Do children learn better in mixed-age classrooms?

Multigrade teaching is a promising approach, especially for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds
Miklos, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Miklos, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Multigrading – or multigrade teaching – is the practice of grouping children of different grades (and ages) in the same class. According to UNESCO, multigrading occurs in about one-third of school classes worldwide. For budget reasons, it is the only available option in some developing countries. It is a customary practice in rural areas of developed countries as well; in the United States, 28 percent of schools reported using multiage grouping in recent years.

The use of multigrading is not restricted to remote and rural areas. It is also gaining the support of educators. It is widely used in Montessori schools, for example, which are thriving in several countries as a way of promoting student development and improving educational results. Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was an educational reformer who introduced new ideas about using heterogeneous groups to encourage learning. She believed that children should be free to choose their own tasks and partners in learning, and to work at their own pace.

In multigrade classrooms, children have the opportunity to interact and work with peers of different ages, following their teachers’ instructions. Educational practices such as multigrade teaching have the potential to foster cognitive skills, which are largely predictive of success in school, work, and life in general. In my research with Gian Paolo Barbetta and Gilberto Turati, inspired by the seminal work of Edwin Leuven and Marte Rønning, I focus on seven-year-old and ten-year-old students in Italian primary schools in an effort to understand the impact of multigrading on children’s cognitive development.

In Italy, seven-year-olds attend the second grade of primary school, so they’ve had at most one year of experience in a multigrade classroom. Ten-year-olds are in the fifth and last year of primary school. As almost all fifth-graders in a multigrade classroom have spent more than half of their primary school years in such a classroom, an analysis of fifth-graders made it possible to quantify the cumulative effects of multigrading at the end of primary school.

Our findings showed that being part of a multigrade class considerably improves the performance of seven-year-old students in math and language arts, while ten-year-old students in a multigrade class perform similarly to those in a single-grade class.

“Educational practices such as multigrade teaching have the potential to foster cognitive skills, which are largely predictive of success in school, work, and life in general.”

These disparate results can be explained by the composition of multigrade classes. Seven-year-old students usually share their (multigrade) class with older and more mature peers, who use a more sophisticated vocabulary and can act as role models for their younger classmates. This can positively shape a younger child’s cognitive development.

In contrast, ten-year-olds are in their last year of primary school, so when they are part of a multigrade class, they always share their classroom with younger peers. Being among the oldest in the classroom does not seem to increase cognitive achievement, although it might have some effect on noncognitive and/or socioemotional development. Our study did not look at non-cognitive skills, but we plan to extend our research to include these outcomes as well.

Not all students benefit equally from multigrading. Girls benefit more than boys, and children from low socioeconomic backgrounds benefit more than their more advantaged peers. Multigrade teaching therefore appears to be an effective tool for mitigating the consequences of poor socioeconomic conditions for child development. For seven-year-olds, daily interactions with more mature peers might offset the disadvantages of less stimulating home environments and lower-quality parental inputs.

“Multigrade teaching appears to be an effective tool for mitigating the consequences of poor socioeconomic conditions for child development.”

Montessori was probably right to support multigrading and other pedagogical practices that allow children to interact with one another in different ways. The results of our study suggest not only that multigrade teaching has no detrimental effects on child development, but that it can produce sizeable benefits for some groups of children. This evidence is an important contribution to the heated debate on how best to promote learning.

Moreover, the use of multigrading in rural and remote areas is a way of coping with widespread challenges such as low population density, deprivation, and the loss of young workers. In these areas, schools can only survive by adopting multigrading or similar practices – and schools are probably the only institution with the potential to revitalize these areas.

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