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EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices

Putting an End to Combined Grade Thinking

Challenging Assumptions About Age-Based Learning

There was a time in my teaching career when I would happily volunteer for split grade assignments­, mainly because they offered two of the elements that I appreciated most about my job: the room to be creative and a sense of professional autonomy. I clearly understood that the reasons for combining grades were purely administrative but, personally, I saw them as a type of “call to adventure”.

“I’ll accept this grade assignment,” I would tell my principal, “but I would like to have the freedom to try out some new approaches or structures.” I understood the nods of approval that I usually (!) received in response as a combination of relief and trust on the part of the administrator. In most cases, I would end up leveraging both at some point during the year!

Although the challenges of teaching in a combined grade classroom have become decidedly greater as education systems are now more keyed to policies and approaches that demand attention to specific grade level curriculum expectations, provincial testing and greater levels of standardization, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of conversation about alternatives. And, clearly, there are no signs that split grade configurations are diminishing in numbers. In fact, in communities where low and declining enrolment is becoming the norm, we’re likely to see an increase in the number of schools forced to combine grades.

CEA latest Facts on Education is out and it delves into the variety of research that has been done on the efficacy and effectiveness of split grade classrooms. The fact sheet is clear: in the presence of good levels of communication, quality professional development and effective strategies for differentiation, combined grade configurations can work.

And while the question of how split grade classrooms can be made to work is an important one in the short term, I believe that there are more exciting questions that could serve to propel us into some longer term thinking. Some of the ones that are bouncing around in my own mind:

Why are we still thinking in terms of age-based grading at all—especially in the earliest years of school? What assumptions hold our thinking in place about the way we organize our schools and assign students to particular classrooms? What might happen if we were to revisit how we move children through their elementary years? What are the alternatives?

First, the whole idea of combined grades is a bit misleading. Any teacher can tell you that, even in a straight grade classroom, there are usually marked differences in ability levels, maturity and experience of the world. While the existence of specific grade level expectations belies an assumption that all students in a given year should be developmentally similar, we know that a space of a whole year exists between students born in January and those born in December. Yet, in most cases, they are grouped together as one unit. In reality, every elementary class is, more or less, a split!  

Second, not everything that is learned in school needs to be placed on a developmental trajectory. To be sure, there are parts of the curriculum where children benefit from careful scaffolding, but there are many others that accept, if not invite, different points of entry. Mathematics, for example, would very likely fall into the former category but think of how the natural curiosity of children can drive learning in other areas that make up a traditional school curriculum.

Third, take a careful look at how children organize themselves outside of the classroom. When left to their own devices, they tend to gravitate to activities and groups of other children involved in things that interest them. No one is standing on the street corner asking for birth certificates before someone is allowed to join a road hockey game. Mixed age groupings can be found all over the place, from the schoolyard to the local park; from the sports centre to the community theatre group. All sites for powerful multi-age learning!

I find it more than a little confounding that, in an era where creativity and innovation are on the lips of most system leaders, our restrictive thinking around age and learning still renders the combined grade configuration something of an anomaly.

I’ll share some of the ideas that I have percolating in my own headspace but, for now, I would like to leave you with some questions for consideration and conversation.

What creative thinking has your school system brought to the conversation about age-based schooling? What do you see as the areas of the curriculum that lend themselves to alternative ways of thinking about age and learning? What areas of learning demand more attention to ages and stages of development? Where are the spaces for some work at challenging our assumptions about the contexts in which children (and adults) learn best?