Shifting Towards Multi-Age Learning

Timeless Learning: Using Zero-Based Design to Rethink School

“If you had never seen a school, never heard of a school, never known of formal education…how would you choose to get our children from age four to age 18?”

Why then, do most modern schools group students by age, or as the late Sir Ken Robinson put it, their date of manufacture? 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” (pg 47, Timeless Learning).

What is lost when classrooms and learning are organised around these narrow age bands? What opportunities exist in rethinking how we group learners and create physical environments to support such learning?

A multiage classroom clip taken from “What Does It Mean To Build A School?” by Ira Socol

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. For anyone interested in taking a comprehensive deep dive into multiage learning and its supporting pedagogy, I highly recommend the picking up a copy of the book.

I lead a composite year 6/7 class so I see small sample of multiage learning every day. Each year, I loop with a critical mass of students 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.

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.

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…

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 which have genuine impact in our community.

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.

Our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall

“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

School that is traditional is conditional. Tinkering around the edges of traditional pedagogy, structures and systems will never create the kind of school experience our children deserve, one which revolves around acceptance, access, abundance and attention.

Imagine, if you can, a school where the educators, curriculum and learning environment work as one towards helping each child become the best version of themselves. A gradeless, student-directed, P-Based experiential learning environment that honours each child’s identity, strengths or passions.

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. The good news is, while many schools have spent 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 serious rethink about how we position ourselves between students and the curriculum, we are likely doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. A move towards a multiage model would require a coordinated, selfless, committed team effort.

The only way to change culture is to constantly create situations in which people together respond to the question “why are we here?” — Timeless Learning, p24.

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?

One way is engaging with students, parents and guardians, teachers, and staff to create a “vision of the learner” — the skills and attitudes and values we would children to have when they graduate.

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? What does it say when 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, surely we’re doing something wrong?

When we think about our current teaching and learning models:

  • 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?

Education blog. "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say" - Flannery O'Connor

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