xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Mixed or straight grades?

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Mixed or straight grades?

Mixed or straight grades?

Some straight talk about mixed grades!

This article was originally published in the WA Principals Leaders' Library in May, 2007. The question is still being debated in 2015. 

At the end of each school year principals are involved in the thankless and stressful task of estimating enrolments and organizing next years’ classes.

Sometimes these estimates are accurate and the principal eases into the New Year wearing the smug, self satisfied expression of the coach of the Grand Final winner
However, as Murphy’s Law dictates time and time again, these Term Four estimates are often wrong. During that traumatic first week back at school the numbers go wildly astray and that smug expression is extinguished. Stress lines and frowns cloud the principal’s face as classes are reorganized to the great consternation of children, teachers and parents. The next two weeks are spent on the telephone or in uncomfortable face to face interviews with parents whose children have been relocated from a straight class to a mixed grade. They are not happy!

“Why have you taken young our young Einstein out of Year 4 and put him DOWN to a Year3/4 class?”

“My daughter’s best friends are all in the other Grade 4 class. She cries all the time. Why have you split them up? She used to love school. Now she hates it!”  And so on.

I still have vivid memories of the first day of school somewhere in the late 1990s. We had a welcoming assembly at 9- 00 am after which I wore my smug smirk back to the office, pleased that my predictions had been accurate and all classes were now in their rooms busily embarking on another enjoyable year.  

It was then that I noticed nine sets of parents and their assorted youngsters clustered around the reception desk, being handed enrolment forms by a clearly flustered Registrar. Just as I always worry on aeroplanes when the Flight Attendants start rushing towards the cockpit, my school experience had taught me that if my Registrar appeared flustered then I should be very, very worried. She followed me into the office and told me that the entire nine sets of parents at Reception were all living in area and enrolling their children in Year One.

Suddenly I had 36 children in Year One and any reorganization of the numbers meant that I had to form several mixed grades throughout the school. The scenario that followed is familiar to many principals. Emergency staff meetings. Reorganized classes. Relocation to other rooms. Some children became emotional wrecks, some staff wondered why their Principal was not clairvoyant enough to foretell that nine unexpected pupils would all turn up on Day One and a great many parents turned feral!

If only I knew then what I know now. Mixed grades are good for you, or at least for the children fortunate enough to be chosen to be in one. That is what some educational research tells us. And quite a few parents are starting to agree with them.

Suzanne Witt of the Australian Capital Territory Council for P& C Associations points out that overseas research shows that children in composite classes do no worse academically than their peers in straight grades and their social skill development is enhanced. Children in these classes are more confident, co operate better, work better in team situations, are assertive, show more initiative, are more independent learners and better problem solvers. What is more, they more easily make friends outside their peer age group. (1)

Firstly, let us be clear about the terminology. Composite classes have always existed, usually because of administrative necessity. Mike Berson’s “A Fair Chance For All”, published by WAPPA , outlines quite clearly that for much of the time between 1850 and 1950 a great many Western Australian schools were one teacher schools containing children from “First Bubs” to Standard Six (Grade 7) with some catering for students up to Junior and Leaving. Principals are often forced to combine classes because of the pressure of enrolments or the lack of staff.

In recent years though, there have been occasions where school have created composite classes because of deliberate educational choice. These classes are generally referred to as Multi Age Groups, Fluid Groups, Vertical Groups, Family Groups.

With all Australian state education systems now operating on some form of Outcomes Based Education some schools have formed multi age groupings in an attempt to teach by stages, not by ages. Jean Rice, an experienced Principal and widely respected early childhood educator was one W.A. school administrator who established composite classes by choice in the late 1990s. Jean says, “At that time at Forrest Crescent Primary School I had 80 Pre Primary children and 100 Year One children. Obviously I was going to have to form at least one P/1 class out of administrative necessity. However, I had professional motivation to form a composite group. I firmly believed a P/1 would be beneficial for the children and their teachers.”

Jean discussed the situation with P/P and Year 1 parents, informing them of the educational and social benefits. She asked them to choose between straight and group classes. In the first year only 12 parents volunteered to have their children in the P/1 class. Jean says “A majority of these were P/P parents who felt their children would gain some advantage being in a more formal Year One environment.”

During the year Jean closely monitored the outcomes of all P/P and Year 1 children. She found there to be no significant differences academically in literacy and numeracy levels but that the P/1 children were clearly advantaged in their social and emotional development. They more easily took on leadership roles, cooperated better in team situations, had greater self confidence and self motivation to learn. Parents also noticed these differences and the next year Jean had over 30 parents volunteering for the composite classes.

There is strong evidence that positive relations among peers plays an essential role in a child’s social development (2) and that composite classrooms promote social development and engage younger and less socially skilled children (3). For those who desire a co operative, respectful and socially mature learning environment a composite class has many attractions.

Robert McCubbin Primary School in Box Hill, Victoria, is one of a growing number of schools whose websites proudly proclaim that they have arranged mixed grade classes on purpose to “cater for individual development.”

·  The multi age classroom is the perfect vehicle for developing learning which recognizes that all children develop at different rates
·  The multi age classroom seeks to challenge a child’s interest and understanding, while at the same time matching skills to the child’s developing abilities.
·  It allows for the individual growth of each child. They are free to find their own levels in social, physical and intellectual areas.
·  Multi aging provides an opportunity for a wider range of relationships and experiences
· A more natural learning situation is established. Children work at their own pace with their programme not geared to the work of a single year but adjusted over two or more years.
· Pre Primary and newcomers are a minority within the classroom allowing for a lot more personal attention from teachers and older children.
· Older children are encouraged to develop responsibility and independence. Children are able to care for each other and are able to learn from each other in both behaviour and school work. Children can provide a variety of models for each other.
· There is a sense of community within the multi aged classroom which helps build a child’s self confidence and feelings of security.
· In a multi age classroom children will be working with content and processes from a range of academic levels. Open ended experiences and inquiry based units of work allow for different levels of achievement.
· Benefits also come to the older children from the qualities of leadership and responsibility which they develop.(4)

Some researchers argue that multi aged classes are relatively successful because principals, “in an effort to reduce the burden on multi grade teachers, place more able, more independent and more cooperative students in multi grade classes.” (5)

That may be true. It is probably also true that wise Principals tend to put their more capable teachers in charge of multi aged classes. This makes it easier for the principal to discuss the situation with a concerned parent in those torrid days of February when classes are being reorganised. Parents generally have a good idea about which teachers are “quality” and will take note when the choices are between a straight grade with a “very ordinary” teacher and a mixed grade with a highly esteemed and very effective teacher. Not to mention all of the aforesaid social and emotional advantages such classes possess.

So when the need arises next year to come face to face with parents concerned about mixed class groupings, just put on your premiership winning smile…and give it to them straight!

  1. Susanne Witt. ACT Parents and Citizens Newsletter, April, 2004. http://www.schoolparents.canberra.net.au/composite_classes.htm
  2. Chase and Doan. Full Circle. A new look at multi age education. 1994
  3. Sandra Stone, “Creating the multi-age classroom”, Glenview, Illinois. Good Year Books, 1996.
  4. www.robmacps.vic.edu.au
  5. Mason and Burns: “Simply no worse and no better.” Review of Educational Research, 66 (3) 307-322. 1996

1 comment:

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