The focus of this study revolves around the multigrade classroom and the instructional dimensions which impact on its success. The topic was decided on after consultation with two (2) Education Officers from the Ministry of Education since multigrade classrooms are the common practice for special education classrooms in Jamaica. The review will include multigrade teaching around the world due to the scarcity of literature which exists about the Caribbean, a notion which justifies this study. Attempts were made however to include reviews focused on developing countries whose economic and social background are similar to the Caribbean. The review will also focus on multigrade teaching in its general use and not on its use in special education classrooms as there is also a deficiency of literature in this area.
The review aims to define the term multigrade classroom and provide a framework under which the multigrade classroom was developed. It also reviews a number of studies outlining the cognitive and non-cognitive impact of multigrade classrooms as well as highlighting the instructional dimensions which commonly impact on such an environment.
Definition of Multigrade Classroom
A multigrade classroom is one in which more than one grades co-exist in the same classroom and are being taught by the same teacher (Mulryan-Kyne, 2007; Little, 2001). Students are of diverse abilities and are encouraged to learn from each other to develop their intellectual, social, and academic skills. There are many terms used in reference to the multigrade classroom such as multilevel, multiple class, split class, mixed age, and composite class (Veenman, 1995).
Aina (2001) extends that the multigrade classroom is characterized by the following:
• The children remain with one teacher and many of the same classmates for many years.
• School is a stable, consistent environment.
• The mix of age and abilities among the students provide opportunities for greater student social interaction and responsibility.
• There is no apparent ceiling on what was taught or learned.
This illustrates the environment of a multigrade classroom as one within which decisions about students’ learning are not based on assumptions related to their age or grade but on the learner and ensuring learning support matches individual needs. There is a strong focus on the interaction between students and teachers and the facilitator performs many roles such as teacher, curriculum developer, administrator and guidance counsellor (Singh, 2017; O’Driscoll, 2015; Enayati, Zameni and Movahedian, 2016).
The multigrade classroom is in contrast to the single or monograde class where the students of a similar age range are assigned to a single grade level regardless of the level of cognitive development (Mariano and Kirby, 2009). Proponents of this approach cite the efficiency of teaching children of a similar age who are similar in terms of their stage of development and their ability to learn a similar curriculum allowing their learning to be more effective.
Multigrade classrooms are predominantly used under two main conditions: (1) where the population is small, poor or sparse and will prevent schools from closing down, (2) where there are pedagogical aims which are desired and students need to be taught based on their development stage (Enayati, Zameni and Movahedian, 2016; Hyry-Biehammer and Hascher, 2014; Kivunja and Sims, 2015)). Kivunja etal (2015) suggests that the success of multigrade schools may be linked to the deliberate choice which would result in the school providing the needed resource to enable successful outcomes. There is heavy dependence on the skills of the teacher, and more recent research has identified this as a key component contributing to successful implementation (e.g. Soliman & Ismail, 2010).
The concept of the multigrade classroom is not new and is used by many developing countries. Within the Caribbean statistics show Turks and Caicos Islands 30%, Belize 51% Dominica 38%, Guyana 47%, Trinidad and Tobago 12%, and Jamaica 43% (Berry, 2000).
The majority of special education schools in Jamaica use this method due to the lack of qualified teachers.
There are several theoretical and philosophical framework which lay the foundation for multigrade teaching. One such framework which looks at the relationship between child development and education is Cognitive learning Theory with proponents such as Piaget (1977) and Vygotsky (1978). The sociocultural approach to understanding learning as it relates to cognitive development will however be the major focus.
Piaget’s (1977) Cognitive Development Theory, provides the basis for what most educators consider developmentally appropriate practice. Piaget’s notion that children’s development must necessarily precede their learning, held that children especially those of a lower age group need opportunity to interact with peers, and their environment to enhance learning (Kadivar etal, 2005). According to Piaget (1973), peer interactions, a crucial part of a child’s development, result in cognitive conflict. These conflicts allow the child to consider the views of others. The child is then able to assimilate and add the new knowledge to his cognitive structures (Stone, 1996).
