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Any family with more than one child experiences what it is like to watch children copy, emulate and mimic their siblings at one time or another. This can happen very early in development, as soon as the child is aware of his/her surroundings. As children grow in a household together, these actions become even more distinct and many times the younger of the sibling hits milestones faster, simply because the older assumes the role of a coach or teacher. We learn by watching, doing and having someone beside us, to share in the shaping of our actions.
When students enter public school, a grade level separates them by age, also naturally putting a wall up between developmental milestones. Most children in a kindergarten classroom cannot read a short story unassisted, nor add two and three-digit numbers. We separate students even further by dividing our schools into buildings: elementary, middle and high school. When we schedule students, we put them in the lunchroom by grade levels, and the same goes for the playground at recess. In our specialty area classes like physical education and arts, we keep them separated as well. Why are our schools determined to keep children from interacting when they are not the same age?
Let’s revisit the idea of developmental milestones, just as mentioned with siblings living under the same roof. A kindergartener and a second grader would be three to four years apart in age, depending on the birthdays and original enrollment into the education sector. A kindergartener can read some letters, possibly even sight words, while the second-grader may be reading 60 to 70 words per minute in a text. The height and weight of the children may vary in a 10-15 pound, 2-3 inch difference. The kindergartener may be able to share without prompting and the second-grader understands what it feels like to be left out of a peer group. Why would it be a great idea to put these two students together in a classroom, and what would be the negative implications of that decision?
A younger child may begin to share even faster with an older child because the level of competition isn’t the same. Consequently, older children may exude more patience for a younger child than that of a peer because of the identity they are shaping in themselves. How does this support academics? Imagine the level of personalized attention that the teacher can give to small group instruction when projects are put together with various age learners? We know that the greatest determining factor in mastery is when we are savvy enough to teach a lesson ourselves, so by giving opportunities to a child by assuming a teaching role, we give even our weakest the chance to shine for him/herself.
Older Students Can Benefit from Multi-Age Interaction
Multi-Age classrooms can be more tricky in middle school because of curriculum requirements, but it doesn’t have to be. In terms of high school and beyond, a real-life classroom can have an age range of several years. Our specialty area courses can pave the way for these shifts in dynamic as well. Instead of having a beginning art, advanced art and multimedia class for grades 6, 7 and 8, we can put students of all ages together and let them share the techniques that they have used, mastered and still struggle within various forms. Instead of being worried about what will happen when the older students are around the younger, we create a community of learners and leaders. We build our government, our school projects, and our recreational activities as a team, instead of individual units.
Simulating the Real World for A Better Real World
Students don’t know how to interact unless they have been given the chance to interact. The way that we constantly divide our buildings by grade level and age sends the message that the adults want the students separated. Having mixed grade-level classrooms is a small start, but there are lots of creative ways to build a community of students by bridging projects, special days and traditions. Imagine how different Book Fair Day could be if a third grader and sixth grader partnered to talk about books in a media center and were in charge of helping one another find something that they were interested in purchasing. Why couldn’t International Night combine three ages of students to showcase how to put a project and presentation together? How different would the experience be for a sixth-grader to mentor a second and fourth-grader in their global study?
We are building classrooms to shape our future. We should examine our future workspaces and places to do this. Multi-Age classrooms are a great innovative tool to help strengthen the student body, the school community, and collaborative learning. It is a simple way to hop on the 21st-century learning bandwagon in order to foster an education preparing everyone for their future.