(Note: A few weeks ago, a parent asked me about my thoughts on the advantages of multi-aged preschool education, specifically wanting to know why she should enroll her daughter in our 3-5’s class next year. She encouraged me to put it in the form of a blog post. In the interest of heeding those regular Teacher Tom readers who have complained about not being able to keep up with all the words I’ve spilled here over the past few months, I’m going to break my response into more bite-sized posts over the next 2-3 days.)
During the past couple weeks I’ve been called upon to provide a holiday party thumbnail sketch of our preschool. This is the one I’ve been using:
“We’re a 3-year program. They come to me when they’re 2 and stay until they’re ready for kindergarten.”
This is technically inaccurate on a number of points, and while there are many things about Woodland Park that make it distinctive, I’ve discovered that the multi-age aspect of our school lends itself best to cocktail party banter. Most people respond with some version of, “That sounds wonderful,” but a number seem shocked, or even slightly offended by the idea of 3-year-olds going to school with 5-year-olds.
I’ll admit to living in a bubble when it comes to “alternative” education, so it surprises me when someone questions me about something so obviously good as a multi-age classroom.
You can hardly throw a rock at your computer monitor (although I’d recommend instead typing “multi-age education” into the Google search box) without hitting a study touting the academic and social benefits of age-blended classrooms. It’s one of the hot topics these days, not just for early childhood education, but beyond. One could almost call it trendy, except for the fact that most children, throughout most of the history of schooling, have been educated in multi-aged classrooms.
Multi-aged education was the standard from the ancient Jews and Greeks, through the medieval trade guilds and 16th century monastic schools, and right up through the rural American one-room schools of the 19th (and even 20th) century. Single grade education is, in fact, a relatively recently innovation, brought to the US from Prussia in the mid-1800’s as an extension of the assembly-line manufacturing techniques that were being developed in business at the time. (This wouldn’t be the last time that well-meaning business types would try to introduce economic “efficiencies” into education without knowing the first thing about teaching children, but that’s a subject for another post.)
If anything, it’s the single-age model of education that is the fad, an enduring one to be sure, but one destined to ultimately recede if only because of its manifest artificiality. The world is a multi-age place. Families are multi-aged. Churches, restaurants, playgrounds, holiday parties, you name it – schools are the only place in our society in which we are routinely segregated by age. There is the inherent assumption in the single-age idea that children of the same chronological age are all on the same developmental page, which anyone who knows anything about brains will tell you is simply false, especially in early childhood. Business people who stick their unqualified noses into education are forever touting the practical advantages of applying “data-based business practices” to education, yet this whole single-aged concept is based on absolutely no hard evidence at all. Like neo-liberal economic theory, it’s something that might sound good on paper, and it might even work if the only measurement of success is profit or the scores on standardized tests (although students in multi-aged classrooms routinely outperform their peers on these tests). But there has never been data demonstrating the superiority of single-aged classrooms over other models, other than their dubious ability to move chunks of kids through an educational assembly line, with more than a few winding up on the factory floor.
The multi-age concept isn’t new, but rather an effort to return to a more natural, holistic, and less alienating approach to education. Not to mention, more effective. At its most basic level, multi-age classrooms become educational communities, as opposed to mere institutions, in which learning is a collective activity where everyone takes turns being both student and teacher. They are places where younger children have the opportunity to learn from their slightly more advanced classmates, who in turn develop the real self-assurance that only comes from mastery (as opposed to artificial efforts to boost “self-esteem”). They are places where younger children who are ready for greater challenges can take their place beside more mature classmates, while those who need more time to explore concepts can do so without the stigma of being “behind.”
As a teacher, I value the opportunity to get to know my students over the course of three years, to observe their progress over a meaningful sweep of time, and come to a real understanding of how each child learns. Three years with the same teacher in the same facility with essentially the same classmates means not having to start over each fall by learning new faces, expectations, and routines. We can pick up right where we left off without repeatedly passing through the “getting to know you” phase.
From the child’s perspective, they return each year to a familiar community, a place where they’re already comfortable, a place where they’ll find their friends, a place where they already have some mastery. In short, it’s a place where they are confident they belong.
(Tune in tomorrow for my thoughts on how the multi-aged model works in our Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool classroom. And on Thursday, I'll wrap it up.)