Dennis M. Mulcahy (2)
Faculty of Education


A multiage continuous progress program is, in practical terms, an ideal. It is a goal toward which you travel bit by bit turning theory into day-to-day success. But it involves great changes for everyone involved.  It requires time, patience, courage, and commitment (Johnson & Grant 1994, p.40).


    Making sense of multiage pedagogy is no easy task.  Helping others make sense of it is equally difficult. One aspect of the challenge is the fact that here in Newfoundland and Labrador we have a history of multi-grading in our small rural schools. One of the first questions I am often asked by parents and teachers is: "Is multi age the same as multi-grade?" The answer to this question has to be, "No, they are not the same." However, I am quick to add that they do have many common features. This common ground makes both multi-grade and multiage quite distinct from sniggered classrooms.

In attempting to explain the terms, I have found it an effective strategy to discuss the relevant issues under three headings: structure,i deology, and practice. Structure refers to matters primarily concerned with the organizational characteristics of the classroom. For example, the unique time frame of a multiage classroom is an example a structural feature. Ideology refers to the set of educational beliefs that underpins and supports multiage structure and practice. A belief in child centered learning is at the heart of multiage philosophy. Finally practice refers to the methods and strategies used by teachers to individualize learning in their classrooms so that the unique needs of each child can be met.

Although we can discuss these dimensions separately, they are very much interrelated and interdependent. Multiage beliefs and values impel educators to reject traditional graded approaches to education and schooling in favor of more humane alternative structures. These same beliefs dictate how learning and teaching should occur within the structure. In this essay, I will focus on the structural dimension of multiage pedagogy and in doing so I am going to indicate the similarities and differences between multiage and multi-grade.  I will begin with similarities because it is always useful to start with the common ground. Hopefully, this may demystify multiage somewhat for some people, but it will also sharpen awareness of what may need to change if we wish to adopt the multiage model.

Structural Similarities

From a structural or organizational perspective multi-grade and multiage classrooms share the following characteristics:

Most multi-grade and multiage classrooms have two or three grade levels grouped together. Interestingly, many multiage teachers actually prefer three grade levels (Stone, 1996, p.3). I have noted an occasional reference in the literature to multiage classrooms with four grade levels.

The majority of multi-grade teachers feel two grade levels are more than enough; in their view three grade levels is the most anyone should be forced to have (Gafer, 1992; Mulcahy, 1992). Although they are in the minority there are some multi-grade classrooms in some smaller and more remote schools with as many as five and six grade levels (Miller, 1989; Mulcahy, 1992.). We still have some one- and two room schools.

It follows, obviously, that by grouping grade levels one is going to create classrooms with a greater age range than a single grade classroom.  As the age range increases developmental diversity and individual differences will as well. (4) The number of years students and teacher remain together depends primarily on the number of grade levels that have been grouped: two grade levels result in two years together, three grade levels means three years. (5)

One of the most interesting aspects of both multiage and multi-grade classrooms is the way that the composition of the classroom changes from year to year. Although, as stated above, all children remain in the same classroom with the same teacher for more than one year, the same children are not in that classroom from year to year. (6) The composition of the classroom is constantly changing and this gives these classrooms a very unique dynamic.

At the end of each year in June, the older (oldest if three grades are grouped) grade level group will move on to another classroom and another teacher. They will be replaced the following September by a younger grade level group entering the classroom for the first time. The dynamic of multiage and multi-grade is that the membership of the classroom is always changing.

Both multi-grade and multiage teachers are aware of the potential educational advantages that an extended age range and time frame, characteristic of these classrooms, provide. However, both groups of teachers are also aware that these advantages are realized only in stable situations. Unfortunately, we are living through a time of sudden and rapid change and few of us know for sure what our professional circumstances will be from year to year.  Some schools are closed, others get "reconfigured", teachers move or get "bumped", student populations fluctuate, district leadership changes, and philosophies of education come into and go out of fashion overnight. We live and work in difficult times and that makes long term planning uncertain.

To achieve the optimal educational advantages of grouping students of different grade levels together requires a commitment to stability and continuity. There has to be some guarantee that the organizational structure will be a permanent one. This is a major issue in the multiage literature.  In distinguishing multiage from other such groupings that may be only temporary arrangements, Bingham states:

A multiage classroom is not two grades put together for convenience, perhaps to accommodate a population bulge and probably for only a year or two…It is a permanent class grouping of planned diversity (Bingham, 1995, p. 8). In our province, in many small rural schools, multi-grade classrooms turned out to be permanent arrangements (Mulcahy, 1992). However, it has been the stated intention of those creating multiage classrooms that they be permanent.

This issue is very significant if we are attempting to interest parents in multiage education. I think they need to be given some assurance that the school and district understand why stability and continuity are important and that they are committed to a permanent arrangement.

