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What makes a multiage classroom successful?

Four strategies from the frontline

Camilo Bearman, Design Architect (Charlottesville, VA)

It might take a few minutes to adjust to what you’re seeing when entering the multiage addition at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School in Charlottesville, Virginia. What you’re witnessing doesn’t look like classroom learning: students solving math problems on the floors using dry erase markers, researching on iPads while flopped out on couches; or strategizing in small groups at bistro tables.

This is a school, right? Where are the Smart Boards, rows of chairs, and teacher desks? Well, the answer is that they’re somewhere in the space, constantly moving around to fit the needs of independent and collaborative project-based learning among teams of various ages.

New learning model
One teacher observed, “What you’re seeing is not chaos. You’re seeing learning.” The ever changing dynamic responds to the need to create a very specific learning model where students of all ages support each other, get excited about learning and sharing, and discover ideas together.

Educational institutions continually reflect and respond to the ways in which children learn. Some tenants of learning are constant. Yet cultural, societal, and technological influences all impact how and where students access information and gain knowledge.

That’s an important reason education leaders are always evaluating instructional methods that offer multiple forms of engagement with subject matter. Today, student-centered, passion-based discovery is an important component of the learning environment. From a design standpoint this is often embodied in open, flexible spaces.  

Student-centered, passion-based
And, it turns out, this type of space is also ideal for multiage learning environments. To be clear, multiage education is not simply combined grade levels in a classroom, but an intentional grouping of students from ranging ages, whether in an elementary, middle, or high school setting. This intentional grouping is coupled with a pedagogical structure which promotes educational outcomes such as lifelong curiosity, whole-child development, and an interconnected sense of community.

Agnor-Hurt elementary school is in its second year exploring a new multiage, multimodal 6,000 SF addition. As the architects for the school’s renovation and addition, we’re still learning, along with teachers, students and parents, how to make the most of this robust learning model.

Learning from failure, promoting success
We loved this challenge. It was a great opportunity to design hand-in-hand with the school, understand the logistical reasons why open classrooms seemed to have failed in the past, and develop finely tuned solutions promoting success when coupled with a rigorous pedagogical vision. Through our process, we discovered a few key spatial considerations when embarking on a multiage learning project—whether a new space or renovation.   

  • Celebrate the openness, but thoughtfully. Rather than creating a wide open warehouse that feels like a big box store, create distinct sub-pods for content areas or cohorts of students. While visually connected to other spaces, each sub-pod can have a distinct sense of place through changes in ceiling finishes, slight changes in floor levels and materials, interior curtains, and personalization of the space through student work.
  • Make the best walls ever! Removing walls or incorporating glass to create a sense of openness means that the remaining partitions become precious real estate. Think of these surfaces like Swiss army knives that store gear: display student work; are places to write; and are chock full of power, water, and data. The goal should be to say ‘nobody builds walls like we do.’
  • Keep it flexible and loose. Carefully curated furniture collections incorporate pieces that are adjustable for different ages yet are light and mobile so that they can be moved on the fly by the students themselves. Like any other technology, the furniture should be a helpful tool, not something that gets in the way when trying to shape your space. Furniture should also let kids be kids and move as they move, adjusting to different body shapes and posture preferences.
  • Disconnect the technology. Consider eradicating the teaching wall by providing mobile large format screens or interactive white boards, mobile white boards, and rolling tablets. Not only does this allow for these technologies to migrate in the space as needed, it’s also a lot easier to replace in the future and frees up valuable wall space.

The key is to engage first with in-depth planning about how your professional learning community will engage with the space. Every school and community is different, but these strategies are a great starting point. They’re proven to develop and engage today’s learners through social responsibility as well as academic freedom to learn at the right pace: their pace.

Camilo is a natural design leader with experience collaborating with educators, administrators, teachers, students, and consultants. You can read his previous blog on designing for students with different learning styles at the The Lab School in Washington, DC here

What you’re seeing is not chaos. You’re seeing learning.

Four multiage classroom strategies

  • Celebrate the openness, but thoughtfully
  • Make the best walls ever!
  • Keep if flexible and loose
  • Disconnect the technology
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