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OpEd: A splitting headache? Why multi-grade classrooms don’t work so great

While proponents tout the benefits of multi-grade classrooms, there's no evidence that they're any better than single-grade classes.
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Rita Silvan, November 5, 2013 11:34:01 AM

Split-level classrooms, or ‘leveling’, as it’s sometimes called, is a hot trend in education these days. In Ontario, nearly 21 percent of classrooms contain two or more consecutive grades. Proponents will breathlessly tell you how unequivocally great they are for kids. For starters, your little Johnny or Jennifer will make a whole bunch of new, taller friends who will expose your sprog to more mature role models. Other purported benefits include team building, improved study habits, greater confidence and independence and becoming more dependable and respectful. And fewer cavities.

Really? It’s a tall order, (and more than a little fanciful), to expect that an 8-year-old is going to act as a wise mentor to a 6 1/2-year-old.

Research studies on the benefits of multi-grade classrooms haven’t had much luck finding anything substantive proving them superior to the single-grade kind. At best, some studies show no significant difference in student academic performance between the two. If that’s the best thing one can say about them, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement and no reason whatsoever to have them spread like chicken pox.

Related: Should I send my child to an alternative school?

One obvious weakness of a multi-grade classroom is the teacher. Teaching a subject at two different levels, (many more when you factor in various students’ different aptitudes), is a high-wire act that only the most experienced and confident teacher should take on. Then, there are the kids themselves, some of whom will probably thrive around the more confident, older kids, while other more sensitive types might shrink, causing them to fall behind at school.

Up until the Industrial Revolution, multi-grade/age classrooms were the norm. With increasing affluence, it made pedagogical sense to organize students into similar peer groups. Now, of course, we’re in the midst of an ever-contracting economy. School boards are strapped for cash and have no appetite to hire new teachers. Hence the public relations push for the wonders of leveling.

It would be far better if school boards were upfront with parents about leveling and admit that the trend is driven by economics and demographics and not by pedagogy. From here, schools could investigate exactly what combinations of teacher/student/environment characteristics lead to the best outcomes and design classrooms accordingly.

Related: OpEd: Math got your kid’s number? A little hard work can fix that

It’s patently naive (or disingenuous) to say that split-level classrooms are always beneficial when there’s a paucity of studies to support this claim.

For every 6-year-old Johnny whose new best friend is a wise elder of 8 helping him with his homework, there’s another little Jennifer whose older classmates are quizzing her about sex during the lunch break.

As anyone who has a kid or been around young kids already knows, a year or two makes a huge difference in terms of a child’s emotional, physical, intellectual and moral development. Bundling kids in multi-age classrooms may solve an economic problem for school boards but it’s likely to create a few new ones for students and parents.

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Rita Silvan

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