Making Sense of Multi-Age Learning

Timeless Learning: Using Zero-Based Design to Rethink School

“If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” ― Stephen R. Covey

Multiage learning is referenced a couple of dozen times in “Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools” co-authored by Pam Moran, Ira Socol, and Chad Ratliff. It’s an idea I’ve often thought about but never really considered as a sustainable option because our factory-model education system dictates that we group students by age, or as Sir Ken Robinson puts it, their date of manufacture.

Initially, I was going to write that I’ve never formally seen multiage learning, but that would be wrong. I have a composite year 6/7 class, so I see multiage learning every day. Each year I have a critical mass of students I loop with, usually about a dozen, for whom day one is, in fact, day 181. It’s a great luxury to have repeat students slot seamlessly back into their learning journey, support their new classmates and serve as aspirational peers. So what’s stopping us from extending the model?

We lose so much when we divide students by age… We lose peer mentoring, we lose the aspirations to be “like the big kids,” we lose the ability of younger kids to become leaders, and we lose the ability to let kids grow at their own rate. We also lose the shared public space which lies at the heart of community, culture, and democracy. — The Multiage Magic, SpeEDchange.

It’s hardly a new idea, in the past, “classes of children cross-pollinated what they knew and who they were — until ability grouping, course levelling, and mile-wide, inch-deep curricula became the norm” (Timeless Learning). Multiage learning can be seen in schoolyards, parks and playgrounds, and amongst families, if only we take the time to stop and look.

In Ireland, multiage learning in primary schools is common. Closer to home, Templestowe College, which a decade ago was on the brink of closure after dropping from 1000 students to less than 300, embraced its tiny size and pivoted towards personalised learning. TC eliminated year levels and allowed students to select their course loads and “hyper-specialise” based on strengths and interests. The school’s community now exceeds 1200, so if bums on seats are any indication of success… The parallels between the 2008 verson of TC and my current school are difficult to ignore.

So much talent exists in children that doesn’t get seen or heard because the potential of young people often is lost in our traditions of worksheets, repetitive motion tasks, and teachers standing at the dominant teaching wall. When kids tune out, passively or aggressively, because work has no context, little meaning, and makes no sense, we never see the strengths and assets of the full range of learners who are in our schools.

Let me be clear on one thing, when I talk about multiage learning, I don’t mean streaming. I imagine joyful, collaborative, hands-on, individualised learning that students personalise based on their interests, strengths, and needs. They create the context, we then add the content. I want to create memorable opportunities and experiences with real-world impact.

Our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall

It’s past time to stop tinkering around the edges with traditional pedagogy, structures and systems.

You can do this. We can do this. But you cannot do this if we prioritize adult comfort and adult convenience. We cannot do this by going slowly because “change takes time.” We cannot do this moving just one thing at a time because “We can’t overwhelm teachers” (or principals or custodians or our lunch program or …) — Ira Socol, TPCK to TPECK… Learning as a Spherical Metaphor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve removed grades from everyday learning, given students back control of time, created flexible learning spaces, experimented with “P” Based Learning (Problem, Project, Passion — whatever your preference), explored co-design, held our first ever exhibition of learning; the list goes on. But I’ve had little impact beyond my classroom.

The only way to change culture is to constantly create situations in which people together respond to the question “why are we here?”

Could collaborative, interdependent, multiage teaching and learning lead to greater student engagement and improved self-regulation and self-management? Could it bring staff together to share expertise and create better learning outcomes for all students? I’m keen to find out.

Time flows differently when children work together, the older becoming aspirational peers for younger children, no bells demanding that they stop what they are doing to move in short blocks of time from math to reading to science to history in a repetitive cycle. Instead, they work on projects that engage them and in experiences across content areas and extend time as they see the need. — Timeless Learning, Ch. 8, Timeless.

If not now, when? If not us, who?

Do we have the pieces needed to put the multiage learning puzzle together?

We have a core of student leaders with almost two years of experience managing their own time, space, learning, and behaviour. Losing these kids to high school without giving them a chance to work alongside and mentor younger peers would be a monumental waste. We have a good mix of experience on staff, including highly skilled Student Support Officers (SSO’s), several of whom are qualified or pre-service teachers in their own right. We also have the physical environment needed to make multiage learning work.

Our unit, which houses three classes, is a 1970’s relic of open-space planning that we’ve been working against for years. We separate our rooms using cabinets, wall dividers, and bookshelves to reduce noise (P.S. it doesn’t work). We cover windows and block out the abundant natural light from skylights to compensate for dim, antiquated technology like Interactive White Boards that have become dominant teaching walls. The good news is, while many schools are spending big bucks to knock down walls and create flexible spaces; the passage of time has gifted us a ready-made environment with which to work.

“If you touch one piece of the puzzle you have to touch everything, or it all falls apart,” -Prakash Nair from Who Thought ‘Open Classrooms’ Were a Good Idea? by Mimi Kirk.

Nair goes on to suggest that the progressive, flexible learning space movement of the 70’s was a failure because “the instructors of that time continued to interact with students as teachers, rather than as guides.” and “Without adequate preparation, teachers tend to revert to traditional methods of instruction”.

History suggests that without changes to our collective pedagogy, time management, and a rethink about how we position ourselves between students and the curriculum, we are likely doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. So how do we create the path forward needed to change everything?

Aim Small, Miss Small

If we want our schools to be learning spaces that reveal the strengths of children to us, we have to create a bandwidth of opportunities to do so. That means making decisions differently, decisions driven from values that support equity, accessibility, inclusivity, empathy, cultural responsiveness, and connected relationships inside the ecosystem. — Timeless Learning (All Means All — Cherishing Children)

So how do we move towards creating a school for children? Who gets to decide what “matters” in our context? Earlier this year I worked with students, parents and guardians, teachers, and support staff to create a “vision of the learner”. We examined what our perfect graduate would look like in terms of skills and attitudes and values.

As Ira Socol points out in the article, How do you design a school?

Only after we’ve answered “what do we want kids to be?” can we begin to ask “what do we want kids to do?”

If this is our shared vision of what we want students to be, how do we provide opportunities for all learners to practice being trustworthy or brave or independent?

Do children in our kindergarten have greater autonomy and control over their learning, movement, and time than students in year three or five or seven? If freedom doesn’t expand as students progress through their education, we’re doing something wrong.

One of my favourite elements of Timeless Learning are the provocations and opportunities for reflection scattered throughout the text. Pam, Ira and Chad begin the book by asking:

What do you see when you look at your school? What do you see when you look in a classroom? What do you see when you watch children in the playground, or on a street, or in a park? What does learning look like? What does growing up look like?

Below is a small collection of questions that I hope to explore with colleagues interested in multiage learning.

  • What’s missing from learning in our classrooms/school?
  • Who gets to engage in deep learning, to find their passions, and to be joyful in their work?
  • Who gets challenged with interesting questions that push thinking and emotion?
  • Who gets time to work on meaningful projects?
  • Who is cherished and how do you know that?

Finally, Timeless Learning advocates prototyping to test ideas and minimise the risks associated with change; it suggests educators should “aim small, miss small” to avoid impacting the entire system. It’s at times like this that I’m grateful to work in a small and agile school. With just seven weeks on my school year left, potentially ever at this school, I’m keen to go out with a bang.

I will leave you with this quote from Nelson Mandella which I love:

We have nothing to lose, plenty to learn, and if we get it right, kids will be the winners.