Mixed-Age Grouping in Early Education

The Benefits of Mixed-Age Grouping

Goodlad and Anderson, who introduced the modern notion of the non-graded elementary school in 1959, raised our awareness of the fact that age is a crude indicator of what learning experiences children are ready for. Implementation of Goodlad and Anderson’s ideas originally consisted largely of organizing children in groups by ability rather than by age, thereby homogenizing groups in a different way! We have come to understand that the benefits of mixed-age grouping rest on the assumption that the differences within a group of children can be a source of rich intellectual and social benefits. The terms “ungraded” and “nongraded” used by Goodlad and Anderson suggest what we do not do in mixed-age settings–separate children into grade groups by age–but they fail to describe what we try to do. That may be better conveyed by the use of the term “mixed-age grouping.” A mixed-age group of children in which the children’s age range is larger than a year–sometimes two years and sometimes more–is intended to optimize the educative potential of the mixture itself.

Although humans are not usually born in litters, we seem to insist that they be educated in them. The time that children spend in groups in schools and child care centers, particularly for preschoolers, amounts to replacing families and spontaneous neighborhood groups as contexts for child-to-child interaction for large portions of children’s waking hours. More and more children are deprived of the information and models of competencies that once were available to them in natural mixed-age groups. The intention of mixed-age grouping in early childhood settings is to increase the heterogeneity of the group so as to capitalize on the differences in the experience, knowledge, and abilities of the children.

Opportunity to Nurture

When we ask a five-year-old to be tolerant of a four-year-old’s first fumbling efforts to put on his or her jacket, or a six-year-old to be appreciative of a five-year-old’s early efforts to read, we have the beginnings of parent education. Our young children need real contexts in which their dispositions to be nurturing can be manifested and strengthened. Furthermore, the young children who are encouraged, comforted and nurtured by older children will be able to emulate their older classmates when they themselves become the older ones in a group. Children need opportunities not only to observe and imitate a wide range of competencies, but also to find companions among their peers who match, complement, or supplement their interests in different ways.