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The Multiage Classroom
by Dr. Thomas Greene

The secret to successful science instruction in the multiage classroom is to capitalize on what is natural. Students have a natural curiosity about the topics of science, and multiage work groups foster the natural instruction that occurs when students of varied ages engage in instructional activities. But, as any seasoned teacher knows, capitalizing on students' curiosity and optimally facilitating the interaction of students in a multiage group requires some planning. The reader will find several helpful planning tips for teaching science in the multiage classroom in this short article.

Multiage Curriculum Planning

In multiage classrooms, it is important to begin with curriculum decisions that will address the span of the grade levels of the students in the class, especially if the students are continuing with the same teacher for more than one year, as is often the case in multiage classrooms. For example, in a multiage classroom spanning what is traditionally considered grades four and five, a teacher may make a decision to address the science goals and objectives of the fifth grade during the first year and then move to the fourth-grade content. Frequently such decisions are made in a collaborative environment in which the faculty of a whole school is mapping the curriculum for a multiage school. It is, however, equally important to make this type of decision when a teacher is the only multiage teacher in a school. Obviously, some care must be given to planning for instructional content, which is sequential in nature.

Teachers in multiage classrooms also engage in thematic instruction. The science content of a particular level can be a great source of themes for instruction. An instructional theme that might unify science, social studies, health, and literature could be interdependence. This theme, essential to ecological studies of other science topics, can also be found in all the other disciplines. Students have a tremendous opportunity to experience the concept of interdependence when viewed from so many disciplinary vantage points.

So, in preparing for a multiage instructional environment, good curriculum planning is essential. The time spent will help insure rewarding experiences for students.

Training Student Work Groups

Many studies verify the positive effects of cooperative learning. In a multiage classroom, this instructional technique is very powerful. Younger students observe older students in leadership roles and in a very real sense get a chance to examine the next higher level of cognitive understanding as older students talk about the work. Older students have a chance to practice their leadership and nurturing skills while reinforcing their own understanding. Younger students eventually inherit the leadership role. While some work roles may emerge more naturally in multiage groups because of age differences, students still need some training about how to work cooperatively. Each member of the work group has a responsibility to his or her individual achievement while contributing to the understanding of the group. Students must also be held accountable for individual and group goals. The development of group processing skills in the students will enhance group performance and achievement. Time spent in training students how to work in groups will be critical to creating classroom culture and will impact student achievement.

Accomodating Student Development Levels

Just like a single grade teacher, the multiage teacher needs to plan how to address various developmental levels. One effective way to accomplish this is to develop assignments with various points of entry and exit. For example, in a science unit on plants, all students may have a common assignment to do, such as an expository writing explaining the needs of plants. Younger or lower achieving students may have a "hands on" experience, perhaps planting a bean in a leftover lunch milk carton and graphing its growth. Higher achieving or older students might experiment with the effects of different kinds of soils or the effects of fertilizer. The teacher can still continue to provide direct instruction on the essential, or core, content of the unit or lesson, but the assignments related to the unit are custom designed for the individual student. In a single graded classroom, such multilevel lessons or units can be accomplished, but in a multiage classroom it is essential. Multiage classroom teachers become very adept at developing lessons with differentiated assignments that appeal to the various developmental levels in the class. Students are the obvious beneficiaries. Parents, too, love having their child challenged as well as stimulated to pursue their learning further. Of course, students appropriately engaged in interesting assignments are also less likely to create classroom management problems.

The multiage classroom has the potential to be a rich educational environment. Teachers that accept the challenge of the multiage classroom will find that with planning and competent implementation a rich professional experience awaits.

Dr. Thomas Greene is the Director of Education at the University of Portland in Oregon.
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