I was flattered the year my eldest son was assigned to a grade two/three split class. I was assured that because he was bright and motivated, it would be a great fit. A combined grade was sold as a kind of Darwinian survival of the educational fittest. Several split classes later, like many other parents, I wonder who’s winning in this scenario.
Across the country, school boards are increasingly using split classes to handle declining enrolment and class-size caps, while also juggling specialized programs (like gifted and French immersion). In Ontario, for example, about one in four kids is in a split class. The numbers are roughly the same across the country, and even higher in rural areas where there simply aren’t enough students in each class to warrant a single grade.
But do split grades really work? Are teachers simply being asked to make the best of a bad numbers situation? Or can your child actually benefit from learning with older or younger students?
The research suggests the latter. Joel Gajadharsingh, professor emeritus of education at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, is considered a leading expert on combined classes. He says students in split grades “do just as well, if not better” academically, thanks to repetition and exposure to another grade. He adds that their ability to behave and get along with others is also superior. They’re more independent, confident, responsible, dependable, respectful, collaborative and — if you haven’t heard enough already — even tend to develop better study habits, regardless of whether they’re in the younger or older grade.
“They’re not simply left alone,” says Gajadharsingh. “They have assignments to do and it’s these things that teach them independence and dependability to do their work. They also learn to collaborate in this kind of environment, where they either give help or seek help.”
Bob Stefaniuk, principal of Montrose School in Winnipeg, buys into this theory. Every classroom in his K–6 school is a split — oops, make that a “multi-age” — class. This is an important distinction for Stefaniuk. At his school, every teacher teaches two grades together, with the same students for a two-year period.
“It never has been about mathematics,” he says. “It’s a philosophy.” His teachers look at the big picture: What do their students need to learn over two years? The two grades learn together, each child learning at his or her own rate — not according to grade-specific expectations.
“In reality, you can go to any classroom across Canada and you may call it grade three, but you’re going to have kids who are reading at a grade seven level, kids who are reading at a grade one level,” he says. “That’s where the art of teaching comes in.”
In multi-age classrooms, teachers plan for crossover between grades. Themes integrate both levels so that whether children are in grade three or four, for example, they’re still writing; only the expectation varies. It’s a philosophy found at many schools across the country, and one advocated by many education experts, including Gajadharsingh.
Winnipeg mom Kim Weir has two sons in grade three and six at Stefaniuk’s school, and says teachers are bound to their curriculum for each class, “so there’s no worry that all subjects won’t be covered.” For her, the bonus is how secure her sons feel at school, having built friendships with children older or younger than themselves every year since kindergarten.
“How great is it to walk into a school and know 15 kids 1 1/2 feet taller than you by name?” she says.
That’s all well and fine when an entire school is designed around the philosophy of multi-age learning. But what happens when your child ends up in a split by default, not design? My son Thomas was in grade four last year. Most years, he’s thrived in combined grades, but last year, we noticed a big gap socially between our nine-year-old October “baby” and the 11½ -year-old boys in grade five. The boy who still considers girls “icky” was often taunted by his Axe-wearing classmates for not knowing a whole lot about sex. His teacher had to step in several times to stop the teasing.
Of course, getting along with people of other ages is part of life. Wilma Verhagen, vice-principal of Jesse Ketchum Public School in Toronto, argues that a split class gives students a better sense of reality — and teaches better coping skills — than a single-grade class.
“We’re under the impression that kids all need to learn with the same age peers,” she says. “It’s simply an easy way to break up the classes. But it’s also very artificial. Nowhere else is life like that: families, the working environment later, even at university and college.”
Verhagen notes it can be a struggle to design a solid split class, given the challenges that exist in schools (such as learning disabilities and English as a second language), but they are increasingly tough to avoid. In Ontario, inner-city schools, such as hers, have a 19-student class cap (the provincial mandate is 20). Sometimes that means creating two combined grades for even one or two extra students.
Because every child is different and the dynamics of every classroom vary, she says, age and learning style are only part of it. My son is one of only five grade four boys in his class. What if there were 10? Would he feel less intimidated by the older boys?
A lot of it, says Verhagen, comes down to one person — the teacher. She says it takes someone who is open-minded, well organized and positive to master the art of a split class.
The teacher also needs a good dose of patience. My son Jack’s grade one/two teacher had a rule that you had to ask for help from at least one person before asking her. It worked. I thank her every day when Jack, now in grade three, asks his brothers for help before “Mooommming” me to death.
While his teacher obviously was up for the task, others may struggle with the split. “I worried about the stress and strain on teachers,” says Thunder Bay, Ont., mom Aimée Gerdevich, whose daughter was in a split class. “They’re teaching two curricula. Are they going to get through all of the curriculum that my kid is supposed to be learning? Is there going to be stuff they’re rushing through — with all of the other challenges teachers are dealing with, which all eats up time as well?”
As for many other families, our success with split grades has been as varied as the kids in them. Last spring, Thomas was invited to a birthday party for one of the older boys, which he said made him feel “grown up and nervous at the same time.” So chalk one up for the social development.
Academically? We do see some glimpses of both the confidence and independence that the experts describe. Now if those study habits would just improve.