"Dear Dr. Mulcahy, ... you should have asked for this questionnaire to have been completed in the early fall. At this time in the school year after teaching three grades and living in an isolated community I am a little crazier than when I started out in September."
The purpose of the current series of articles, which began in the Fall 1991, edition of the Morning Watch, is to explore the kinds of charges in thinking that must take place in this province that would lay the foundation for the development of a distinctive curriculum model for multi-grade classrooms. The desirability and necessity for such a curriculum model is a firmly held belief with many rural educators in this province. It is a perspective that finds support in the research literature on small schools and multi-grade learning and teaching. (Riggs, 1987; Gajadharsingh, 1982; CEA, 1991; Miller, 1989). This collective belief is based on the understanding that the dynamics and characteristics of multi-grade/multi-age classrooms are unique enough to warrant special curricular provision and teacher education.
In the preceding article "Do We Still Have Multi-grade Classrooms?" the apparent failure of various educational agencies to acknowledge the existence of multi-grade classrooms was indicated. A number of reasons for this neglect were offered. The focus of this paper is an exploration of one of these reasons, the belief that multi-grade classrooms are not different from single grade ones and that there is consequently no need for special curriculum guidelines or materials or special teacher education or professional development.
A similar kind of belief has generally limited the amount of educational research and development activity being focused on rural education and small schools in general. Stigsworth and Bell (1987) in The Small Rural Primary School point out that the official view in the past has often been that such schools "are merely dwarf varieties of larger primary schools... (and need not be considered as)... institutions with distinctive features of their own, still less that they need to be taken seriously" (p. 33, 36).
The purpose of this article is to describe some of the ways in which learning and teaching in a multi-grade classrooms are different from in single grades and to indicate how those differences impact on teachers and students. The views presented are those of multi-grade classroom teachers from Newfoundland and Labrador who have participated in the SMALL SCHOOLS CURRICULUM PROJECT. It is their voices that will be heard in this paper as they speak to us and to each other.
Multi-Grade - Single Grade: The Nature of the Difference
Teachers participating in the SMALL SCHOOLS CURRICULUM PROJECT
were asked to complete a rather extensive questionnaire dealing with all
aspects of multi-grade learning and teaching. One of the items they
were asked to respond to focused on the issue of the differences between
single grade and multi-grade situations. The item read as follows:
SOME PEOPLE ARGUE THAT A MULTI-GRADE CLASSROOM IS NO DIFFERENT THAN A SINGLE GRADE ONE GIVEN THAT EVERY CLASS WILL HAVE STUDENTS WHO WILL VARY IN ABILITY AND ACHIEVEMENT AS MUCH AS TWO TO FIVE YEARS. HOW WOULD YOU, AS A MULTI-GRADE TEACHER RESPOND TO THIS ASSERTION THAT THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE?
A Lack of Understanding
Some teachers, clearly exasperated by the question, answered curtly,
demonstratively: "BULL!"; "NONSENSE!" (original emphasis). Such a
claim ("no difference") could only be made by people who "obviously have
never taught in a multi-grade classroom":
That person doesn't know what they are talking about. If we had specifically designed curriculum that dealt with multigrades it might be similar. But teaching 4 or 5 lessons of math at one time is nothing like dealing with differences in learning.
Legal And Moral Responsibility
One of the major themes that have emerged from an analysis of
the responses to the question of differences focuses on the legal and ethical
responsibility multi-grade teachers feel in relation to the "official",
"mandated", or "prescribed" curriculum:
There is a difference in responsibility (original emphasis) - what the teacher is supposed to be officially doing.
The teacher's curricular responsibility in a multi-grade classroom
is radically different. In this educational context she or he is
legally and morally accountable for the prescribed curriculum for not one
grade but two and in many cases three and in some exceptional cases four
My argument is that in single grades you have only one set of courses to be concerned with whereas in multi-grades you have 2 and possibly 3. Its easier to modify 10 courses as opposed to 20 or 30.
Because there is not enough time to do everything that is prescribed
or required multi-grade teachers are constantly having to make curriculum
decisions as to what to include and what to exclude:
There is a difference in that you, the teacher, have to decide the curriculum you are going to teach. In a regular grade 2 class you teach the grade 2 science concepts, health concepts, etc. In a multi-grade (of 2 and 3) do you teach 2 or 3 or bits of both?
You are left on your own to make decisions as to what to leave out because you cannot do it all; yet you are held accountable for it all.Individual Differences-individual Needs
A second major theme that has emerged from the qualitative analysis of multi-grade teachers' responses to the question of the differences between single grade and multi-grade classrooms is the issue of the degree and range of individual differences and needs that can characterize the multi-grade situation.
It is certainly true that in any given classroom children will exhibit a range of difference in ages, interests, abilities, and achievement. Reading levels may vary by as much as three to five years. Chronological ages can differ by a year or more. A policy of automatic promotion can mean that the grade children are officially in, in any given year, is in no way indicative of their mastery of the material and skills prescribed for a previous grade. Add to this the mainstreaming or integrating of children with special needs into the regular classroom and one can have a very heterogeneous community of children along many dimensions.
