The power of mixed-age learning

While same-age classrooms are the norm today, there are benefits of mixed-age groupings for learning both in the classroom and at play.

By Aruna Raghuram

The power of mixed-age learning

Seven-year-old Ashish liked reading out stories aloud to his three-year-old sister Anusha. Her eyes would grow big as he came to the thrilling parts. His mother told him this activity had improved his reading skills. Moreover, Anusha was developing listening skills and beginning to grasp ideas faster. As Ashish pointed out the alphabets at times as he read, she was beginning to recognise some herself. She would ask questions that he was usually able to answer. This made him feel good about himself. In fact, Anusha had begun to hero worship her older brother after these reading sessions had begun.

At home, older children help younger ones pick up new skills such as tying shoelaces or even learning how to count. This gives them a feeling of responsibility and raises their self-esteem while the younger ones learn faster egged on by older siblings or cousins.

The practice of mixed-age grouping in schools simply tries to replicate this learning environment in a more formal setting. In a mixed-age group of children, the age range is between one and two years and sometimes even more. While same-age classrooms are the norm today, experts believe mixed-age groupings may provide learning benefits for both the younger and older children, both in the classroom and at play.

What research says
Way back in 1995, a study by Simon Veenman titled ‘Cognitive and Noncognitive Effects of Multigrade and Multi-Age Classes: A Best-Evidence Synthesis’ found that there is no empirical evidence that student learning suffered in any way in multi-age (mixed-age) classrooms. Students in such classrooms did not learn more or less than students in single-age classes. In fact, students in multi-age classes scored higher on attitudes towards school, personal adjustment and self-concept than students in single-age classes.

In 2008, a paper by Jeffrey Broome published in the Journal of Multiage Education suggested multi-age education as an alternative to the ‘McDonaldization’ of education. According to the author, many aspects of society, including education, are becoming like fast food restaurants in an effort to become more efficient. As an alternative, teachers could turn to multi-age education as a more naturalistic and humanising way to scaffold students’ learning, he observed.

Why should children be grouped only by age?
A child’s age is not always an accurate measure of his physical, cognitive, emotional or social development. For instance, a boy can be tall and strong and good at sports but fall behind in mathematics and struggle with languages. Genetic as well as environmental factors (such as quality of nutrition and childhood experiences) also determine when specific milestones are reached.

The power of mixed-age learning

BENEFITS OF MIXED-AGE CLASSROOMS

Mixed-age or multi-age classrooms are not just the foundation of the Montessori system of education, they have been adopted by other progressive schools as well. Here are some positives:

Child-centred teaching: Each child is viewed as unique. The focus is on the child and his strengths and weaknesses.

Children learn at their own pace: Children do not get labelled according to their ability as fast or slow learners. They learn at their own pace, with no fear of retention or failure.

Social growth: Multi-age classrooms are conducive to not just academic progress but also to relationship building. Children form bonds with a wider variety of children – both in terms of their ages and abilities. In fact, children treat their classmates like family members.

Learning experience: Children get into the habit of helping and learning from each other. Older children become mentors to the younger ones and this improves their understanding of concepts as well as their competence. Some may take on leadership roles in class. Younger children are able to do things helped by older children which they would not have been able to do with peers. They get the opportunity to observe and emulate older children. As they appreciate the achievements of older children, they are also motivated to achieve themselves.

More cooperation instead of competition: Children are more likely to cooperate than compete in a multi-age classroom.

Building of soft skills: Older children learn to be patient and kind as they interact with younger children. In turn, the younger ones learn lessons in collaboration and conflict management.

Flexible curriculum: The curriculum is less rigid as compared to traditional schooling. Younger children are exposed to advanced material and older children have the chance to review material designed for younger children.

The cons - parental concerns
Of course, parents are bound to have reservations about mixed-age classrooms. Parents of younger children may feel that their wards may not be able to cope. Those of older children may feel their wards may not find the curriculum challenging enough. Parents may wonder whether the teacher is up to the challenging task of handling a mixed-age classroom. Some parents may worry that their child is working in isolation with his own task and there is insufficient interaction with classmates.

