Flexible grouping strategies in the multiage classroom

Flexible grouping strategies in the multiage classroom

Jo Hoffman

IN A MULTIAGE CLASSROOM, students of different ages and ability levels are taught together without division into grade designations. The age range of the students is commonly three or more years. Curriculum and teaching practices are such that students can approach tasks according to their developmental levels. Some grade-specific teaching may occur because of state-mandated curricula and testing, but cross-grade teaching is the norm. In this kind of educational setting, frequent instructional opportunities for peer learning are planned. The students often work in collaborative small groups that are teacher- or student-led. Multiage classroom teachers understand the important role that social interaction and collaborative learning play in the classroom. In fact, due to the broad range in ages and abilities, collaborative peer learning contexts are necessary. A variety of arrangements for peer learning are utilized in a multiage classroom depending on the task.

No single perspective on peer learning can account for the variety of collaborative learning contexts that multiage classroom teachers employ. Flexible grouping is a term commonly given to the practice of varying grouping strategies for instruction (Chapman, 1995). Throughout a school day, students in a multiage setting work in a variety of flexible grouping configurations–small group, partners, individually, or whole group. The intent is that grouping for instruction is fluid, and its use flexible. The breakdown of small group, individual, and whole group learning is not based on a predetermined prescribed curriculum; it is based on the needs and interests of the students. Chapman’s (1995) research findings on flexible grouping situations support this strategy as being effective for meeting the needs of students in multiage classrooms.

The first part of this article illustrates some of these flexible grouping configurations and discusses how different perspectives and theories of peer learning are required to account for their intended effects. In providing instructional contexts for their students that capitalize on collaborative learning, teachers in multiage classrooms make decisions influenced by peer learning theories. A classroom example is provided as an illustration for each context discussed. The second half of this article provides a more detailed example of an instructional strategy in one multiage classroom where the teachers designed a collaborative context for solving word problems in math. Providing a specific example such as this illustrates how peer learning theories influence decisions in the classroom.

Flexible Grouping Practices and Theories of Peer Learning

Multiage classroom teachers are knowledgeable about theories of peer learning and about designing instructional contexts that promote collaboration among their students (Chase & Doan, 1994; Hoffman, 2001; Marshak, 1994). Flexible grouping strategies are common in this kind of setting and are found to be the most effective way to meet the instructional needs of students and allow collaborative opportunities to occur (Chapman, 1995; McClay, 1996; Stone, 1994/1995). While students participate in collaborative group work or individual work at centers, teachers are able to monitor small group interactions and provide specific skill instruction. Table 1 presents the breakdown of fluid, flexible grouping configurations that are typically used throughout the school day in a multiage classroom.

While whole-class meetings, teacher-led small-group instruction, and individual instruction are necessary and take place during the school day, collaborative student-led small groups are the norm. The three most predominant small-group configurations that occur in multiage classrooms are common interest groups, shared task groups, and dyads. These are discussed below as they relate to peer learning theories that support and influence their usage. All three configurations allow for heterogeneous grouping and are often set up to take advantage of the mix of cognitive abilities. There are also less-structured dyad and common interest contexts that typically occur (e.g., when students choose with whom they will work and, therefore, groups sometimes become more homogeneous in nature).

Student-led common interest groups

Students form small groups on their own as they work through instructional activities, usually in the context of learning centers. The size of the groups is limited by the work spaces and the overall physical environment. The typical multiage classroom has tables used flexibly as work spaces. There is seldom room for more than five students to be working at an area at one time. Students are encouraged to work together and offer and ask for help from one another. The teachers monitor students’ interactions closely to make sure that not only are interactions positive in nature, but that the same students are not always taking on the role of “teacher.” In order to support positive interaction, teachers provide direct instruction on how to “work together,” before and during monitoring.

While positive interaction among group members is needed, high-quality discussion is of critical importance in peer collaboration groups (Meloth & Deering, 1999). Teachers must instruct and model high-quality discussion. Before and during collaborative group work, students talk about the social skills needed to achieve goals. Palincsar and Herrenkohl (1999) identified four key social skills necessary in collaborative group work: (a) Students must contribute to the group’s efforts and help others to contribute through sharing resources, discussing ideas, and taking turns with different jobs; (b) students must give reasons for ideas and provide examples if not understood; (c) students are responsible for working to understand others’ ideas; (d) students must build on each other’s ideas.

Students working at a higher ability level are challenged within the same open-ended activities so that they are able to remain stimulated and curious about the task at hand. For instance, in one primary multiage classroom during a unit about weather forecasting, three students were given the challenge of going to the computer center to search the Internet for information about barometers (e.g., what they measure, what high and low pressure means in relation to the forecast, etc.), and then to report back to the class with that information.

