The WHY Behind Multi-Age Groupings
Most of us grew up in age-segregated classes, as did our parents and perhaps, our grandparents. This history makes it easy to assume that such a school structure is both natural and universal. The age-stratified culture in which we educate our children is actually a product of the 20th century.
Early in the history of the US, schools were one-room schoolhouses with age diversity. In the dedicated one-room school building that emerged in the eighteenth century, a full-time teacher would use individual and tutorial methods to instruct a group of 10 to 30 pupils ranging in age from 6 to 14 years.
This one-room classroom practice started to end in 1843 when Horace Mann, the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, visited Prussia and saw schools in which children were “divided according to ages and attainments." This type of segregation seemed to him an excellent model for preparing a populace for the growing factory economy. By 1852, classrooms in the US were more narrowly segregated by age than ever before. Ability grouping, which is so much a part of how we envision classrooms, gained popularity after about 1920. This further reduced the variety present in classrooms.
In 1963, Goodlad and Anderson looked at the current research in child development and proposed that the rigid age/grade system was not designed to accommodate the realities of child development, including children's abilities to develop skills at different rates and at different levels. The graded system does not take into account differences in children's achievement patterns. Goodlad understood that learning is not linear and children typically progress at different rates in different areas of study and at different times in their development. A traditionally graded school assumes that all children will progress through each area of study at the same pace. In this system, a child has no freedom or flexibility to develop at the pace that is optimal for their needs.
In a non-graded school like PS1, there is a longitudinal concept of curriculum and planned flexibility in grouping. We describe a student’s trajectory at PS1 as one seven-year experience. The curriculum includes continual and sequential learning, with behavior and content running vertically through the curriculum. Grouping is flexible and changes to meet student needs. Groups are organized around interest groups or work-study groups or achievement, or a combination of the three with some groupings being heterogeneous (mixed levels) in skills and other groups being homogeneous (similar levels) in skill levels. Teachers adjust their lessons to ensure that students grasp concepts, skills, and content through their entire educational journey.
Multi-age groupings are (and always have been) an integral part of the structure of the PS1 learning experience. Just as the research suggests, we see how our multi-age groups enhance learning on a daily basis. Year after year, and now generation after generation, parents come back and tell us that a two-year age range was the most important piece that made their children the well-rounded, well-spoken, confident, comfortable, agile people they have become.
*A note added by Head of School, Joel Pelcyger:
I have two points to share. First, 25 years ago, I attended a national conference and went to a session on the benefits of multi-age grouping. The presenters were in their second year of their program. I asked a question and mentioned that I had nearly 25 years of experience running a school where all the classes were multi-age. The focus of the session then changed - all questions were directed to me and I became the de-facto "presenter," sharing our experience at PS1. Second, another aspect of our successful multi-age approach concerns the overlapping of grade equivalents; viz. our intentional approach to assure that each child is clustered with a different group of children each year and has the opportunity to be both an older and a younger student at various points of their elementary experience.
Source: Author (2002). Title. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available: http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_schugurensky/assignment1/ (date accessed).