Vygotskian theory diverts from the traditional developmental psychology by focusing on the importance of social interaction. Instead of looking at development as a stage process, his more dynamic vision of child development offers a relational view on transitions. He supports the idea that the cognitive development of young children result from a continual effort to adapt to the environment and that children are actively involved in the timing and quality of their transition experiences (Kadivar etal, 2005; Vogler, Crivello and Woodhead, 2008). Vygotsky viewed children as active agents in their own environment, engaging with the world around them, and in some senses, creating for themselves the circumstances of their own development. Language development for example can be learnt through observation and listening and learning the correct jargon can be done through modelling and emulating others (Rogoff, Paradise, Arauz, Correa- Chavez and Angelillo, 2003)
Where the Vygotsky and Piaget differ is in the emphasis given by Vygotsky to the role of cultural and social processes in learning and development. Vygotsky understands learning as a process that results in development. The transition between learning and development occurs in the so-called ‘zone of proximal development’ (Vygotsky, 1978), referring to the distance between the most difficult task a child can perform without help and the most difficult task s/he can do with support. It is therefore through the instruction from teachers, adults and more skilled peers that children learn and develop (Vogler, Crivello and Woodhead, 2008). Within the zone of proximal development ‘scaffolding’, guided participation (Rogoff, 1990) and ‘co-construction’ are similar processes which facilitates learning.
It has also been emphasized that while Piaget gave allowance for creativity and innovation, “Vygotskian theory seems to offer no way to explain and support invention, creativity, and dissent” (Confrey, 1995, p.37). This limits the likelihood of students inventing new approaches or challenging existing ones.
In acknowledging the children agency in the learning process the concept of ‘guided participation’ has gathered support (Kirshner, 2017, Vogler etal, 2008). With its dual approach of active engagement of children in their social world, as well as the role of adults and peers in guiding children towards full participation in activities (Rogoff, 1990), the ‘guided participation’ concept expands Vygotsky’s understanding of ‘zone of proximal development’ (which focused mainly on cultural mediation through language and literacy) by highlighting the role of tacit forms of communication and practical activities in encouraging child development (Vogler etal, 2008). This presents several advantages. Firstly, instead of “viewing children as separate entities that become capable of social involvement, we may consider children as being inherently engaged in the social world even from before birth, advancing throughout development in their skill in independently carrying out and organising activities of their culture” (Rogoff, 1990, p. 22). Secondly, guidance by competent peers and adults allows children to become more confident in their ability to perform routines and activities and in their acquired skills. As such socio-cultural learning theories goes beyond knowledge construction or acquisition to the child being an integral part of the learning process.
Learning in a Community of Practice (CoP)
Wenger, McDermott ; Snyder (2002) define CoPs as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (p. 7). This concept according to Lave and Wegner (1991) refers to a set of relations which overtime results in the sharing of knowledge. This situation learning theory, suggests learning happens in a social context through shared practice. Lave and Wegner (1991) also point to the transformative nature of the interaction. Learning occurs through social participation where it transforms to knowledgeable skills. An important idea of Lave and Wegner (1991) as it relates to social learning theory is legitimate peripheral participation (LPP). This view illustrates that learning is a social process and not solely psychological. Thus the nature of interaction interacts on the process of learning.
Models of Multigrade Practice
There are four primary models used by teachers in the multigrade classroom (Little, 2004, Pridmore, 2007; Cash, 2000). These are:
Model 1: The Quasi monograde
In this model, each grade group is taught as if they were monograded. While the teacher facilitates one group the other gets a holding activity and students work along with their class grade peers. For example while one group is being taught mathematics the other may be sketching. Pupil monitors may be used to supervise the work of one grade while she works with the other. As such each group does work according to their grade level (Create, 2008, Cash 2000, Pridmore, 2007).