Parents of younger children may not be in favour of older children mentoring their own. They may feel it is better if the teacher does the instructing and guiding. Older children could be unreliable sources of information or poor teachers to the younger ones. Again, parents of older children may feel that if their children spend time guiding younger children they may be missing out on their own education.

What parents need to know
Parents should interact with the school authorities and teachers to put any doubts at rest. Some of the questions they could ask are:

  • Why had the school opted for multi-age classrooms? Is it for budgetary reasons, because the number of children in the school are few, or a conscious educational decision to enhance learning outcomes?
  • How was the teacher selected for this challenging task? Did the teacher opt to work with children of different ages?
  • Does the teacher feel equipped with teaching materials to work with all the children in the class?
  • Has the curriculum been changed to deal with the heterogeneous nature of the class?
  • How will the teacher ensure the younger children are given sufficient attention and not be overshadowed by the older more competent children

Parents also need to ask themselves what they want from their child’s school. Is it primarily academic achievement that they are looking for? Or, are holistic socio-emotional development and a strong friend’s circle equally important to them?

BENEFITS OF MIXED-AGE PLAY
Apart from mixed-age classrooms, mixed-age play too renders benefits. Playing with younger children offers older children the chance to act as leaders, to play teacher, and to develop creativity, empathy, and kindness – soft skills that children need.
In the article ‘The Special Value of Children’s Age-Mixed Play’ evolutionary psychologist Dr Peter Gray says: “Children have far more to learn from playmates who differ from themselves in age and ability than from those who are at their same developmental level.” Dr Gray gives two examples:

A game of catch: Two four-year-olds may not be able to play catching the ball too well as they don’t yet know how to throw a ball straight or catch one. However, a four-year-old and nine-year-old can enjoy playing a game of catch. The older child will throw the ball gently into the hands of the younger one and jump and dive to catch his wild throws.

Playing with cards: Similarly, children under nine cannot play card games too well as they may not remember the rules and can’t strategise effectively. But if they play with older children these children can guide them by telling them to keep track of the cards that are being played or not to show their cards to others and other tips.

Dr Gray lists some benefits of mixed-age play:

  • Three-year-olds were found to engage in more interactive social play and less parallel play
  • The younger ones may acquire skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic through such play
  • Age mixing provides younger children with additional sources of care and emotional support
  • Mixed-age play fosters creativity in older children as it is less competitive and more creative

According to Dr Gray, young children learn from older ones even when they are not interacting with them by just watching and listening. Their observations both inform them and motivate them to try similar things.

As for the older children, cross-cultural studies have revealed that children demonstrate more kindness and compassion toward children who are three years younger than them than toward children closer to their own age, he says. Also, experiences like baby-sitting or tutoring younger children improve their relationships with peers as well.

The power of mixed-age learning

However, parents may have their reservations about mixed-age play. Parents of older children may feel that it may not be stimulating or enjoyable for their children to play with younger children. Parents of younger children may fear that their child will not be able to cope with the rough and tumble play or may pick up bad words from the older children. These are genuine concerns but it seems that the pros outweigh the cons.

Finally, the benefits of mixed-age learning are many. Both at school and play, children benefit by interacting with children of different ages. While older children benefit as their concepts become stronger while teaching the younger ones, the latter look up to and emulate the older ones thereby learning from them.

In a nutshell

  • Same-age classrooms are the norm today but mixed-age classes have their benefits
  • Parents may have their reservations about mixed-age groupings both in classrooms and play
  • Mixed-age play is more creative and less competitive

What you could do right away

  • If you feel you and your child are not happy with a traditional same-age classroom set-up, it is worth it to try something more progressive and different
  • Encourage your child to take part in extracurricular activities where skill progression is important
  • When your child wants to invite his friends over, gently nudge him to invite their siblings too
  • Plan celebrations and family events where adults and children of all ages get together

About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 26 December 2019.
Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a freelancer with ParentCircle.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 31 December 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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