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Creating contexts for middle-age learning.

Schools in the United States traditionally group children in grades by age, in order to minimize differences. In doing so, however, little room remains for the positive effects of mixed-age learning. Classes with mixed-age grouping can optimize "what can be learned when children of different - as well as the same - ages and abilities have opportunities to interact" (Katz, Evangelou, Allison Hartman, 1990, p. 1). Research on mixed-age learning in interactive, social contexts (Stone, 1997) offers compelling reasons for deliberately constructing multiple age groupings.

Social Learning

In 1978, Vygotsky introduced the "zone of proximal development." In this concept, a child's level of potential development can be enhanced by more capable peers. In other words, the "zone" is the area between a child's current, actual level of performance (what the child can do without help or support) and his potential level of performance (what the child can do with help and guidance) (Dixon-Krauss, 1996). The wider range of ages and abilities in mixed-age groupings encourages greater cross-age interaction, whereby children naturally help and support each other. Thus, mixed-age groupings provide rich opportunities for social collaboration.

Bandura (1977) suggested that children acquire behaviors by observing and then imitating social models. It is interesting to note that these models are often just pursuing their own interests, and are not consciously trying to teach anything. Also, children often choose to imitate warm and nurturing classmates, preferring children who are agemates or older models, rather than younger models (Shaffer, 1988). Thus, mixed-age groupings provide a greater range of potential models.

The theories of both Vygotsky and Bandura lay the foundation for research in cross-age learning and its benefits for cognitive, social and emotional growth for all children in mixed-age groupings.

Cognitive Benefits. Children learn from their cognitive differences. As mixed-age children collaborate on a problem, for example, a "cognitive conflict," or a difference in perspective, may become evident (Stone, 1996). In cognitive conflict (Piaget, 1976; Trudge & Caruso, 1988), different perspectives may compel the children to explain themselves to one another. By having to think through and articulate their differences, both younger and older children benefit (Theilheimer, 1993).

In addition, children gain cognitively as they collaborate and scaffold for one another (zone of proximal development). Through the scaffolding process, more capable peers can inspire others to use more sophisticated approaches to problem-solving tasks (Meltzer, 1991), and older children can collaboratively lead younger children to engage in more and varied literacy experiences (Stone & Christie, 1996). For instance, an older child may model how to label make-believe birthday gifts with written names in a play center, while younger children observe and then imitate the same process. Experts model for novices, and novices imitate the experts.

All ages benefit from the social interactions. Younger children internalize new understandings (Brown & Palincsar, 1986), whereas older children solidify their mastery of tasks (Roopnarine & Johnson, 1983).

Social Benefits. Mixed-age settings hold many opportunities for social benefits because mixed-age children respond to each other differently than do same-age classmates. Older children become more socially active as they try to engage younger, less socially skilled children; conversely, younger children will try to use more advanced social skills because they want to interact with the older children. Thus, mixed-age settings become important contexts for acquiring and consolidating peer social skills (Brownell, 1990).

Prosocial behaviors such as helping, sharing and taking turns are more evident in mixed-age settings. Younger children see older children as helpers and older children view younger children as needing help. Older children, for example, may nurture younger children when they are hurt, help them get their food at lunch time, and watch over them on the playground. These mutually reinforcing perceptions work to create a climate of cooperation that is beneficial to all of the children (French, 1984).

Mixed-age settings also provide better contexts for the emergence of leadership skills. Stright and French (1988) found that older children facilitated and organized younger children's participation without trying to dominate the decision-making process. The older children asked for the younger ones' opinions, rather than simply giving their own opinions, as frequently happened in same-age groupings. Older children were also more likely to show leadership behaviors in the presence of younger children because "many children do not possess the skills and characteristics that enable them to emerge as a leader in a group of peers. With sufficient age disparity, however, any child can attain leadership status with younger children" (Stright & French, 1988, p. 513). In addition, by virtue of age, every child in a continuous, mixed-age setting eventually has the opportunity to become a leader.

Children in mixed-age social contexts learn to socialize, nurture and mentor each other, as well as how to become leaders. Socially, they benefit more than in same-age contexts.

Emotional Benefits. As children benefit cognitively and socially, their emotional health is positively affected. In addition, as older children become more responsible around younger children, their feelings of competency grow (Graziano, French, Brownell & Hartup, 1976). Shaffer (1988) suggests that, "Children who feel good about their cognitive and social competencies tend to do better at school and have more friends than their classmates who feel socially or intellectually inadequate" (p. 190). Mixed-age groupings allow children to thrive in a cooperative, rather than a competitive, environment. They enjoy the family atmosphere in which caring and mentoring support emotional growth and stability.

Social Learning Contexts

Teachers often structured social learning contexts to promote cross-age learning, using such peer tutoring methods as buddy reading, or by assigning an older child to help another child with math. New research, however, highlights the promise of cross-age learning through informal contexts (Stone & Christie, 1996). Centers and projects allow mixed-age learners to work and play together. While children are not instructed to mentor, scaffold or collaborate, the social structure of combining children of different ages naturally leads to collaboration and imitation.

Centers. Centers for mixed-age learners are open-ended, so that each child can successfully participate in the experience. At the writing center, for example, an older child may write a story, complete with paragraphs, whereas a younger child can only write a few sentences. Both children are writing "stories." As children write together, older children often will help younger children with their spelling and encourage them to create more elaborate stories. Younger children are motivated by their older literacy counterparts to persevere and enjoy the writing experience. As older children share their own writing with younger children, they experience mastery and competency, which leads to their own positive self-esteem.