Structural Differences

    It is a little more difficult to describe the structural differences between multi-grade and multiage classrooms. One can define the differences as clearly as one can the similarities. Part of the problem is that one cannot make the same kind of clear and definitive statements regarding differences as one can with regard to similarities. This in itself is interesting.

Be that as it may, I suggest that there are at least two structural differences:

  1. Multiage classrooms are intended to be non graded. (7) Traditionally, multi-grade classrooms have tended to be graded.
  2. The intention in a multiage classroom is for students of different ages and grade levels to be socially and academically integrated into a single learning community. In traditional multi-grade classrooms each grade level group has tended to maintain (often by official directive) its distinct identity.
These differences are crucial to understanding the multiage model of education.  Multi age advocates believe that the graded structure of schools and graded approaches to instruction that have dominated classrooms since the middle of the 19th century are harmful and hurtful to children. Graded classrooms, graded curricula and textbooks, and standardized testing ignore the reality of diversity that characterizes our classrooms.

Graded approaches to schooling are justified on the (false) assumption that all children of a given age are, more or less, the same in terms of development and capability. Therefore, other than those that can be labeled as "exceptional" for some reason, all other children can be taught the same thing, at the same time, at the same rate, in the same way. This approach ignores what we know about how children actually develop and learn. As every parent and teacher knows, there is a great deal of variability and diversity among children for all kinds of reasons. Unfortunately, the graded approach to schooling tends to ignore this reality.

"Variability among individuals constitutes the area needing greatest attention," insists Miller (1994), "because [graded] schools too often underemphasize or neglect student developmental differences." Individual variability includes:

Both the time frame for a developmental stage (that is the two-to three-year range) and those factors that mediate differences among learners, such as social backgrounds or dispositions toward learning (p.18).
Throughout the multiage literature one can find critiques of the graded approach and an appeal for a change to a more open, flexible, non-graded approach. In Bingham's view, "uniform grade-level norms, tend to exclude those children who don't fit in, intensifying the experience of successor failure" (Bingham, 1994, p. 6). Stone (1996), citing Connell (1987), writes:
In the graded classroom, children who do not meet the grade expectations feel that something is wrong with them, and those who do not progress satisfactorily are assumed to have failed, rather than see that the system has failed to meet their needs (p.12).

Noted multiage researcher, Charles Rathbone (1994) believes that in order to be more responsive to children, schools have to make changes (8) in the way they currently operate:

In, Children at the center: implementing the multiage classroom, Miller (1994) states that, "Ideally," in a multiage classroom, "there is a blurring of grade- and age level distinctions as students blend into a caring community of learners." According to Miller, "The defining characteristic of the multiage concept" is the fact that a "child's developmental needs, regardless of grade-level curriculum or administrative placement" (p. 2) determine the starting point for instruction and the reference point for assessment and evaluation.

Miller uses the term "ideally" because creating a non graded learning environment in an educational universe so long and deeply entrenched in the graded tradition is often a difficult task. This is a point also made by Bingham:

In moving toward a multiage classroom, it is sometimes difficult to eliminate grade level labels completely, but it is a desirable goal, particularly in avoiding the stigma of failure when a child needs an extra year before moving ahead. (Bingham, 1994, p. 8).
Are all classrooms that are referred to as multiage actually non-graded learning environments? Probably not. In some situations the term is used to simply avoid the historical stigma associated with multi-grading. In these contexts there is no understanding and/or commitment to the multiage philosophy of child centered, responsive education. Unfortunately, this misuse of the term will impede and threaten more committed attempts to implement "true" (Chase and Doan, 1993) multiage programs (Miller, 1994).(9)

One of the chapters in Johnson and Grant (1993) is entitled "On the road to multiage continuous practice." I like this title because it suggests that we think of moving from a multi-graded (or for that matter from a traditional graded) classroom to multiage as an individual journey of exploration, discovery and transformation. I think this is important because changing from a graded to a non-graded structure in some circumstances may take some time. However, if we have a clear sense of direction and understand why we are choosing to change we can productively begin with small incremental changes.

Officially, traditional multi-grade classrooms in small rural schools operated in a strictly graded fashion. This graded approach was generally imposed by official directives (Miller, 1989; Mulcahy, 1992). The expectation was that multi-grade teachers would organize their classrooms so that each grade level group was assigned to a different space in the classroom and the prescribed curriculum for each grade level would be taught separately to each grade level group.

My research has revealed that here in Newfoundland and Labrador, individual rural teachers, some with the endorsement and help of district personnel, others acting independently and subversively, had the temerity to breakthrough the rigidity of gradedness. They became aware that the challenges presented by the unique structural characteristics of multi-grade classrooms could also be seen as opportunities to be more responsive to children's needs. In a sense, they saw the chance to make a virtue out of a necessity.  Such teachers often operated with two different timetables. An official one sent to the district office detailed the required graded format and" time allotments." An unofficial one kept in the drawer of the teacher's desk reflected a more flexible and responsive approach to learning and teaching actually followed in the classroom.

