When Shari Smith found out in June that her son would enter a split-grade class at his Toronto elementary school come September, she was the one who felt divided.
The mother of three had prior experience with split classes, most of it positive, her two older children having previously passed through them with flying colours. But her youngest, she says, is different, which is why last week when school reconvened for the new academic year she felt anxious.
"He has troubling focusing," she says. "He's the kind of student who needs a teacher closely monitoring him, which I worry can't happen in a split-class situation."
But experts have a message for her: Relax. While parents often fret that multigrade classrooms will have a detrimental effect on their children's education, they have little to worry about, the experts say.
Split-grade elementary classrooms are becoming more common as declining enrolment in many cities across Canada results in fewer teachers being hired. Individual schools have to balance their annual enrolment figures with the number of teachers allocated to them by their respective school boards.
Although public teaching unions are against the practice, education authorities such as Ontario's Ministry of Education and the Vancouver School Board cite studies backing split grades; in particular, a 1999 research paper by Joel Gajadharsingh of the University of Saskatchewan, which concluded that students in combined classes do just as well as those in single grades, with some actually performing better in core subjects such as language and math. Other studies have shown that children in older grades are not held back and neither are children in lower grades forced to work beyond their level. Children who find it hard to focus can get the attention they need, both from their teacher and their older peers.
"Often when it comes to our children's education, parents have an instinctive feeling of what must be true, in this case that split classes are bad, but those instincts aren't always backed up by evidence," observes Annie Kidder, executive director of and co-founder of People for Education, an Ontario-based organization that supports public education in Ontario's English, French and Catholic school boards. "And the evidence is that there is no negative impact on academic success."
In Canada, more than 20 per cent of students are registered in split classes, and that number is growing. Around the world, split classes are also a growing phenomenon in countries as diverse as Australia, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands. New Zealand, which has the highest literacy rate in the world, routinely groups together children of different ages in the same classroom.
"The ability to relate to others, to communicate ideas and express feelings is better in multigrade classrooms," emphasizes Ms. Kidder. "Non-cognitive learning is enhanced."
Brigitte Foisy would second that. The Quebec-born mother of a 13-year-old son credits a combined classroom for giving her child the self-confidence he lacked when in a single-grade class. "He was a boy who didn't make friends easily, but when he was part of the older grade in a split classroom, he started helping the younger ones and this gave him a tremendous sense of responsibility that has stayed with him ever since," she says. "The experience developed in him leadership skills and really helped his self-esteem. It also made him a better student."
Montessori schools have long recognized the benefits of multiage classes, making them the foundation of their educational programs.
But while there are compelling philosophical reasons for combined classrooms, in Canada the increased presence of split grades is often an organizational issue.
"It's defined by the numbers," says John Smith, president of Elementary Teachers of Toronto, the union representing 11,000 elementary public school teachers in Canada's largest city, referring to the fact that enrolment variations are what usually lead to combined classes.
As to the effect on teachers, Mr. Smith says: "There's a heightened workload and really only experienced teachers should be teaching them."
The labour leader would like to see split classes abolished for grades 3 and 6, the years standardized tests are administered in Ontario (as well as some other provinces), for potentially being even more onerous for his members. "It's what our union is trying to do," he says.
Bessie Anastopoulos has been teaching split classes for most of the 20 years she has been an elementary school teacher with the Toronto District School Board and agrees that, for teachers, combined grades pose a challenge. But they are increasingly a fact of life, she says, because of funding issues, which also lead to increased class size.
"I think if you asked most teachers they'd probably say they would prefer a straight grade, but the fact of the matter is, whether a straight or a split, the teaching is the same," Ms. Anastopoulos says.
Differentiated instruction, or teaching adapted to the needs of individual students, is now the norm in most school boards across Canada, from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, making a discussion of split classes, in her opinion, more complicated. Even in a straight grade, Ms. Anastopoulos says, a teacher is split a hundred different ways while catering to the variety of learning styles in the classroom.
"Differentiated instruction is when a teacher varies his or her teaching in order to provide the best possible learning experience for all students because the reality is you have a wide variety of levels in the classroom and you need to meet the needs of all children," Ms. Anastopoulos explains.
"It's not a cookie-cutter style of teaching any more, where you just teach to the average child, so it doesn't matter if it's a split class," she concludes. "Even in a straight class the students will be at different levels. Your job as a teaching professional is to help all of them reach their personal potential."
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