Shifts in education amid the COVID-19 pandemic mean more students are learning with kids of different ages—whether it's their siblings or homeschool co-op partners. It's like the one-room schoolhouse, but here's why that's not such a bad thing.

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
September 14, 2020
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On the first day of school this year, parents across the country fed their kids breakfast and sent them packing—to their bedroom or the playroom or the neighborhood pod to meet their teacher on a computer screen.

More than 60 percent of U.S. public school students started school virtually this fall, according to a survey from Burbio.com, which aggregates school and community calendars. Others are leaving traditional schools altogether. Some states are reporting spikes in the number of homeschooling families.

These dramatic shifts in education amid the COVID-19 pandemic mean more students are learning with kids of different ages—whether it's their siblings or homeschool co-op partners.

It's almost like the return of the one-room schoolhouse, popular around the mid-17th to the mid-19th centuries in rural America where a single teacher taught kids, sometimes dozens, of different age groups. But multiage learning hadn't completely gone away. In fact, after World War II, British students were placed in family groups of mixed ages so they could heal from the emotional scars of the war together, says Sandra J. Stone, founder of the National Multiage Institute at Northern Arizona University and an expert on multiage learning. The concept fell out of favor for most of America with the advent of testing mandates, but it remains popular in Montessori programs, micro-schools, homeschools, and elsewhere.

The majority of today's pandemic pods and virtual learning families likely can't recreate a formal multiage classroom where students of different ages learn about the same material at their own ability and pace. Most students are simply completing their separate grade-level coursework side by side. But they can take advantage of some of the benefits of multiage learning.

"Mixed ages increases opportunities for parents to see each child as an individual," says Stone, "but also for them to complement and learn from each other as they are engaged in experiences together."

Pros and Cons of Multiage Learning

At the Mysa School, dubbed a modern day one-room schoolhouse, students in kindergarten through twelfth grade regularly learn together. On a field trip to the Chesapeake Bay, for example, older kids tackle a chemistry project and younger kids study the region's animals.

"The younger kids are learning from what the older kids are learning; they're paying attention to the chemistry lesson," says Siri Fiske, founder and head of Mysa School, which has campuses in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Vermont. "The older kids are paying attention to the younger kids and saying, 'Oh, I didn't know there's that animal here.'"

Reality is, there are a variety of challenges to implementing multiage education in bigger settings, such as public schools, including rejection from parents, concerns from teachers that they don’t have the proper training and budget, and regulation-related constraints, according to a report from the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy (CEEP) at Indiana University.    

There are also beliefs that kids will miss out on material or that the teaching will fall to older children, although multiage education supporters argue that isn't the case. And in some schools, administrators have used multiage classrooms as a “dumping ground” for students who haven’t grasped the material, and that can lead to low self-esteem, the report says.

But, when done right, students in multiage programs are able to master information at their own speed, mentor other students, serve as leaders, and learn in a collaborative community where kids encourage each other, supporters say.

Studies do indicate that children are more obedient when learning with other ages and show bigger gains in reading and language skills than those in classrooms with other kids of the same age, according to the CEEP report.

"Lots of times, what you'll see in these classrooms is younger children looking up to older children and following their lead in ways they may not be receptive to if coming from an adult," says Catherine McTamaney, an associate professor of the practice of education at Vanderbilt University and Montessori education expert. "Older children will take on responsibility and care for younger children in a way that helps to reinforce the learning that they've already mastered."

How to Make Multiage Learning Work

For parents at home grappling with online learning or leading a pod or homeschool group, there are ways to incorporate the benefits of multiage learning into daily routines.

Focus on playtime

At Highlands Micro School in Colorado, for kids in kindergarten to fifth grade, a lot of learning happens on the playground, says Anne Wintemute, the school's director. Kindergartners are just coming out of parallel play, where they play next to friends, not with them. On the playground with older students, they get exposure to more mature problem-solving.

"For the older kids, it's an opportunity to provide leadership and to look back on themselves and be like, 'That used to be hard for me and now I can do that," says Wintemute.

Share their work

For kids who aren't too far apart in age—maybe third, fourth, and fifth grade—let them share with each other what they're working on. Older kids can remember what they learned in previous years and provide support. Younger kids can see what's ahead. "There is some river of resources that can flow in that relationship because it's accessible to each other," says Wintemute.

Consider group projects

It might be cooking at home together. Or having pod-mates tackle a separate project outside of schoolwork that interests everybody. Through collaboration, they can learn important social skills like teamwork and communication. "I know this takes parents' time, but if they have the time, it's quite rewarding," says Stone.

Let them help each other

An older sibling can give their younger sibling some pointers in math, for example, or read a book out loud to them. That might not work in every sibling relationship, but it can be encouraged when it does, as long as it's not an expectation, says Fiske.

"If it's more about strengthening that relationship and being a role model, that's what you want," she says. "You don't want it to be bitterness because you're always expecting to help your younger siblings."

Learn together

McTamaney counsels parents to stop panicking or attempting to replicate the structure of traditional school at home. Instead, focus on the benefits that come during our shared daily experiences as we navigate these unprecedented times.

"If we didn't keep suggesting to our children that perfection was even an attainable goal, they would be more willing to take risks and be more courageous," says McTamaney. "The best possible outcome for this would be families who offer each other and offer themselves more grace to be driven in their own interactions by joy and support for each other rather than thinking there is some arbitrary standard that we are all supposed to have met by the end of the day."

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