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What are the Benefits of Mixed-Age Classrooms?

Written by Charles D. Bernstein (Ph.D)

One of the basic tenets of the HeadsUp! Approach is that school should be more like life. Where in life do we strictly segregate people into one-year age groupings? Imagine a corporation organized such that all thirty-somethings were on one floor, with all the thirty-two-year-olds in one room, separated by a wall from the thirty-three-year-olds. Imagine an airline boarding all the seventy-plus-year-olds first, then the sixty-year-olds, the fifty-year-olds, and finally the teens traveling alone.

Age Segregation

The fact is that for the most part, age rarely matters, except in schools and a few other areas such as athletic competitions, in which differences in age can create unfair advantages due to physical maturity. Physical traits are often related to age, as is experience (because most three-year-olds have three years of life experience). However, intellectual abilities—which schools are intended to help develop—are not linked to age.

It is not clear why schools are segregated by age. After all, the original one-room schoolhouse on the American frontier was not age-segregated. Some historians suggest that age segregation derives from the influence of military trainers who would take recruits through training one step at a time, so that recruits of a certain vintage all remained together. Others have suggested that the age segregation exists in schools because it is a simple, objective grouping-criterion that avoids judgment and distinction. In that way, it is similar to that used in thoroughbred horse racing, in which all horses are given the birth date of January 1 of the year in which they were born. This presents a problem for the horses, too, since a horse born on December 31 is considered one year old the next day, and is then compared with other horses born up to 364 days earlier.

The problem is that age segregation works well for students in the middle of the group in terms of ability. However, those who are developing faster or who are older must be pulled back to the pace of the whole group and are often frustrated by their inability to move forward; those who are developing more slowly or are younger may feel left behind and lost.

Fortunately, there is an easy solution to the dilemma. Unfortunately, very few schools make use of it.

Mixed-Age Groupings

There are alternatives to single-age groupings. Students could be grouped by ability. An elementary school, for example, might have classrooms for “low ability” groups, “medium ability” groups, and “high ability” groups. The school would probably use some euphemistic metaphor to avoid being so blunt: say, “insects,” “fish,” and “primates,” but the distinctions would be clear. Given the competitive nature of some parents, this practice is probably untenable and psychologists concerned about self-esteem would probably condemn it.

The best alternative, the one advocated by Early Learning Institute, is to put different ages and different abilities in the same room, but this requires an individualized educational approach so that students can progress at their own speeds [SEE “INDIVIDUALIZED EDUCATION”]. It also helps to have more than one teacher in a room [SEE “ROLE OF TEACHER”]. This is what is done at the HeadsUp! centers and schools. For example, our Palo Alto center has three classrooms for preschoolers. Instead of putting three-year-olds in one, fours in another room, and fives in the last room, we put a mix of threes, fours, and fives in all three rooms.

Value of Mixed Ages

The primary value of mixed-age programs is the flexibility they provide to students whose growth is a series of sudden spurts rather than a smooth, linear progression. By serving a range of students with a large chronological-age span, the norm becomes a wide range of abilities rather than the expectation that everyone is at the same level.

A student may be ahead of or behind his chronological peers, but the classroom has teachers and materials available that are appropriate to the needs of every student, regardless of where he or she falls on the spectrum of abilities. There is no skipping or failing of grades because a student remains with his chronological peers whatever his academic needs.

It is not unusual that a student is working quickly through one curriculum area but much more slowly through another. The academic work assigned to him or her is always at his or her level. The availability of a wide range of curriculum materials and the variety of teachers’ expertise allows that student to always be working at the appropriate level…not trying to keep up with, or being bored with, the level of some nonexistent, “average” student.

Like a Family

The mixed-age classroom is like a family: the older students nurture the younger ones and motivate them. There is no more effective reading teacher for the new first-grader than the experienced third-grader who is proud of his skills. And, as most teachers know, the best way to improve one’s knowledge or abilities in a subject is to teach the subject to others…so the third grader also benefits.

Most human activities involve a cycle in which a beginner learns necessary skills, perfects them through use, and hones them through mentorship. That is true of careers, sports teams, and even hobbies. It is also true of the educational experience of students in a HeadsUp! center or one of our schools.

With the exception of our twos program—where children are learning to take career of their own toileting and eating needs—all of our infant-toddler, preschool, elementary, and middle-school rooms span two to three years of age.

It is an old idea whose time has come around again.

Charles D. Bernstein, Ph.D.
President, Early Learning Institute

Charles D. Bernstein, Ph.D. (languages and linguistics), is the president and founder of Early Learning Institute, a Palo Alto-based organization that operates child care centers and private schools in the Bay Area—including the HeadsUp! Child Development Centers in Palo Alto, North San Jose, and Pleasanton, Emerson School in Palo Alto and Hacienda School in Pleasanton—and offers writing programs for school-age children.

Charles D. Bernstein (Ph.D)

Charles D. Bernstein, Ph.D. (languages and linguistics), is the president and founder of Early Learning Institute, a Palo Alto based organization that operates child care centers and private schools in the Bay Area—including the HeadsUp! Child Development Centers in Palo Alto, North San Jose, and Pleasanton, Emerson School in Palo Alto and Hacienda School in Pleasanton—and offers writing programs for school age children.

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