Two Approaches to Knowing Students Better

The commonsense Essential School principle that teachers should know their students well is consistently borne out by such research on school effectiveness as that conducted in the 1980s by Paul S. George and Lynn L. Oldaker for the National Middle School Association. In many Essential elementary schools, the following strategies for achieving this personalization are gaining ground:

Multi-age Primary Classrooms

Teaching primary students of different grade levels in multiage classrooms is increasingly common in Essential elementary schools with a developmental philosophy of learning. Because children develop at very different paces from concrete to more abstract thinking and learning, mixed-age advocates assert, it makes little sense to sort and label children into fixed grade levels from an early age-especially if the result is retention and an early sense of failure for the child. Better to extend the age range in the classroom and provide a nurturing, success-oriented environment for children at widely different developmental levels.

British primary schools have used mixed-age grouping since the 1960s; every seven-year-old, for example, must demonstrate mastery of certain math skills before moving into the next level. In the United States, mixed-age classrooms display various grouping patterns. Many schools combine five- and six-year-olds, then also provide a mixed first and second grade (with six- to nine-year-olds), as well as third-fourth grade and sometimes fifth-sixth grade combinations. Few favor grouping five-year-olds with eight-year-olds, believing that younger children need time to grow used to group work with the older ones.

Research on mixed-age grouping shows that it works better for some children than others, but that no students seem to do worse. Many bright but immature students benefit from a mix of academic stimulation and a social environment geared toward younger children.

Mixed-age groups present several challenges to teachers. They must come up with activities and materials-theme cycles, projects, and the like-that can pull together their learning objectives. They must adapt their teaching and assessment style to a more individualized approach, perhaps working with small groups that shift by task, or using work plans or “contracts” to keep track of students. Mastery of various skills. Often, they must work more closely with another teacher to share ideas, resources, or students.


Whether as a formal policy or an informal arrangement, many schools interested in knowing students better are trying out “looping,”the practice of allowing teachers to keep the same students over a period of two or more years as they advance from one grade to the next. Looping has some of the advantages of the multiage classroom, but many teachers find it easier because the ability and age range of students is not so broad. Some teachers use looping as a first step in the move to multiage groups.

Because looping lets them begin the year with a closer knowledge of each student’s prior experience, teachers say, it maximizes time for learning and allows summer to include assignments or projects that link one year to the next. Its disadvantages: students could suffer from two years with a poorly performing teacher; multi-year classes could include more than the usual share of children who need special attention; or teachers may not receive the support they need to deal with the new level’s curriculum and developmental aspects.

Looping has long been common practice in Europe and Japan; in Rudolf Steiner’s Waldorf schools, teachers stay with the same group of students for eight years. In the United States, the Society of Developmental Education in Peterborough, New Hampshire offers materials and information on the looping approach.