Saturday, July 16, 2011

Multiage classroom

I read an article about multiage grouping the other day in Nursery education. I was looking for ideas for a theme I am working on for next year. Apparently, multiage education has attracted a revival of interest internationally as teachers strive to meet new standards of best practice in education. Mixed-age teaching is perhaps more common than might be expected. My daughters’ primary school operate mixed-age classes, and with the latest government’s cut in education (God helps us!!), the number of schools taking this approach seems to be rising. There's little doubt that the classroom-management skills of teachers with mixed-age classes are potentially stretched with more frequency than those of other teachers. Again,  as I am following the Montessori method of Education, I had never thought much about this aspect of my setting (because it is an integral  part of the method). It is sometimes hard to think out of the box. As I am on my holidays (and have a bit more time for myself!),  I looked at multiage pedagogic practices on the web to see if I could bring any improvements or changes to the way we are dealing with our children.

 For those of you who are not familiar with "Multiage education", it involves placing children of different ages, abilities, and emotional maturity in the same classroom. Montessori ‘s work  has shown that children can develop cognitively and socially through interacting with older and younger children. Children do benefit greatly from the opportunity to become an 'expert' for younger children to learn from. Younger children look to the older ones to teach them, and older children view the younger ones as in need of teaching and support. I have witnessed this "phenomenon" so often in my classroom and this always amazes me.  I really believe that multiage grouping nurtures thinking skills, problem-solving skills, vocabulary and other social competencies such as cooperation.

The big ones helped the small ones make a train!! Cute
I believe firmly that the way I interact with the class and approach the challenges of mixed-age teaching is also crucial. So I thought I show you what we do in our setting to maximise the benefits of multiage grouping. Firstly, the arrangement I use in the classroom really helps me to manage multiple layers of activity. I have several instructional areas within the classroom: a large group meeting area, a place for small group instruction, and independent workspace. Children can move freely without feeling crowded. I still have the mathematical, sensorial, language and science shelving units separate from one another to respect the Montessori method of education and I have arranged  play areas that provide a wide range of choices.

I also use small and large groups simultaneously. For example, I can read to large or small groups. In large groups, I present a shared reading experience and focus on broad-based skills, such as recognizing initial consonants, predicting outcomes etc... In small groups, I can choose teaching points to fit the children's individual needs, nurturing effective comprehension strategies. I also stagger the subjects I cover with different groups. Different subjects and topics lend themselves to various teaching and grouping styles. Let's say for example we are playing with counting bears, which come in various sizes and colors. It might be appropriate to encourage 4-year-olds to count them and compare groups to see if they have more of one color or size. For the 3-year-olds, this can be overwhelming. They might, however, enjoy and benefit from lining up their bears by color or size. They can then use one-to-one correspondence (lining up one blue bear next to one red bear until they run out) to figure out if they have more blue or red bears. All materials and resources available to the children (other than the Montessori designed equipment) must cover all levels of development. Children should be able to use all materials in different ways. Blocks, play dough, or scarves are "open ended" play materials because there is no right or wrong way to play with them. Children of different ages use them in different ways to explore, build, create, and learn. A 30 months old child may pound, squish, and squeeze play dough; a 4-year-old may crumble it into a bowl for "pretend" soup.  Four-year-olds will start making shapes while a 5 years old will start shaping letters.

While sound organisation skills, effective planning and plentiful resources are all essential in the mixed-age classroom, working in a Montessori prepared environment facilitates the directress's job. Each activity has to be presented to the child before he/she can use the particular piece of equipment. Each shelf has a specific organisation: from easy to complex. etc.. Though I have to add that a positive attitude on my part goes a long way towards ensuring that the myriad benefits of multiage grouping are realised.

So what are your thought on the matter? What challenges do you meet on a daily basis? How do you work with a multiage classroom, whether you are a Montessori directress or not? Thanks for reading and for leaving your comments. They are always such a help ...

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