Heterogeneous Grouping of Students and Its Effects on Learning








Donna Mc Avoy

Learning Principals

November 15, 1998



Heterogeneous Grouping of Students and Its Effects on Learning


Heterogeneous or nongraded education is the practice of teaching children of different ages and ability levels together in the same classroom, without dividing them or the curriculum into steps labelled by "grade" designations. The practice is also known by several other terms which basically designate the same concept; ungraded education, multi-age grouping, mixed age grouping, open education, vertical grouping and family grouping.

Multi aged grouping does away with grade levels, and combines younger and older students together. Adherence to chronological age/grade groupings or ability groupings is disregarded. Children progress at their own rates, making continuous progress rather than being "promoted" to the next grade. This eliminates the necessity of retaining students and the stigma many low performing children face. Usually students in this program keep the same teacher or team of teachers for more than one year. Students move from group to group, classroom to classroom, based on their individual needs and interests. School becomes a fluid environment, where coursework may change weekly, even daily, depending on a student’s progress. The structure for play and projects is more closely linked to real life in which children spontaneously group themselves. Individuals are allowed to learn at their own pace in their own ways. The approach is child-centered, with an emphasis on recognition and honoring of individual differences. The approach to nongraded groupings encourages spontantey and better reflects naturalistic settings such as family groupings.

Authentic or performance-based assessment takes the place of test scores and report cards. Their progressed is measured in terms of natural growth rather than objectives on curriculum standards. Therefore, children don’t fail in multi-age classrooms. They play an active role in assessing their progress. Learning becomes more real as students take ownership of it. In addition, self esteem, self motivation, and self worth are increased.

Historically, the American education system was based on a heterogeneous form of education. The one room school house, we are all familiar with, where children of all ages were taught together was the norm in the early years of our county. However, mid way into the 19th century, Horace Mann who was then the Secretary of Education for the State Massachusetts dramatically changed our way of grouping students. He was impressed by the efficiency of arranging students by grade level, a practice he witnessed during a visit to Prussia. Since America was going through an industrial revolution at the time it’s not surprising that an educational system based on a factory model was so readily accepted. Many embraced the idea of increasing productivity in the classroom. Faced with the increasing population rate, the influx of immigrants into our country at that time, and the large-scale of movement of populations to urban centers, the concept of grouping students according to age and ability levels quickly caught on and was common practice by the turn of this century. One hundred and fifty years later, we have an existing educational structure that anticipates all children will perform at the same levels at the same time. We have lost the ability to look at the whole child in terms of cognitive, physical, aesthetic, social, and emotional development. We have sacrificed the flexibility of adjusting academic programs to meet the needs of the individual. Not only does this approach to education ignore reality, it neglects the individual child and caters to the general characteristics of the group. As a result of research and public pressure, we are re-evaluating ways in which children should be taught. Many educators are now focusing on the multiple intelligences, specific learning styles, and socio-economic and cultural needs of individual students and developing new means of assessing learning. As we approach a new century the idea of heterogeneous grouping is resurfacing.

In her article, Kathleen Cotton states, "In view of the overwhelming research evidence in support of nongraded primary education, virtually every writer whose work was consulted in preparation of this report advocates widespread implementation of this practice."

Research evidence supporting the academic advantages of heterogeneous groupings seems to be inconclusive. Several studies favored the arrangement (eg. Gutierrez and Slavin, 1992; Anderson and Pavan, 1992, and Miller, 1989) while additional studies (Brown and Martin, 1989, Eames, 1989, Johnson, et al 1985, Katz, Evangelou, and Hartman, 1990; etc.) revealed insignificant academic gains. Way writes, "Multi-age grouping skeptics have generally expressed concern that achievement would suffer if children of different ages were to be grouped in a multi-age classroom. The results from both this study and previous studies indicate that such concern may be unwarranted. Achievement in multi-age classrooms appears to be no different from achievement in single-age classrooms."

Once we expand our definition on success, we come to the conclusion that research strongly supports the positive effects of heterogeneous groupings of students because of its noticeable effects on; attitude toward school, increase of self-concepts as learners, relationships with peers, reduction of anxiety, and future aspirations. Students in a nongraded setting increased their interactions with other students and their teachers. The increased interactions as a result of pairing older/younger students was even noticeable in pre-school children. Leadership skills increased in older children, Prosocial behaviors increased while aggression among students lessened. According to Payan and Scrankler, school attendance rates increased. Pratt mentions that increased harmony and nurturance developed within multi-age groupings and further maintains that the drop-out rate is significantly lower in the non-graded school.

Unfortunately, the idea of grouping students heterogeneously is not without its’ criticisms. One concern voiced by teachers and parents of gifted students is that the advantages of high-achieving students would be compromised. Parents criticize schools for not offering separate enrichment classes. It is interesting to note that in most cases, parents’ criticisms are not concerned with the quality of the curriculum, but rather with that fact that their children are no longer singled out and treated differently. For the teacher, the increased time spent for lesson preparation is also a drawback. Even though children interact better with others older and younger than themselves, they often experience difficulties in making same sex/same age friends since they do not have a pool of peers to draw from, as students in graded classrooms have.

The results of the studies mentioned here indicate that educators cannot assume that students who are in multi-age classrooms will perform better academically, but they can safely conclude that students probably will do no worse. Multi-age grouping can be an effective way of dealing with different rates of development so that instruction is appropriate for all students, not just those who happen to be on grade level. As we enter the new millennium, we must work even harder to ensure that no student is left behind. Multi-age classrooms can help make this goal a reality.





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