Resisting Nostalgia: Differentiation in Multiage Classrooms
When I was a student way back in the 80s, my classroom consisted of rows of desks where we students would sit for eight hours a day listening to the teacher “instruct” us. As you can imagine, I had peers who struggled a lot. My classroom was riddled with “behavior problems,” kids who just didn’t understand the content, students who always did poorly on the tests and quizzes, and children who went home feeling mentally beat up every single day. Although at the time I enjoyed the stimulation of listening to the teachers and the predictability of raising my hand to respond, in hindsight I know it was not the most effective way for me to learn, and it certainly wasn’t a great way for my classmates to learn, either.
We know now that different children learn at different paces and in different ways. And yet, when you look at most classrooms in this country today, students are still often sitting in rows of desks, streamlined by birthdate and expected to absorb knowledge that the teachers pour into their heads. Why are our schools not keeping up with the latest research in the field of education and child development? Why are parents so eager to have their children learn in the exact same way that they did when they were kids? Why do adults (both parents and teachers) let nostalgia cloud our better judgment and our level of understanding?
I am now back in elementary school, and this time it is completely different. At Striar Hebrew Academy, we do things differently. We moved away from traditional frontal teaching and toward a center-based multiage education, where students are actively engaged in their learning and are expected to take ownership of their own studies as they engage in individual or small group work.
Teachers have time to work with smaller groups of students or individuals to target specific areas of learning and growth. This way each student moves forward at the appropriate pace for him or her. It’s a lot of work to differentiate, but it’s malpractice as an educator not to.
Research indicates that multiage classrooms have no real impact, positive or negative, on academic performance. Nevertheless, research does suggest that these environments have a positive impact on children’s social and emotional growth. As an elementary school, this is a large part of what we are teaching. At Striar we know that children need to learn to work together, to have difficult conversations, to advocate for themselves and others. We also know that strong social and emotional skills are in fact indicators of future professional success.
If you were to walk into our combined second/third grade class during language arts, this is what you would see. The children would be scattered around the room, some standing, others sitting or lying down, and a few kneeling at our communal tables. One small group would be with one of our teachers getting direct instruction. Some children would be on a computer working on an individual learning program, others would be in a small group working on a project they have been struggling with for a week. Our support teacher would be circulating around the room, conferencing with students who need a little extra guidance, and one child would be helping his friend edit a piece that he has been working on and is almost ready to be shared publicly. There are certainly no rows of desks. You would likely not be able to tell the difference between children in second grade and in third grade. Each student would be doing work appropriate for him or her, rather than assignments based on birthdate.
The irony is that this model isn’t even so new. There have always been classrooms that look like this, and there have always been teachers who have structured their students learning in this way. What we have now is plenty of research to support these practices. We have teachers who are all willing to leave their comfort zones in order to put the needs of children first. We have parents willing to abandon nostalgia to give their children the education that will equip them with the skills to evolve into creative, thoughtful and caring individuals.
As educators, we have a moral obligation to make sure that our pedagogic practices have the most effective impact so that our students succeed in their learning today and acquire the skills and dispositions to be successful lifelong learners.