of family with their classmates. They become a “family of learners” who support and care for each other.
  • Children are more likely to cooperate than compete. The spirit of cooperation and caring makes it possible for children to help each other as individuals, not see each other as competitors.
  • Older children model more sophisticated approaches to problem solving, and younger children are able to accomplish tasks they could not do without the assistance of older children. This dynamic increases the both the older child’s and the younger child’s level of independence and competence.
  • Children are invited to take charge of their learning, by making choices at centers and with project work. This sense of “ownership” and self-direction is the foundation for lifelong learning.
  • Children have almost an extra month of teaching time (each year) because the teacher does not have to spend the first month in the school year getting to know each child. Less review of prior instruction is needed before proceeding with new content and less time is spent teaching routines, rules and procedures.
  • Ms. Rose taught in a multiage school for 5 years and saw these benefits firsthand: “It really is amazing to see what can be accomplished by all learners in a multiage setting!” She saw benefits for all ages, all ability levels, and all temperaments.

History of Multiage Education

The multiage movement traces its origins to the one-room schoolhouses that dotted the rural American landscape from the mid-17th to the mid-19th centuries. Although born of necessity, such schools were in fact “very healthy,” says Robert H. Anderson, a professor of education at the University of South Florida in Tampa and one of the earliest proponents of programs that deliberately mix students of different ages together in the same class.

Anderson, an AASA member since 1950 who also taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has been researching multiage education for more than a half-century. He describes the one-room schoolhouse as an “accidental prototype of nongradedness” that served children well.

As the nation’s population and its public schools grew in size, students were divided into grades according to their age. “It was more convenient,” concedes Anderson. “Everyone could use the same textbook, the same curriculum. And teachers didn’t have to know as much.” But according to Anderson, what schools gained in convenience, they lost in terms of effectiveness. “Creating homogeneous groups never works,” he says. “It’s artificial. In any group of 6- or 7-year-olds you already have a tremendous range of ability levels.”

Over the years, administrative expediency prevailed and the practice of dividing students into grades based on their ages became common practice. Unfortunately, says Anderson, who in 1996 co-authored one of the authoritative books on the subject, Non-Gradedness: Making It Happen, “The bad habits of the last 100 years continue to dominate the way people think about teaching.”

Meeting All Students’ Needs in the Multiage Classroom

As teachers, we believe that all students can learn but we also understand that all learners do not learn in the same way. John R. Passarini, Disney’s 2003 Outstanding Teacher of the Year, is a special educator who lives by this mantra: “Nobody is disabled, we are all differently abled.”. (2007). Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (1983) encourages teachers to assess all learners in a way so that instead of finding out “who is smart”, the teacher aims to find out “how are my students smart?”. Our goal is to focus on what our students can do. For example, instead of describing a student with this statement, ” Preston has not learned to read yet.” We would state what Preston does do:

” Preston shows a lot of interest in listening to books. He particularly enjoys listening to adults read to him. He eagerly joins in choral reading experiences when the class is reading books with patterned text such as “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” by Eric Carle and “I’m Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. When choosing books for his enjoyment, he usually chooses nonfiction books about wild animals and dinosaurs and frequently points to the pictures to ask questions. He is often found playing with magnetic letters and letter rubber stamps at the writing center while singing the alphabet song.  He is able to identify the names of all capital letters and some lower case letters and calls attention to signs and labels that have letters. His favorite class game is one that requires word rhyming games.”

By focusing on our students’ abilities, we are focusing on their strengths, approximations, and needs. It becomes clearer to us what they are ready to learn next and the developmental steps they are making. So rather than focusing on what they are lacking – we will observe what our students are doing. Teachers who differentiate effectively become what Carol Ann Tomlinson calls “assessment junkies” (2003). Everything a student says and does is a potential source of assessment data.

It is because of differentiation, that students in multiage classrooms are stronger than those in single-age classrooms in study habits, social interaction, self motivation, independence, responsibility, confidence, cooperation and attitudes toward school.

What does a multiage classroom look like?

