The Case for the Multi-age Classroom

Perhaps no symbol is as emblematic of early public education as the one-room schoolhouse. A small rectangular building with a teacher sitting upfront and a class made up of students of various abilities and ages faced forward, writing on small chalkboards called slates. It is hard to determine when, exactly, education shifted from a multi-age classroom to a factory model where students are grouped in a class solely based on their age. From the era of the one-room schoolhouse until now there has been a considerable amount of progress made in the fields of child development and instruction and, overwhelmingly, researchers have found that intellectual ability is not always linked to age and that student’s academic growth often comes in spurts that do not always coincide with the growth of those born in the same year.

In fact, age-segregated classrooms may hinder the growth of both the struggling and advanced learners:

The problem is that age segregation works well for students in the middle of the group in terms of ability. However, those who are developing faster or who are older must be pulled back to the pace of the whole group and are often frustrated by their inability to move forward; those who are developing more slowly or are younger may feel left behind and lost. (

When students are placed in a multi-age group they are allowed to learn at their own rate. A student may be an advanced reader but behind in math. This student could be placed in an advanced reading group and given the freedom to progress as fast as he or she is able to. The same student could be placed in a group of struggling mathematicians and given the support needed to solve the ability appropriate problems he or she needs to master before moving on. In both groups, the student could be taught at his or her level and has the opportunity to feel successful.

Having older students in a class can help younger students by serving as a positive model for behavior and even sophisticated thinking while older students are encouraged to “take charge” and be leaders. When a new group of students join a class of older students who have already been in the class for a year or two and know the classroom rules the rules of the class are reinforced by the older students and students become acclimated and ready to learn faster, saving the class valuable instructional time that would be used on teaching and reteaching students the rules. Older students are confident coming back to the same class where they know the rules and their teacher.

A teacher who has a student for multiple years has a better understanding of the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and motivations. It has been said that teaching and learning is about a relationship. It has also been said that relationships take time. Students who are in the same class for multiple years tend to perform better academically because they form stronger bonds with their teacher and their teacher, presumably, will have a better understanding of what drives the student as well as what area(s) the student needs additional help in.

Education has made great strides since the days of the one-room schoolhouse, but maybe something was lost when we began batching students by age. The best approach to education, especially elementary education, just might be a marriage of the multi-age classroom and the researched-supported practices of the 21st century. Here at Cannon Beach we try to combine the concept of the multi-age classroom with the research-supported practice of Direct Instruction (you can read all about Direct Instruction here).



Amy Fredrickson