Many experienced rural teachers are well aware of the potential educational advantages of creating a non-graded learning environment. Many have benignly waiting for "permission" from the "authorities" to do so. Experienced multi-grade teachers would agree wholeheartedly with Bingham's (1994) comments regarding any attempt to have " a second grade curriculum and a first-grade curriculum go on simultaneously." In her view "insisting that separate curricula continue," presents teachers with "an unreasonable task…and one that undermines the class as a community." "Amen," say many generations of rural teachers.

It is my view that many rural teachers would be more than willing to transform their graded multi-graded classrooms into non-graded multiage classrooms. All they are waiting for is "official" permission to do so and adequate professional development to prepare for the change.  They would also want some assurance that their educational leaders understand and support the implications of such a change not just for curriculum and instruction but also assessment and evaluation.


                   Bingham, A. (1994) Exploring the multiage classroom. York, ME: Stenhouse.

Chase, P. & Doan, J. (1994) Full circle: A new look at multiage education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Grant, J. & Johnson, B. (1994) A Common sense guide to multiage practices. Columbus, OH: Teachers?  Publishers Group.

Cotton, K. (1993) Non graded Primary Education.

Miller, B. (1989) The Multigrade classroom: A resource handbook for small, rural schools. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. ED 320 719

Miller, B. (1994) Children at the center: Implementing the multiage classroom. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Rathbone, C. (1993) Multiage portraits: Teaching and learning in mixed-age classrooms. Peterborough, NH: Crystal Springs.

                   Stone, S. (1996) Creating the multiage classroom. Glenview, IL: Good Year Books

End notes

    1. Earlier versions of this article have been presented at a number of conferences in Canada and the U.S.  Making sense of these topics is an ongoing process with me. I would welcome comments from readers who wish to share their views and perspectives.
    2. As part of my ongoing work in the Faculty of Education, MUN, I have developed two university level courses on multiple pedagogy. These are available via the web, and thus are accessible to anyone, anywhere. Feel free to contact me for more information.
    3. In the case of multi-grade, the primary purpose is so that schooling can occur in rural places; in the case of multiage, according to Miller (1994), it is "to improve learning" (p.4).  In rural places, if people did not accept grouping grade levels together, schools would have to close and the children bussed out of their home community.
    4. All classrooms (single grade, multi-grade, and multi-age) are characterized by an increasing degree of diversity, but the degree or range of difference will be greater in a multi-age or multigrade classroom than a single grade one.
    5. In some exceptional circumstances, these time lines will be different for individual students.  The issue of retention and promotion is currently a hot topic in multiage discussion groups. Some argue passionately that providing children with a "gift of time" -allowing them to stay an extra year in a multiage classroom - is fundamental to the multiage philosophy. Others argue, equally vehemently, that retention of any kind, in any kind of circumstances, is harmful to children. This later group refers to the research literature that has consistently demonstrated that retention is a very questionable practice.  In multi-grade classrooms, retention policy followed whatever the current practice was in single-grade classrooms.  You can explore the contrasting views of multiage teachers on this issue by going to the list serve archives and entering the key word 'retention. '
    6. This characteristic distinguishes both multi-grade and multiage from the practice of "looping."  Looping occurs when a teacher remains with a class of students for two years as they move from one grade to the next.  For example, such a teacher has the class as third graders and then remains with them when they become fourth graders.  In a looped class, the children are within a single age range.
    7. "Non-graded education is the practice of teaching children of different ability levels, together, without dividing them (or the curriculum) into steps labeled by grade designation.  Children move from easier to more difficult material at their own pace, making continuous progress rather than being promoted once per year.  Curriculum and teaching practices are developmentally appropriate. A non graded classroom differs physically from a traditional graded one.  Rows of desks do not permanently face one direction; instead, tables and chairs are frequently regrouped. Flexible grouping is a key element of non-graded education.  Students are grouped homogeneously by achievement for some subjects such as math and reading.  For other subjects, children learn heterogeneously in-groups.  At different times, students work independently, in pairs, and in large and small groups." (Gaustad, 1992).
    8. Rathbone also believes that "Classroom talk must shift from being dominated by teachers to being dominated by children so intentional conversation and activity become the medium through which thought and learning occurs."
    9. There is much concern expressed provincially, nationally,  and internationally, that if the adoption and implementation of multiage is not handled effectively, a promising educational concept will be labeled a failure because it "doesn't work."  We have seen this happen many times before, most recently with whole language.

                   Dr. Mulcahy can be reached at