Often it is these kinds of observations that lead to the conclusion that all classrooms are multi-graded. In this sense, this is a valid point to make. Furthermore, many single grade teachers find it extremely frustrating to meet these individual needs and cover the prescribed curriculum for their single grade. The tension and stress that are generated by this pedagogical conflict of interest is an aspect of teaching that makes kindred spirits of both multi-grade and single grade teachers. The children with their needs are in front of you everyday; yet hanging over your head is the official curriculum which seems to have been designed quite oblivious to classroom realities.
The observation that multi-grade teachers make is that in a multi-grade
classroom, with two or three grade levels combined, the potential differences
along all of these dimensions is possibly doubled and trebled:
There is a difference because not only do you have different grade levels but you have different levels in each grade. Therefore your problem is compounded.
Depending on the size and number of grades you will probably have a greater variation in ability. It would be also more difficult to adequately deal with the variation because the teacher's workload is greater in a multi-grade situation.
I would say that it is, for you are limited many times to the amount of help and attention you pay to all students while you are introducing new tasks in different areas.
There are always different levels, however, the biggest gap is in maturity level. This can create the biggest problem.
I do not agree (that there is no difference) because in K/1 area, the K program is a world apart from the Grade 1 program. The one year in school makes a big difference for the Grade 1 students.
Students do vary in ability and achievement, but it becomes quite frustrating when you don't have the instructional time to give these students when you are teaching all subjects from K-3 because you are not working with one grade.
Preparation and Planning
Two other themes that emerge from the data analysis are the greater preparation time required in a multi-grade situations and the greater complexity involved in planning learning activities. Both of these points are clearly related to and a consequence of the two issues discussed above. There is an interconnectedness here. To really understand the complexities and dynamics of a multi-grade teaching situation it is necessary to grasp all these issues concurrently: the whole is much more than the sum of the individual parts.
Given the nature of their situations it is not surprising that
multi-grade teachers make the point that the preparation time and planning
difficulties are greater:
Definitely there is a big difference, namely teacher preparation - combining more than one set of objectives and meeting the needs of a wider range of abilities takes double the preparation time.
Extremely dedicated; able to work long hard hours after the official school day has ended.
Walk a Mile in My Shoes
Participants in this study have a very clear idea of how to change the minds of those who would suggest that there is no difference between a multi-grade and a single grade classroom situation.
Appreciative of the limitations of discourse as a way of knowing,
they suggest a little experiential learning. For those who lack the
imagination that would enable them to dramatically identify with teachers
in multi-grade situations, they recommend spending some time in such classrooms:
Put them in a multi-grade classroom! I would ask these people to teach in a multi-grade situation and then compare.
This paper has presented the views of multi-grade teachers concerning the differences between multi-grade and single grade classrooms. Their views on this issue are part of an overall argument being developed in a series of articles attempting to establish a foundation for creating a distinctive curriculum model for small schools and multi-grade situations. The uniqueness of a multi-grade context is one necessary part of that foundation.
The expressed views of multi-grade teachers in Newfoundland and
Labrador are supported by the research literature on small schools and
multi-grade/multi-age teaching. Miller (1991) conducted a review
of the qualitative research on multi-grade instruction and concluded:
In the multi-grade classroom, more time must be spent in organizing and planning for instruction. This is required if the teacher wants to meet the individual needs of students and successfully monitor student progress (p. 11).The SMALL SCHOOLS CURRICULUM PROJECT is focused on a very particular educational context: Newfoundland and Labrador. The point was made in the preceding article that this curriculum is very prescribed, centralized and controlled. However, and this is a very important point, whatever the educational context, a teacher having responsibility for students who are in two, three, four or more grades in the same classroom has a unique and very challenging teaching situation. Bell and Sigsworth (1987), commenting on such contexts in the U.K., make the point that teachers who have responsibility for children who span several year groups face a "considerable curriculum challenge... which requires a very high level of teaching skill and effort" (p. 9). After analyzing the data collected during a study of small schools in England which in part focused on the difficulties teachers in a multi-age context must deal with, they concluded:
The overarching task which concerned them was that of developing and maintaining a curriculum comparable in breath and quality of that of schools three and four times their size. ... the teachers saw the task of curriculum generation as their foremost concern. ... It must be remembered that rural teachers, because their classes contain two or more age ranges must, over much of their curriculum, plan a longer cycle of activities than that required by a class teacher in a larger school, where responsibility is limited to a singe age span. (Bell and Sigsworth, 1987, p. 141)
Given the uniqueness of the situation, it is commonplace in the
literature on small schools and multi-grade classrooms to point out that
"there are unique competencies necessary for successful teaching" (Jones,
1987) in such a context. (See also CEA, 1991; Miller, 1989; 1991.) Miller
(1991), after comparing the unique problems associated with rural education
and in particular multi-grade classrooms in North America and third world
Ironically, the concerns and depictions of problems in these developing countries echo many of the concerns voiced in the United States and Canada by multi-grade classroom teachers and rural educators. The most prominent similarity is the need for curriculum and program modification that reflect ... the needs of students within the demands created by multi-grade organization (p. 6)
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