Mulryan-Kyne, (2004) in a study done with teachers of multigrade classes in Ireland found that even where teachers are well trained, well motivated, supported and well resourced they find it difficult to deliver a different curriculum to more than two or three grades at the same time (Pridmore, 2007). Hyry-Beihammer and Hascher (2014) in their qualitative research of the multigrade teaching practices in Austria and Finland found this a common practice where students are taught a different subject in turn. This model is however considered too rigid and denies the students of the positive achievements that can be gained from multigrade teaching (Veenman, 1995).
Mason and Burns (1996) argue that if teachers maintain grade distinctions in their multigrade classes, they present two separate curricula, organise two sets of curricular materials and activities and must monitor two groups. Consequently, there is a decrease in direct instruction levels with children having to wait long periods to gain the attention of their teacher.
Model 2: Differentiated curricula
This model considers the diversity of students in the classroom and finds the teacher covering the same subject with all age groups to meet the needs of every learner (Smit and Humpert, 2012; Pridmore, 2007). This process is described as learner based as activities are designed to help the learner progress through the curriculum at their specific pace (Create, 2008; Little, 2006). While in their groups students are able to collaborate and engage in peer tutoring/learning. The teacher visits each group to support the slow learners or extend faster learners (Pridmore, 2007). Singh (2017) outlines that these learning interactions are more educative and increases the learning time of students. Students who would generally remain quiet and inactive are initiated into their own learning style and thinking aloud. This also changes the role of the teacher from a monopolist to an initiator and mediator.
Cash (2000) suggests that such a model of teaching should be adopted by every teacher as a means by which children at varying levels of understanding can be successfully taught. Leuven and Rønning (2011) found that after one year in a classroom that combines two grade levels, exam performance increased by about 9 percent of a standard deviation as pupils benefited from sharing the classroom with more mature peers from higher grades.
Engin (2018) conducted a qualitative study using twenty (20) classroom teachers who work in multigrade classes in ?zmir, Turkey and Rotterdam, Netherlands. Of the ten (10) teachers interviewed in Turkey eight (8) stated they used peer support, seven (7) indicated developmental journals, five (5) said use of groups and all ten (10) gave daily assignments (homework). For the ten (10) Dutch teachers all indicated use of peer support, homework, assistance of computers, task boards, and information boards with nine (9) using groups. Such differentiated learning and the assigning of different tasks to age levels improved performance. Grimes and Stevens (2009) conducted action research in a 4th grade classroom in the US, experimenting with a self-assessment system that enables teachers to differentiate the teaching of elementary mathematics. Differentiation appears to have improved test scores for both low- and high-achieving students (Smit etal, 2012).
Model 3: Multiple Year Curriculum Cycles (rolling programmes)
In this method, there are two year groups and each student spends two years in one class. working through common topics and activities together but start and finish the curriculum cycle at different times (Little, 2004). Pridmore (2008) gives the example of all students in a class with grades three and four will work together through the grade four syllabus for the chosen subject in year 1. At the end of the school year grade four students move up a grade and leave the classroom. Grade three students also move up a grade becoming grade four but stay in the classroom and are joined by a new set of grade three students with whom they work through the grade three syllabus. At the end of the school year grade four students have completed the two-year syllabus and leave the cycle whilst grade three students continue on for another year, becoming grade four students, and are joined by a new set of grade three students.
This model has benefits of allowing for integration of content and teachers would have more time for scaffold learning since they are not moving from one grade group to the next (Pridmore, 2008). It does bring into question the problem of building on what has previously been learnt. Since the lower grade level is to set the foundation for the upper level, a student who is taught grade four (4) before grade three (3) might find going back to the lower level redundant and then there is the other view of the grade four (4) level being more difficult since no foundation was laid.
