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John Malloy the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board stands in the halls of Westmount Secondary school in Hamilton on November 12, 2013. Malloy has asked educators to help him rethink traditional grade level system to create multi-grade multi-age classrooms. The move is being made now because the board is going from 18 high schools to 13 by 2016.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

You could call it the return of the one-room schoolhouse: Students of different ages and grade levels sitting in a classroom together, led by a teacher or even two instructors. That vision from the past is being revived for a new era – but unlike in the past, it is driven not only by necessity, but creativity.

John Malloy, director of education at Ontario's Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, has issued a challenge to all the high school principals in his area to rethink the traditional way kids learn. He envisions different grades in one classroom tackling problems such as water shortages and world hunger, earning credits not just in world issues, but also science and geography. Some educators believe that moving away from the traditional age-based approach will keep students more engaged and prepare them better to collaborate on a variety of projects in the workplace.

"Students develop in many different ways – socially, emotionally, academically – and sometimes the construct that we have in schools only allows things to happen in one way," Mr. Malloy said. "The world we live in now and the world of the near future clearly needs us to be flexible, creative, collaborative and adaptive. The way we teach in our high schools has the power to help students in this regard."

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A few schools – most of them alternative – in Canada and elsewhere have multi-age classrooms. Mr. Malloy is the first to consider extending the model to a board-wide initiative. His inspiration was Michael Barber, education adviser to former British prime minister Tony Blair. Mr. Barber believes early teamwork in the classroom allows students to think critically. "This approach will become important as criteria for admissions to institutes of higher learning and employment increasingly require not just academic success but output and achievement across a broad range of accomplishments," he wrote in a publication titled Oceans of Innovation.

By 2016, the Hamilton board will reduce its number of high schools to 13 from 18. Mr. Malloy, who has been director since 2009, wants to seize the moment and turn necessity into innovation.

How the change could be implemented is up for discussion. Grade levels would be retained, but within schools, classes would be opened to learners from different grades depending on their interests, ability and the appropriateness of the material.

Where the model has been tried, educators say that creativity and students' personal achievements have increased. The Toronto District School Board's ALPHA II Alternative School, a self-directed Grades 7 to 12 school, opened in 2007 and has no tests, grades or report cards. The students are not separated by age. Students and their teachers define personal goals and create portfolios of their work.

"Musicians become really good musicians, photographers become really good photographers and sometimes – we have one now – musicians become great photographers. It is a place to write, to make music, to make art amongst many other things, but mostly, it is a place to think about how to make one's life," teacher John Atherton said.

In Vancouver, multi-grade classes are reserved for highly gifted elementary school kids. The district developed multi-age cluster classes in 1994, driven by pedagogy that young, highly gifted learners need to be academically challenged with an advanced curriculum. The students, in Grades 4 to 7, participate in open-ended projects and can choose to work on a social studies or science project using higher-grade standards. They do not receive a letter grade on their report cards, but are evaluated based on whether they have acquired, developed or mastered skills.

Could this radical approach to education be extended to all learners? This fall, a group of education innovators from around the world suggested just that at the Learning 2030 conference at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ont. "Traditional concepts of classes, courses, timetables, and grades," they recommended, should be replaced by "flexible, creative and student-directed forms of learning."

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But as with any new approaches in education, innovators must contend with roadblocks. Curriculum, for one, would have to be redesigned away from expectations by grade level.

Still, one of the principals in the Hamilton board is already planning to jump in. "There's plenty of evidence that the traditional method doesn't work for everyone," said Rick Kunc, principal of Westmount Secondary School. Mr. Kunc is talking to department heads to see how it could work in his school. "We have an obligation in education that as the world is changing around us, that we continue to find ways to keep up with those changes."

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