Written by Li Whybrow
Sometimes referred to as vertical grouping, the practice of multigrade teaching refers to the teaching of students of different ages, grades and abilities in the same group. It is an alternative to the age-grade form of school and class organisation in which students of the same age are grouped into the same grade regardless of other factors pertaining to levels of attainment. What it is not is mixed ability teaching in a single grade group (Little, A. 1995).
The current projected deficit of teachers to achieve the Education for All (EFA) 2015 target is more than 30 million (UNESCO 2005). Much of that deficit is located in the remotest regions of the world, in areas in the poorest countries where small populations and tight budgets mean that the ratio of one teacher to one grade class is generally unobtainable. The multigrade model of education is receiving new interest and attention as a model that can provide a viable opportunity for educational delivery to help achieve the EFA goals.
The flexibility inherent in the organisation of the multigrade school is an essential element in the context of developing countries. It helps address wastage, e.g. absenteeism, repeating and drop-out rates. In a school where multiple grades are taught simultaneously in one class period, and/or the curriculum is delivered over multiple (probably two) yearly spans, the opportunities are greatly enhanced for students to re-enter after a stop-out period by eliminating the stigma attached to working below grade level on re-entry. A benefit of this flexibility is in helping to keep students motivated and capable of achieving results at their own pace (Rowley & Nielsen 1997).
Multigrade schooling challenges us to re-think the way the curriculum is delivered and to consider different pedagogies. Research undertaken for the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) and the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) demonstrates how progressive penetration of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) into schools is transforming teaching and learning and how transformation in pedagogical practice can positively affect student learning outcomes through a learner-centred pedagogy, personalised learning programmes, self-paced learning and peer tutoring. Where there is a deficit of teachers in some subjects (e.g. in the UK in mathematics, sciences and modern foreign languages), ICTs are being used to support non-specialist teachers with shared resources and lesson plans. In these classrooms, increasingly grouped across grades, ICT becomes the vehicle which engages students in discovery, transforming the role of teachers into managers of students’ enquiry. The non-specialist teacher becomes a part of a whole team solving the problem collaboratively, and the role of the teacher now becomes to manage that process. Subject matter expertise may be drawn on remotely through online communication tools, and the traditional boundaries of the classroom as the arena of learning become unfixed and fluid.
Multigrade models in developed countries such as Finland, the USA and Canada benefit from well-resourced classrooms with abundant materials, access to the internet and multimedia resources. In developing countries, where multigrade often represents the poorest and least resourced school model, and the penetration of ICT is nil, the resourcefulness of the teacher is that much more critical. Often on the periphery and cut off from professional contact, this can be a serious problem for the untrained and unsupported teacher. However, coping strategies devised in these situations often appear to be practising models of a type of learner-centred pedagogy discussed earlier. This premise is supported by research in development contexts such as that commissioned for the World Bank into the effectiveness of peer tutoring (Peters 2004). Teachers are using older students to help cascade knowledge, concepts and information down to the younger learners. Teachers themselves may be learners alongside their students as they grapple with concepts in unfamiliar subjects at the same time as their students. Instead of students being passive inputs into which value is added during successive levels of processing (as in the factory model of Fordist education), in multigrade organisations students are not only objects, but also subjects, contributing to the teaching process and other aspects of school operation. This helps develop self-reliance and competence that even the youngest students adopt.
These findings point to the possibility that a multigrade model of pedagogy draws on the constructivist notion of learning and links in with Piaget’s theory that largely attributes children's progress in developing mental capacities, such as conceptual understanding, to their own independent experiences and discoveries. There are clearly parallels to be drawn with work done in the 1970s by Vygotsky, which was concerned with how teaching, learning, and the cognitive development of children's minds are related (Vygotsky 1978).
Aikman, S., Pridmore, P. (2001) Multigrade Schooling in remote areas of Vietnam, International Journal of Educational Development. Vol. .21, No.6.
Cox, M., Webb, M. (2004) An investigation of the research evidence relating to ICT pedagogy, a report to the DfES: Becta. http://www.becta.org.uk/research/research.cfm?section=1&id=3119 (Visited 20-July-05)
Fosco, Andrea M.; Schleser, Robert and Andal, Jolynne (2004) Multiage programming effects on cognitive developmental level and reading achievement in early elementary school children. Reading Psychology, 25: 1 - 17
Little, A (1995) Multigrade Teaching: a review of practice and research, serial No. 12. Overseas Development Administration, London.
Little, A (2005) Learning and Teaching in Multigrade Settings, Paper prepared for the UNESCO 2005 EFA Monitoring Report.
Nesta Futurelab (2004/2005) Personalisation and Digital Technologies Seminar Series http://www.nestafuturelab.org/events/past/demos_intro.htm (Visited 20-July-05)
Parker, S (2004) Leading the Education Agenda: report following five workshops with David Hargreaves, Demos.
Peters S J. (2004) Inclusive Education: An EFA Strategy for all Children, World Bank.
Pridmore, P (2004) Education for All: The Paradox of Multigrade Education, keynote address presented at the 2nd International Conference on Multigrade Teaching.
Rowley, S.D., Nielsen, H. D. (1997) ‘School and classroom organisation in the periphery. The assets of multigrade teaching’, in Nielsen, D. H. and Cummings, W. K. (eds.) Quality education for all: Community oriented approaches, London: Garland Publishing Inc.
UNESCO, (2005) Education Today, No. 12, UNESCO, Paris.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in society. The development of Higher Psychological Processes, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Learning and teaching in multigrade setting website
The IOE hosts The School of Lifelong Education and International Development’s own website dedicated to learning and teaching in multigrade settings. Research is available from the site and there is an annotated bibliography which provides useful references to the literature as well as information regarding projects all over the world.
http://k1.ioe.ac.uk/multigrade/ (Visited 08-July-05)
Multi-grade teaching - A review of research and practice
Occasional Paper issued by the Education Division of the Overseas Development Administration.
Multigrade Rural Schools Intervention
The Rural Schools Intervention is delivered as part of the Western Cape Education Department in South Africa’s response to achieving Education for All by 2015. This sites contextualises multigrade schooling in the Outcomes-Based curriculum that is being implemented in South Africa’s education system. There is also some information about ICT fits into the strategic implementation framework for multigrade schooling in the region.
http://www.wcape.school.za/curriculum/cur_projects/content/mgi/index.htm (Visited 08-July-05)
The Muse Project
The MUSE project (Multigrade School Education) aims at developing an in-service training programme designed to meet the needs of multigrade schoolteachers in order to improve their educational performance in the multigrade school environment. It is a partnership between the Institute of Education and schools and universities in Finland, Greece and Spain.
http://www3.ellinogermaniki.gr/ep/muse/index.htm (Visited 08-July-05)
Thomas, Christopher and Shaw, Christopher (1992) Issues in the Development of Multigrade Schools. World Bank Technical Paper Number 172. Washington, D.C: The World Bank.