What is interesting, and perhaps unique to the multiage classroom, is how students have learned to accept differences in abilities and social behaviors. Because they work side by side with classmates whose rates of development vary cognitively and socially, they seem to appreciate one another for their various strengths (Chase & Doan, 1994). A student who may have much background knowledge to add to a problem-solving situation is respected for that knowledge; while another student working within that same group may have more developed social skills and can model fairness and sharing for classmates. Students recognize and support peer interaction, both teacher and student consider it to be a primary resource.

A variety of theoretical perspectives on peer learning can be drawn on to explain the potential power of the group learning context described above; social-motivational perspectives can be drawn on to explain why common interest groups are successful. Student choice is a key factor in supporting autonomous learning, and the opportunity to exercise choice is rewarding in and of itself. Piagetian theory (De Lisi & Golbeck, 1999) suggests that learning and conceptual development is more likely to occur in contexts where there is mutuality of power and influence, as is the case when students choose groups based on common interest. Because group members may differ in ability (even though linked by common interest), some students may provide scaffolding for other students. Vygotskian theory (Hogan & Tudge, 1999) can be drawn on to explain how differences in ability translate into learning. When one student helps another accomplish something he or she could not do without assistance (as is often the case in the multiage classroom), the more able student is operating in the other’s zone of proximal development. The kind of group that is explained by Vygotskian theory (i.e., students of different abilities) seems to require the antithesis of what might be expected from Piagetian theory (a group of equal peers). Within the multiage classroom, differences in ability do not have the salience that they have in single-grade classrooms. Students expect and accept differences, and such differences do not make students unequal. Thus, within this kind of classroom, Piagetian and Vygotskian theory do not necessarily result in different kinds of groups.

Student-led shared task groups

Deliberate use of Vygotskian principles related to the apprenticeship in a community of learning is evident in multiage classrooms. Small groups of four or five students are purposely set up by teachers to be heterogeneous with respect to ability, gender, and age. Projects are designed to capitalize on the heterogeneity of the group. The students participate in activities that require different abilities within the same task. In one multiage classroom, for example, at the end of a unit on fitness, the class planned a health fair. Each small, heterogeneous group was responsible for creating a booth highlighting one of the topics covered in the unit. Each group had to determine an activity someone could do when visiting the booth that would provide information about that topic. As an example, one group created a body fact quiz show. During the preparation of the booth, several abilities were required: A good reader was needed to hunt through nonfiction books for questions; someone with neat handwriting was needed to make the game cards; a good problem solver was needed to think of a way contestants could “buzz in”; and, finally, a member confident in addition skills was needed to keep score. The teachers use this type of grouping throughout the year to reinforce concepts from all areas of the curriculum.

The deliberate grouping of students with different abilities is a choice that can be made from various theoretical perspectives on peer learning. The cognitive/elaborative perspective (O’Donnell, 1999) suggests that students who rehearse their strength (e.g., addition skills) are provided with an opportunity to more deeply process their own understanding. The possibility that the more able students can model a skill and perhaps provide scaffolded support to a less-able student is what might be expected to happen from a Vygotskian perspective.


There are several occasions throughout each academic year when teachers choose dyads (“buddies”) for certain instructional and social opportunities. First, I will briefly describe teacher rationale for partnering students and some typical contexts. In the next section, I will explain a cooperative technique designed specifically for dyads.

A natural context for dyads occurs at the beginning of a school year in a multiage class. Half (or more) of the students in the class are returning “old-timers,” and the other half are “newcomers.” Specific activities are planned throughout the first few weeks of school to capitalize on the old-timers’ comfort and knowledge of the classroom. Examples of activities include brainstorming or semantic mapping of prior knowledge at the start of a new unit, letter writing to guests or actors from performances, and partner reading during literacy blocks.

Old-timers have a unique role to play in the multiage classroom. They are the peer links to the learning community, the experienced ones in classroom routines and in relationships with the teacher. Newcomers look to old-timers to induct them into the operations of their new learning community. The teacher-formed dyads of old-timers and newcomers form permanent “buddies,” which are often asked to work together for different shared-task activities not only at the start of classes but throughout the entire school year. Some of the relationships that form between buddies last well beyond their years in a multiage classroom.

Designing a Collaborative Context for Solving Word Problems

“The hallmark of collaboration is that thinking is distributed among members of the group. The group shares cognitive responsibility for the task at hand” (Palincsar & Herrenkohl, 1999, p. 257). Opportunities for learning when cognitive responsibility is shared explains the use of the collaborative context that two multiage teachers designed to help their students improve their skills solving math word problems. This particular multiage classroom houses 5- to 8-year-old students. It is team-taught and usually has approximately 45 students in any given academic year. State standards in math indicated that young students needed to learn to systematically solve word problems. In addition, students needed to learn the importance of showing their work–not simply writing an answer.

