Multi-age Grouping
David Elkind

During the 1970’s when British “informal education” was all the rage in this country, I visited a lovely, bucolic school in Oxfordshire that was more like a miniature farm than a school. One of the impressive features of the school was the mixing of age groups, which seemed quite natural and healthy. The younger children learned from the older children and the older children learned from instructing younger children. Likewise, the younger children who were more advanced were stimulated by being with the older children. Contrariwise, slower children worked with younger children who were at or below their level.

When I returned to this country I was quite vocal about my new discovery only to be reminded that multiage grouping was hardly a British invention. The one room school house, so common in this country when we were a rural society, of necessity provided a multiage program. During the era of progressive education, many multiage groupings often worked on common projects. Finally, in many early childhood programs, and in a sprinkling of public and private elementary schools in this country, multiage grouping has been quietly practiced for many years quite independently of any influence from abroad.

In fact, if we think about it, multiage grouping is more natural and educationally beneficial than the rigid age grouping that dominates our schools. Age grouping is based upon physical time, whereas children grow on biological time and operate on psychological time. Biological and psychological times are variable while physical time is uniform. Within the same physical time period one child may grow two inches while another child gains only a quarter of an inch in height. Likewise, within the same physical time period one child will discover decoding while another continues to struggle with letter discrimination. Age grouping based on physical time denies the fact that children are organisms and that they operate on variable biological and psychological time, not uniform physical time.

Because it accommodates to the nature of children, multiage grouping could help solve many of the problems of the early education boom. Perhaps the most serious of these problems is that of the age effect, the fact that the youngest children in a kindergarten class routinely do more poorly than the older children. While retention, transition classes, and screening have all been used to solve this problem, the burden of these solutions falls upon the child. But the problem is not in the child but rather in the mismatch between the child and the curriculum.

Multiage grouping provides a classroom organization sufficiently flexible to accommodate children at different levels of maturity and with different levels of brightness. Moreover, the younger children will have the experience of being the older children when the older group moves on and a younger group moves in.

Multiage grouping also encourages cooperation. There is a growing recognition, at all academic levels, that cooperation is much more effective than competition in improving academic achievement. Likewise, multiage grouping enables a teacher to use the knowledge she or he has gained about a child during the first year to plan learning experiences for the next year. Too often, in the strict age grouping arrangement, the knowledge a kindergarten teacher had acquired about her or his youngsters is lost when the children move on to first grade. To be sure, there are some negatives and perceived negatives to multiage grouping. Teachers fear they may have to master the curriculum for two grade levels. At first this appears formidable, but once teachers realize that they already work with a number of reading and math levels, the majority prefer to work this way. There is always the danger that some rotten apples get into the barrel, which means that with multiage grouping a child can get stuck with a bad teacher for two years rather than for one year. And, finally, parents of the older children may be concerned that their youngsters are not being sufficiently stimulated because of the presence of the younger group in the class. None of these obstacles is insurmountable.

The first years of school are of critical importance not only for children’s long-term academic achievement, but also for their abiding sense of self-esteem. In my opinion, the best strategy for dealing with the age effect and for giving the majority of children entering our schools a chance to develop a healthy and robust liking for themselves, for learning, and for schooling is multiage grouping at the K-1 level, and perhaps throughout the elementary school years.

Young Children * November 1987

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