Model 4: Learner and materials-centred
In this model students work through interactive, self-study learning materials. A monograded curriculum is delivered with the advantage of self-study learning guides so individuals can progress at their own pace. The teacher may stimulate and check on learning but students rely mostly on the materials. Learners work through these at their own speed with support from the teacher and structured assessment tasks. Learning is constructed as involving a relationship between learner, learning materials and teacher. A well-known example of this model is the Escuela Nueva Programme that has been implemented in rural schools in Colombia for more than thirty years.
Classroom observation has shown that although students work through the guides individually and at their own pace they sit in small groups to increase opportunities for
collaboration and enhance social and cognitive learning forming a sort of community of practice. A student only moves on to the next guide when he or she has achieved mastery at the present level (Pridmore, 2008).
This method enables teachers to deliver the curriculum very flexibly so that pupils can work at different levels in different subjects at the same time. The principle of flexibility also extends to promotion from primary to secondary school. Students do not all move on together at the end of the primary cycle, they move on individually or in small groups when they have
completed (and gained mastery in) all the modules in the primary curriculum (Pridmore, 2008).
Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Effects of Multigrading
There have been many researches done on the multigrade classroom but from a Caribbean perspective, there has been little research on the teaching and learning practices of multigrade classrooms (Berry, 2000). Simon Veenman’s seminal work “Cognitive and Noncognitive Effects of Multigrade and Multi-Age Classes: A Best-Evidence Synthesis” looks at the effects of multigrade and multi-age classes. Veenman (1995) conducted 56 studies and came to the conclusion that elementary students do not perform worse in mixed classrooms and in a few scenarios, perform better compared to a classroom full of a single grade. Veenman’s view was that the use of cooperative learning and the shared responsibility of students for instruction, enhanced productivity.
Mason and Burns (1996) challenged Veenman’s research citing selection bias and oversight on the quality of instruction in both classrooms. After examining the class distributional properties of 200 elementary school classes in two districts, 56 of which were combination or multigrade classes, they found evidence that principals intentionally manipulated class composition for instructional purposes, assigning higher ability and more independent students to multigrade classes. Mason and Burns argued that
these two factors must be included in any analysis of multi-grade classes. They concluded that administrators tended to place better teachers in multigrade classrooms along with more capable and independent thinking students which would favor performance in any study of multigrade classrooms (Mariano and Kirby, 2009).
Quail and Smyth (2014) in analysing multigrade teaching in Ireland, found evidence to support Veenman’s findings. They noted that there were few differences between student performance in single-grade and multigrade classes and other factors like teaching experience appear to have more of an impact on overall academic achievement.
There still exists conflicting studies regarding the academic success of students in the multigrade class. Some report more success, others less and still others reveal no differences (Kadivar, Nejad and Emamzade, 2005). There are reports however of superior social skills, increased leadership skills, increased self esteem and reduced aggression for multigrade classrooms ((Mcclelland and Kinsey, 2004).
A study done by Kidavar et al (2005) made up of 261 male and female students who were randomly selected as a stratified sampling in two groups: single grade and multigrade classes suggested that, as expected, there is a considerable positive effect of multi-grade classes on children’s social skills. Students in the multi-age group are able to observe, modeling and learn social skills behaviors from each other. They researchers however cited that teaching and learning in the multigrade classroom is seen as more of a challenge than single classes as it requires more in-depth knowledge of child development and learning and a larger repertoire of instructional strategies. Teachers are required to design open- ended, divergent learning experiences for students functioning at different levels, know when and how to use homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping and how to design cooperative group tasks. There must be proficiency in assessing, evaluating and recording student progress using qualitative methods such as portfolios, and anecdotal report positive group interaction and to teach social skills and independent learning skills to individual students (Hyry-Beihammer etal, 2015;
Key Instructional Dimensions
Six key instructional dimensions affecting successful multigrade teaching have been identified from multigrade classroom research (Miller, 1991).
