The “Ugly Split”

A while back I overheard a comment and the phrase “ugly split class” was used. I wasn’t surprised. I know and understand that for many parents and teachers the idea of having their child in a “split class”, or teaching a “split class”, gives rise to many negative feelings and assumptions. When I think about life outside school and all the many groups people are a part of, such as families, work environments, and universities, I can’t help wonder why there is such opposition towards children of different ages working and learning together in one classroom.

In all kinds of groups outside of school, people of different ages, strengths, and needs come together. Each member shares a strong sense of belonging and his or her learning can be rich and productive. Young and old work together, tackling their challenges and celebrating their successes. I am certain we can all recall a time in our lives when we were part of such a group. Why is it that many continue to believe the best way to group children in school is by age, where one curriculum is taught and is believed to meet the needs of every learner?

The phrase “ugly split” stuck with me and prompted me to write this post. My hope is to ease some of the anxiety and ambivalence that exists around the combined/multi-age classroom and shed some light on some of the positive outcomes that children can experience in such settings.

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Over thirty years ago, I was given my first combined class to teach; I was excited and ready. When I found out I was the only division in my school that was assigned a combined class out of the 16 divisions, I realized it wasn’t by design, it was by default – the numbers just couldn’t or wouldn’t be worked any other way. I remember other teachers went out of their way to offer their help and encouraging comments, “Not to worry, when you teach a split this year you won’t have to next year”. What kind of policy was that? I was excited and looked forward to the possibility of keeping my students for two years. Isn’t this how combined classes worked best and children benefitted the most?

As a parent I welcomed, even requested, that my children be enrolled in combined, or if available, a multi-age class. As a teacher, I have also welcomed, even requested to teach combined or multi-age classes. I believe in and value these learning environments where diversity is embraced and the building of relationships over time is possible. My beliefs as to how children develop and learn, and about teaching and curriculum, support the organization of multi-age groupings. It is my belief that the benefits of combined and multi-age classrooms outweigh the negatives and are worth the work and effort teachers need to bring and devote to such classrooms.  In such classrooms differentiated instruction, cooperative learning, problem-solving, inquiry, and social and emotional learning is often at its best.

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As I reflect on my many years as a multi-age classroom teacher, I am reminded of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in the ranching community of Big Creek nestled in the Cariboo Chilcotin. In my third year of teaching, I was given the opportunity to experience something not too many teachers get to experience, teaching twenty-six students in one classroom ranging from ages 5 through 12, kindergarten through to grade seven. One of the most important things I learned was the value of children of all ages working, sharing, playing, and learning together. I found that the multi-age composition of the classroom enhanced emotional-social qualities. The younger children developed affection and admiration for the older children, and the older children developed protective attitudes toward the younger ones. The relationships I saw the children forming with each other, as well as the relationships I was able to establish with my students, were in my opinion family-like and grounded in a genuine and meaningful concern for one another. We were a community of learners that resembled the world outside of our classroom. Together, we learned tolerance and acceptance for our differences, our needs and interests. The children had to learn to be self-directed, and independent as I worked with small groups. I had to learn to create curriculum that was responsive to all my students’ needs and interests; my curriculum was based on sound pedagogy that focused on problem solving, inquiry, and big ideas. I didn’t teach 26 individual curriculums, I taught 26 individual students, each child learning at his or her own rate, and through quality open-ended instructional practices, all students were able to be successful as well as challenged.

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I began to think about our schools and how they are structured. Where, other than in school, are children organized by one or two ages, then classified, measured, and promoted according to a grading structure? I began to read the research on the advantages of multi-age grouping that has been investigated since the late 1960’s. Multi-age classrooms are not new; educators realized that maybe children lumped together by age wasn’t the best. Researchers such as Mary Mycock (1967) suggested that students in a multi-age setting have a greater sense of belonging, support, security, and confidence than students in same-age classrooms. She believed that in multi-age classrooms, children have a chance to form relationships with a wider variety of children than is possible in a traditional setting. She asserted that multi-age groupings promotes the development of a balanced personality by fostering attitudes and qualities that enable children to lead happy, well-adjusted lives in complex and changing social environments. Other past researchers, Lorna Ridgeway and Irene Lawton (1965), justified family groupings on the grounds that it gave children an increased sense of security and stability, and promoted poise, enjoyment, and confidence. They also believed that in multi-age groupings children were encouraged to help one another. Students learn from one another; older children and younger children are models for each other, provide for a greater range of learning, and encourage students to work together and promote social responsibility.

Today, I think about the many students in classrooms that stand out as being different then their classmates – small or big for their age, gifted or less able in certain curriculum areas. In a single-graded classroom children’s differences may not always be welcomed, or even acknowledged. It’s not always easy being different. But I believe, in a multi-age classroom where differences are so apparent, the norm, all children can feel a sense of belonging and acceptance even when they may not share age-mate similarities. How could such an environment where children’s differences are recognized and prized ever be described as “ugly”?

6 comments

  1. Growing up in a rural farming community, I had no choice but to be in combined classes from grade 1 through grade 9 (with 7,8,9 all together in one class). I loved it! I looked up to those older students – they taught me a lot about social nuances, character and also what we might describe as a departure away from character 😉

    My daughter had the opportunity to be in a combined class when she was in grade 4 (with 5’s). It was a good experience for her and I wished she would have had more opportunities for this to happen.

  2. Thanks for this post. I really believe in the combined classroom and see your points in this post. It would be great to have more combined classes at school, rather than having only a single at grade level because this adds to the stigma of them being negative.

  3. That is why you are the ACE teacher you are, Kelly!!! We look a the “whole” child and what they bring to our door. And go from there. It was my “turn” to teach a K/1 split. First hard part was to decide who to “keep” from my Ks to transition into the 1s….could only keep 9 of the 18 that were staying. In terms of the opening year, those Grade 1s saved my voice, as when routines needed to be established with the Ks, i could say, “grade 1s, help the Ks”. I had some Ks that could read better than some of the 1s, of the 9 1s, i had about 3 reading levels….everyone took away something and i don’t really think that i thot…hmmm…that’s not 5 year old behaviour….or 6 year old behaviour….we just worked together and had a great year. K/1 split is hard in terms of the academic portion of learning for the 1s, and the Ks missed out on some Choosing time, but i think the relationships that were formed, the skills used to get along with others, outweighed this?

  4. Great post Kelli. The negative feelings about a combined class seem pretty common among both teachers and parents- and even students! I think when the curriculum became “mono grade” it complicated matters as many felt now we have to teach two distinct curricula. Understanding grades are an artificial construct based on ones birthday, it hardly makes sense to teach a pre-set curricula to half the class and a different one to the rest, yet there aren’t many models of doing it differently. It is my hope that the redesigned curriculum will open doors for more fluid teaching and learning.
    In my school we have multiage Montessori classes and they function like a wonderful close knit family environment. It is lovely to see!

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