Success or Survival in the Multigrade Classroom: Part 1

by Sandra Wright Smith1

Part 1 — Crossing the Cultures

This is the first article in a four-part series on teaching in a multigrade classroom.

Many see education and learning as one complete culture when, in fact, there are several cultural frameworks facilitating differing approaches and methodologies. Multiage or multigrade education is a unique, vital, and rich culture.

In intercultural training, a game is used which introduces cultural paradigm differences. Participants are divided into 3-4 groups. Each group is instructed in how to act and react within certain parameters. Individuals from different groups are traded and given the task of understanding a differing culture through observation and participation.

Difficulties come when visiting members base their understanding and solutions on their own home group cultural parameters. It can become quite humorous at times as a game, but in real life such approaches are not only frustrating but detrimental to one’s initial purpose.

Over and over educators have used a home, monolevel culture to evaluate and develop strategies for the multigraded culture. Though progress is made toward understanding, more often than not the approaches and methods prescribed are based on the monolevel culture and are ineffective. In fact, they can be actually destructive to the learning process within the multigrade setting.

At the core lies an erroneous premise that monograded instructional culture equals the only quality education. Consequently, teachers are given ways to manage or survive until quality can be implemented.

But we desire to see teachers succeed, not just survive. Thus, effective tools are needed to enable them to understand and walk through the critical paradigm change toward the joy of teaching and true effective learning within the multigrade culture.

The first step into a new culture is to look at it closely with an open paradigm. Many things will look familiar and can be easily identified. Yet other items will challenge your thinking.

So what exactly does this culture look like?

The most successful definition explains multigrade instructions as… an instructional setting made up of students of several ages, abilities, and grade levels functioning within the framework of the grade level system, but facilitating a student focused instructional design rather than locked grade level standards (Franklin, 1967).

Within this rich culture, we see treasures of…

Recently a study was done by the Department of Labor in conjunction with the Department of Education to determine the qualities needed by a high school graduate to be successful in the work force. A list of essential qualities was compiled which paralleled the list of character developments resulting from the cultural treasures of the multigrade classroom.

How exciting! Students trained within a true multigrade culture are given tremendous opportunities to learn through one of the richest educational environments.

Crossing any culture requires that one come to understand and assimilate the foundational values and principles upon which the cultural thinking is based. In the next article we will look at the foundational principles upon which successful multigrade instruction is built.


Franklin, M. P. (1967). Multigrading in the Elementary Education. Childhood Education, 43 (9), 513-515.

Miller, B. A. (1991 March). A Review of the Qualitative Research on Multigrade Instruction. Paper presented to the NRSSC, Rural Education Symposium, Nashville, TN (ERIC Document Reproduction Services No. ED 287 646).

Miller, B. (1991). Teaching and Learning in the Multigrade Classroom: Student Performance and Instruction Routines. ERIC Clearing house on Rural Education and Small School, Charleston, WV (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 335 178)

Go to Success or Survival in the Multigrade Classroom: Part 2 — Laying the Foundation (article two).

Permission to copy, but not for commercial use.