I. Classroom organization: Instructional resources and the physical environment to facilitate learning;
II. classroom management and discipline: Classroom schedules and routines that promote clear, predictable instructional patterns, especially those that enhance student responsibility for their own learning;
III. Instructional organization and curriculum: Instructional strategies and routines for a maximum of cooperative and self-directed student learning based on diagnosed student needs. Also includes the effective use of time;
IV. instructional delivery and grouping: Methods that improve the quality of
instruction, including strategies for organizing group learning activities across and within
V. self-directed learning: Students’ skills and strategies for a high level of independence and efficiency in learning individually or in combination with other students;
V1. Peer tutoring: Classroom routines and students’ skills in serving as “teachers” to
other students within and across differing grade levels.
Hyry-Beihammer and Hascher (2014) in their qualitative research of the multigrade teaching practices in Austria and Finland found that the various teaching practices and principles used fell into three main categories were identified: (1) student group formation and subject organizing, (2) peer tutoring, and (3) differentiation and fall in line with Miller’s dimensions.
The first main category student group formation and subject organizing are primarily based on the definitions of multi-grade practices proposed by Kalaoja (2006) and Cornish (2006) and covers the areas of:
• parallel curriculum: students share the same themes or subjects but study the syllabus of their grade; each grade is taught in turn,
• curriculum rotation: an entire class studies the curriculum of one grade for one year; in the next school year, they follow the syllabus of the other grade; grades are taught together,
• curriculum alignment and spiral curriculum: similar topics are identified in different grade curricula; students share the same themes or subjects; the basic concepts or ideas that are taught in the lower grades are deepened and expanded on in the upper grades,
• subject stagger: grades study different subjects; each grade is taught in turn,
• whole-class teaching: grades study and are taught the same subject at the same time and use the same material.
These subdivisions highlight student grouping as a key point in organizing teaching in a multigrade classroom.
The second main category, peer tutoring, was further divided into sub-categories of spontaneous peer tutoring, and guided peer tutoring as a teaching strategy. Peer tutoring assists the tutor, the student and the teacher. The tutor reinforces the knowledge they have, there is less one on one interface for the instructor who will mostly monitor the process and the student benefits from modelling to the tutor and is brought up to at least the minimum level of competency (Singh, 2017).
The area concerning differentiation were classified into the following sub-categories: giving different assignments, giving remedial education, using personal work plans, and integrating students with special needs. Proponents of these classrooms believe that the increased diversity in the class due to the difference in the age and development span makes it favourable for a teacher to arrange students into cooperative groups which are better suited to their learning needs. Usually these groups are mixed-age and mixed-grade groups. Multi-age teachers believe that children learn best when they can ‘construct’ their learning through social interaction with both older and younger peers (Singh, 2017).
The research shows that the effectiveness of the multigrade classroom relies on the ability to meet the diverse learning needs of students and capitalise on the resources available. With the thrust toward Education for All ensuring every child has access to the school system regardless of economic, sociocultural, learning or age and gender factors, is paramount. The increasing awareness of the inflexible structure of the monograde classroom and its assessment systems, provides opportunities for multigrade teaching.
The primary framework of Vygotsky and CoP, can leverage the impact of delivery in the classroom. The models used in multigrade teaching stress the value of social interaction and that the environment in which the child grows up will influence how and what they think. These models are effective as they consider the influences of the total environment on the learning process. Through interaction within the sociocultural environment, the higher mental functions of the individual are developed.
Many of the research results on the merits of the multigrade classroom reflect that the students are better off in terms of academic achievements test than their peers in single-grade classes, due to the special learning environment, which enhance the children’s opportunity to experience cognitive growth in the multi-grade classroom. Active learning and meaningful learning, interacting between young and old students, who have more educational experience, observing and modeling the behaviors provides a real environment in the class that leads to the student’s greater academic achievement, cognitive and non –cognitive growth among the mixed-age students.
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