Example #1: Word Study (Spelling)

Students are not broken into groups by grade levels, but instead they are assessed to determine the developmental stage they are at. We will teach all students how to do a word sort. Then each student will be given their own envelope with a sort for them to complete:

  • Some students will be sorting pictures based on sounds. For example, a learner in the emergent stage might open an envelope with 3 cards: a duck, a truck, and a cat. The child will determine which word doesn’t belong based on how the words sound. The student will continue taking out piles of 3 cards paper clipped together to determine which one doesn’t belong. Rhyme awareness activities are an easy, natural way for children to play with words and begin to focus on speech sounds.
  • A few other children who are in the alphabetic stage may be given a picture sort where they pay attention to the beginning sounds. So they would group together the pictures of the bug, belt and bed since they begin with the /b/ sound and they would group together the pictures of the moon, mouse and mop since they begin with the /m/ sound.
  • Two other students who are further along in the alphabetic stage may be doing a similar sort, but instead of pictures, they are first matching the picture cards to word cards and then doing the same sort.
  • Two more students may be in the within-word pattern stage and sorting word cards into vowel patterns. So web, bed, yes, and jet all belong together just as queen, jeep, feel, and tree belong together.
  • There may be a few students who are in the syllables and affixes stage where they are sorting words based on their final sounds such as dollar, sugar, collar belong together as jogger, dreamer and freezer belong together.
  • As students work on their sorts, the teacher confers with students. Then the teacher introduces the game of concentration and the students break into pairs to play. All students are playing concentration but using different cards based on their spelling assessment.

Example #2: Math

As a whole class, we would create a chart that looks like this:

# of people

# of handshakes











We would first act out the problem, and then we would provide manipulatives to help students with the mathematic problem solving. We would encourage children to take the chart as far as they could. Some students would be working on basic counting with this problem. Others would be starting to use the “draw a picture” strategy while some may be counting by 2s and 5s. There may even be a few children who figure out the pattern of adding up all the numbers of people before to get the numbers of handshakes. For example, to get the # of handshakes for 5 people, you add up 4+3+2+1 to get a total of 10 handshakes. We are not breaking kids into ability groups. We are setting up an activity where each child will learn what they are ready to learn, with some teacher prompting and questioning.

After the activity and some discussion, there would be various math centers set up around the room. These centers would allow students to take the skills they were using to the next level. We will not expect all students to get the same thing from the same experience; we believe that mathematical ideas develop over time and that children construct these understandings on their own timelines. We will look for learning activities that are appropriate for all students; exercises that challenge students with more aptitude and interest while being accessible to children with less experience. It is our job to surround the children with many opportunities to construct new understandings.

Example #3: Field Trip to Pizzeria

As a whole class, we would prepare for a field trip to a pizza parlor by first writing down what we think we already know about pizza restaurants. The teacher would record student thoughts on poster paper. Then the class would add to the brainstorm: what do we want to learn? The teacher would record these thoughts. Then each member of the class would choose a question to investigate.

During literacy studio, the teacher might pull together 3 students who have questions about the menu and have them predict what the answers to their questions might be. Each of these students would approach this task differently based on their writing development. Then the teacher could pull out some menus from the local pizzerias and guide the students to finding the answer to their questions. Based on the child’s reading skills, the teacher may do very little of the reading or the majority of the reading but will use the text to point out some teaching points based on the child’s needs as a reader. For example, with one student the focus may be developing concepts of print (left to right reading, identifying letters and being able to distinguish the difference between a letter and a word). Another student may be ready to begin reading the menu; the teacher might read some words and leave other words out – helping the child to focus on the visual and syntax clues as well as meaning. Another student might be a fluent reader and the teacher might focus on some text features: Why are these words in bold print? Why are there small words under each picture? What are those words called? How does a caption help the reader?

As a whole class, the children could create a list of specific terms related to the topic of a pizza restaurant. They might list ingredients, different job titles and various business terms such as cash register or sale. Later, the teacher would work with small groups of students and individual students to further explore these words. With one group, they might classify the words into number of syllables, with another group, they might place the words into alphabetic order, and with another group, the teacher might read the words and the students would discuss where else we might hear those words.

While on the field trip, the students would continue trying to find the answer to their assigned question. So one student who chose to find the answer to “How many customers do they get every day?” will ask that question and figure out a way to record that answer on his clipboard. Another student might listen to find out how many different ingredients the restaurant has and write and sketch the answers on her clipboard. When we return, we would write a class book about the pizza restaurant – each child contributing at least one page. As a class, we would read the book together – talking about the various strategies we see writers using. “I see that Duong drew a picture and used labels. Why do you think he did that?” “Lindsay made a list of words. Why do you think she did that?” “Carl wrote Q and A. Carl, where did you get that idea?”