At a typical home center, older children will model reading recipe books, and invite younger children to read to the dolls. By creating rich fantasy play stories and problem solving, older children can practice their literacy skills. Through collaboration, they engage younger children in higher levels of involvement than they would normally enjoy with same-age peers. As they play, all the children learn social skills. For example, an older child declares to a younger child, "I'm the mom." The younger child says, "I want to be the mom." As the older child sees the younger child become sad, she says, "O.K. I'll be the mom first and you can be the morn second." The older child is practicing negotiation.

At the science center, mixed-age children engage in "cognitive conflict." Open-ended experiences, such as discovering which materials float in water and which do not, allow children to express a wide range of ideas, and to consider many different perspectives. Older children can explain their views, which hones their articulation skills as well as their own understanding of what they know to be true. At the same time, the younger children internalize new understandings.

Mixed-age learning contexts must offer choices. First, children prefer interacting with children of different ages, rather than just choosing same-age classmates (Ellis, Rogoff & Cromer, 1981; Stone & Christie, 1996). One will naturally find children of mixed ages interacting at centers that offer choices. Second, choice heightens children's interest and motivation, which results in greater active participation.

Projects. Projects are another cooperative learning context for mixed-age learners. Children will naturally form mixed-age groupings as they choose their own projects. Within these groupings, older children will scaffold learning for younger children, which supports younger children's task accomplishment beyond their current capabilities. Older children are also likely to engage in leadership skills that facilitate, rather than dominate, the learning process. A mixed-age group of children that chooses a project about worms, for example, may decide together what their questions are, plan how they will investigate the topic, and decide how they will report or display their findings. As the children collaborate, they read about worms, write down information, graph information, measure worms, analyze worm compost, dissect worms, design and build a terrarium, create a healthy environment for the worms, advertise worms for sale, and create a price list. The dynamics of this social learning context are richer because of the learners' wide age range.

Structural Contexts

The predominant way educators take advantage of the benefits of mixed-age learning is through multiage classrooms, in which multiple ages of children stay with the same teacher for several years. A multiage family of learners grows cognitively, socially and emotionally together throughout the school day and across several years. This grouping is not divided by age or grade. It is not a combination class, but rather a class that learns together through continual collaboration, scaffolding and modeling, with all the participants benefiting.

Some educators are easing into this model by creating mixed-age learning contexts within their graded schools: kindergarten classrooms invite 3rd-graders to participate in their classroom centers; 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-graders regularly meet for literature circles; and 4th-, 5th- and 6th-graders work collaboratively on special science and social studies projects.

These mixed-age groupings are designed so that children will have the opportunity to experience the cognitive, social and emotional benefits of mixed-age learning. Dixon-Krauss (1996) proposes that "children should be given the opportunity to work comfortably with a wide range of children in order to acquire social and cognitive skills in playing, working, and learning" (p. 79). Mixed-age groupings "optimize" learning when children of different, as well as the same, ages and abilities have opportunities to interact (Katz et al., 1990, p. 1). As we are finding through research, maximizing differences creates much richer learning contexts for all children.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Brown, A., & Palincsar, A. (1986). Guided, cooperative learning and individual knowledge acquisition (Technical Report No. 372). Champaign, IL: Center for the Study of Reading.

Brownell, C. (1990). Peer social skills in toddlers: Competencies and constraints illustrated by same-age and mixed-age interaction. Child Development, 61(3), 838-848.

Dixon-Krauss, L. (1996). Vygotsky in the classroom: Mediated literacy instruction and assessment. White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers.

Ellis, S., Rogoff, B., & Cromer, C. (1981). Age segregation in children's social interactions. Developmental Psychology, 17(4), 399-407.

French, D. (1984). Children's knowledge of social functions of younger, older, and same age peers. Child Development, 55, 1429-1433.

Graziano, M., French, D., Brownell, C., & Hartup, W. (1976). Peer interaction in same-age and mixed-age triads in relation to chronological age and incentive condition. Child Development, 47, 707-714.

Katz, L., Evangelou, D., & Hartman Allison, J. (1990). The case for mixedage grouping in early education. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Meltzer, L. J. (1991). Problem-solving strategies and academic performance in learning-disabled students: Do subtypes exist? In L. B. Feagans, E. J. Short, & L. J. Meltzer (Eds.), Subtypes of learning disabilities: Theoretical perspectives and research. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Piaget, J. (1976). Symbolic play. In J. S. Bruner, A. Jolly, & K. Sylva (Eds.), Play: Its role in development and evolution. New York: Basic Books.

Roopnarine, J., & Johnson, J. (1983). Kindergartners' play with preschool and school-age children within a mixed-age classroom. The Elementary School Journal, 83(5), 578-586.

Shaffer, D. (1988). Social and personality development. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.

Stone, S. J. (1996). Creating the multiage classroom. Glenview, IL: GoodYear Books.

Stone, S. J. (1997). The multi-age classroom: What research tells the practitioner. ASCD Curriculum Handbook. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Stone, S. J., & Christie, J. F. (1996). Collaborative literacy learning during sociodramatic play in a multiage (K-2) primary classroom. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 10(2), 123-133.

Stright, A., & French, D. (1988). Leadership in mixed age children's groups. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 11, 507-515.

Thielheimer, R. (1993). Something for everyone: Benefits of mixed-age grouping for children, parents, and teachers. Young Children, 48(5), 82-87.

Trudge, J., & Caruso, D. (1988). Cooperative problem solving in the classroom: Enhancing young children's cognitive development. Young Children, 44(1), 46-52.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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Author:Stone, Sandra J.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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