Teachers, advocates express support, concerns about phasing out age-based grade levels
Wooden block towers of various shape and size stand in a corner of Michelle Boreland’s Kindergarten to Grade 2 classroom at Keswick Ridge School.
They were built by teams of multi-age students as a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) activity.
“We all built it,” said seven-year-old Jeralee Albert, sharing credit for the structure her group built.
Jeralee is the oldest student in this class. Her five-year-old brother Calvin was also on her block-tower team. They get along well, said Jeralee — better at school than they do at home.
Multi-age learning groups are about to become much more common across the province.
The education minister announced earlier this month that age-based grade levels will be gradually eliminated in New Brunswick schools, beginning next fall with K-2, in schools that are interested in doing it.
“You can’t force it upon someone,” said Karen Howland, who teaches the class next door.
“We believe in what we do here and that’s why it works for us. If you have a school that has that mentality and culture, I think they’ll do very well with it.”
It’s not clear how many teachers and administrators will get behind the initiative. The New Brunswick Teachers’ Association is reserving comment until it has a chance to consult members at its next board meeting.
Howland doesn’t need much convincing. She read Dominic Cardy’s green paper on education and saw many similarities to what she’s already doing.
Keswick Ridge School has had K-2 classes for 20 years now. Howland has taught there for 12 years.
“What I like most is that it really celebrates differences. It’s a natural environment where that can take place. Everybody’s learning at their own pace. It’s all accepted, respected.”
Howland has 14 students in her K-2 class aged four-and-a-half to seven. She team teaches with Boreland, who happens to be her sister.
They meet once a week to discuss the strengths and needs of students.
Groups are formed based on abilities and skills and they’re always changing.
Shediac Cape School and Terry Fox Elementary School in Bathurst are also using flexible learning groups, according to the education department.
Multi-age classes are great environments for learning to work collaboratively, said Howland.
“Everybody has their own thing that they’re good at.”
Sometimes all the students come together with both teachers in the same room. Other times students will move to a different class to work on an enrichment project. And they always split into regular grade levels for math.
Howland has 18 students and one educational assistant during math class, but the rest of the time she has no EAs.
Students with special needs “fit in seamlessly,” she said.
Keswick Ridge School won an award for inclusive education in its K-2 classes in 2017 sponsored by the Canadian Association for Community Living.
But some parents and inclusion advocates worry when they hear about students being grouped “by ability.”
“It could definitely run the risk of segregation if not done very carefully with that inclusive lens,” said Sarah Wagner, executive director of the New Brunswick Association for Community Living.
She still has more questions than answers about what school without grade levels will look like. For example, will children with developmental disabilities find themselves always in a group with much younger students.
Wagner would like to see clear leadership, accountability and a change-management strategy before anything is implemented.
Another aspect of the plan that remains fuzzy is whether it will include French immersion.
That program’s entry point was recently moved back to Grade 1 from Grade 3, and the government has given assurances it would put an end to further politically motivated changes to the school system.
It’s not clear whether a combined K-2 French immersion class would be feasible with a Grade 1 entry point for the immersion program.
“I think it’s doable,” said Keswick Ridge principal Tammy Gee.
“But right now, I don’t think it’s considered best practice to blend the K, the 1 and the 2 together with the early French immersion just learning the language.”
Superior Middle School in Bathurst had a multi-age program that combined both English and French-immersion students. Interactive Education started in 1993 and lasted 25 years, until it was swapped out for a new experiment called Individual-based learning last year.
Inter-ed students worked in base groups of six, said Scott Ferguson, one of the original teachers. Three members of a base group were students in the English program and three were in French immersion. The French immersion students did math and language arts in French, as well as all of their project work. And sometimes they were taken out of class for complete French instruction.
Ferguson remains a devotee of Inter-ed, even though he retired this year.
He said it allowed students to work at their own pace without drawing attention to anyone who was lagging behind. Struggling students or those with behaviour problems did benefit from peer mentoring. Students were motivated to get their work done in order to participate in out-of-class activities. And academic results were among the highest in the province. In math, for example, students in the Inter-ed program generally scored in the top 10 per cent.
With that level of success, it begs the question, why hasn’t the program taken off on a broader scale?
Ferguson believes the answer is probably a natural aversion to change and if the shift is going to happen, it will have to be mandated.
It seems that’s what’s about to happen. The green paper calls for all elementary schools and some middle and high schools to adopt flexible learning environments without grade levels within the next five years.
By: Jennifer Sweet, courtesy of CBC News