Our before, during and after field trip activities were the same, yet we were able to distinguish them a bit for each student. Whenever we group students, these groupings are flexible based on current needs not ability levels. There are many times that students are in mixed ability groups – we can all learn from each other.

Frequently Asked Questions about Multiage Classrooms

If multiage classrooms are so great, why don’t we see them more often?

Priscilla Pardini (2005) researched why multiage classrooms have been declining in recent years. She came up with three main reasons:

  • The implementation of No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on standardized, grade-level testing.
  • More work for the classroom teacher – a rotating three year curriculum must be used so that students aren’t repeating the same lessons, projects, and field trips year after year.
  • A general decrease in interest in programs that focus on the affective side of children’s education.
  • Pardini interviewed Tom Cooper, the principal of a multiage school. He responded to the first concern: “When you teach kids well, they’ll do fine, regardless of the method of assessment. If the teaching is high quality and the curriculum is comprehensive, test scores will fall into place.”

As far as multiage education being more work for the teachers, we are ready and willing to do the necessary work to create a learning environment that communicates to students: “Where you’re at is an okay place to be, but not an okay place to stay.” We will continually assess where our students are developmentally and nudge them forward. We do not see this as a burden, but rather as a privilege. Our goal as instructors is not to be a “sage on the stage” but to be a “guide on the side”.

In response to the third concern; Roberta Berry, superintendent of a school district where three of their four elementary schools offer multiage classrooms, reported “Students in the multiage classes perform as well academically as those in traditional classes while displaying stronger affective, social and leadership skills.” Roxann once attended a conference where the CEO of Boeing spoke. He shared the top reasons for why Boeing had to fire employees. These employees were not fired because they lacked the skills to do their job; it was because they lacked people skills. They had difficulty getting along with co-workers and supervisors. It is our belief that schools need to not only address academic goals but also social skills and work behaviors.

“It’s very much a child-centered approach that assesses children’s understanding and chooses curriculum pieces to fit their needs,” says Sandra Stone, director of the National Multiage Institute, based at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. “The emphasis is on the child rather than on the curriculum.” Although that attitude can guide teacher practice in single-grade classrooms too, it’s more likely to happen in a multiage setting. “If you’re a 3rd-grade teacher, you tend to focus on, ‘This is what I teach,'” says Stone. “If you’re a multiage teacher, you focus on ‘These are the children I teach.'”

How do you teach 3 grades at once? 

We don’t teach three grades of content at once. All the content themes (social studies and science) are rotated through three years. So in three years your child will learn all the social studies and science content in a typical kindergarten, first and second grade curriculum. With math and literacy, we focus on meeting individual student needs. We will not break into grade level groups. Our classroom emphasizes “Where you are at academically is a good place to be, but not a good place to stay.” Continuous growth and development is the goal of our classroom. Even if we were teaching one grade level, our class would have a wide span of abilities – a multiage classroom simply plans for and actually celebrates the differences in learners. We build a strong community that honors individual srengths while addressing individual challenges.

What are the benefits of this program for my child?

There are so many to list – reading through our website, you’ll be able to answer this question. One huge benefit is the consistency of having the same highly qualified teachers for multiple years. Your child and you will build a long term working relationship with our teachers and since we have more than one teacher, your child will benefit from our team teaching approach.

Click here for a website with more FAQs about multiage classrooms. There are some questions specific to the school that answered these questions, but most of the content is very relevant to our school.

Multiage References:

  • Bellingham School District quote on class size:
  • Pardini, P. (2005). The slowdown of the multiage classroom: what was once a popular approach has fallen victim to NCLB demands for grade-level testing. School Administrator, March 2005.
  • Stone, Sandra. The multiage classroom: A guide for parents. ACEI Speaks.
  • Stone, Sandra. (1998). Defining the multiage classroom. Focus on Elementary, 10(3).
  • Toppo, G. (2008). Size alone makes small classes better for kids. USA Today, March 24, 2008.
  • Veenman, Simon. (1996). Effects of multigrade and multi-age classes reconsidered. Review of Educational Research, 66(3), 323-340.