A team of teachers in the school district worked through the logical steps one goes through to solve a word problem and came up with the “Seven Steps to Solving Word Problems”:

1. Go back to the word problem’s question and ask yourself, what are they asking for?

2. Get rid of any extra data.

3. Look for and identify the key words.

4. Identify the essential numbers.

5. Think it through again; what are they asking for?

6. Solve using paper and pencil.

7. Ask yourself, does my answer make sense?

As the multiage classroom teachers brought the word problem strategy to their classroom, they knew they wanted to capitalize on their students’ diverse abilities and employ a collaborative, peer learning atmosphere when introducing it. They decided to introduce its use during a period of the day called “Choice Time.” It is during this time that students work both individually and in self-selected, shared-task small groups on activities focusing on math skills (e.g., computation and word-problem solving), and language skills (e.g., spelling and journal writing).

How the technique works

The peer learning theories discussed so far influenced many of the decisions teachers made in designing this technique. Likewise, the flexible grouping strategies these teachers employed, as described earlier, allowed them the opportunity to easily integrate this technique within the course of a typical school day. Collaborative work using the seven steps is done with a partner during a time of the day when the teacher’s role is one of facilitator or guide. It is done within a centers-type format so that as the partners finish a word problem, they are then self-directed to complete other pre-assigned tasks. This is necessary because the pairs of students working together will take varying amounts of time to complete the problem.

By the early primary grades, most math programs have introduced the beginning concepts needed for solving word problems, such as looking for key words in the problem that tell the reader which function is needed to get the answer. Ultimately, a teacher must work with students to build the math concepts needed before having them work through word problems using the seven-step collaborative method. Thus, in this situation, collaborative work follows a more teacher-led instructional sequence.

To begin, the teacher uses a whole-class meeting time to read and explain the seven steps and model thinking through the process. The first time the technique is introduced, the lesson will be mostly teacher-directed. As students get comfortable with the process, problem-solving time becomes more interactive. The next step is to assign each student a partner to work with over the course of six sessions of planned lessons using the seven steps to solve word problems. The teachers chose to have students work in pairs, knowing that the size of the group has an impact on the kind and quality of interactions that take place. Groups of four or fewer (in this case two) are more likely to give all participants a chance to contribute, ask, and explain (Webb & Palincsar, 1996).

Depending on the dynamics of the class, the teacher has either assigned partners or let the students self-select. A teacher needs to know the span of achievement levels within the classroom (Woolfolk Hoy & Tschannen-Moran, 1999); this may affect whether to let students self-select partners or have them assigned. Because in the initial introduction of the seven steps, the problems will not require complex computational skills, it is not necessary for groups to be heterogeneous for computational ability. Logical thinking and accurate reading are more important skills for the introductory lessons.

During the time that students are working together, the teacher monitors the progress of each group, asking relevant questions and guiding progress. The teacher should also be monitoring the partners for successful dyads. Woolfolk Hoy and Tschannen-Moran (1999) describe some of the possible problems that may occur within the groups when both students are not fully participating. The “free-rider effect” happens when one of the students is not doing his or her fair share of the work. The student is relying on the more motivated or more capable partner. Another possible scenario is cognitive “loafing,” which happens when students fail to challenge one another and sloppy thinking results. A final problem may result in a dyad when two students’ cognitive abilities are such that instead of correcting misconceptions, misunderstandings are reinforced.

Why use peer learning to solve word problems?

Peer learning to solve word problems supports both affective and cognitive development. Cooperative learning techniques may enhance motivation and encourage students to put more effort into their work and to persistently work through setbacks or difficulties–common pitfalls of learning to solve word problems (Kagan, 1994; Slavin, 1995). Cognitive approaches to peer learning are designed to provide opportunities for students to exchange questions and explanations in order to enhance learning of cognitive objectives–successful solving of word problems–or to enhance the quality of students’ thinking and problem solving about a particular subject (O’Donnell & O’Kelly, 1994). This specific context is that of learning to solve math word problems.

Much of the philosophy that defines multiage settings and instructional techniques comes from a cognitive-developmental perspective. Whenever multiage classroom teachers design lesson plans and strategies for learning new information or enriching and developing important core knowledge, they think of how students will work in small groups to achieve the objectives of the learning outcomes. Naturally, as these teachers thought of introducing the strategy for teaching their students to be more successful in solving word problems, their plan centered around a cooperative, peer learning technique.

According to Woolfolk Hoy & Tschannen-Moran (1999), the Piagetian cognitive-developmental perspective suggests that

as children engage in dialogue with others at different developmental

stages and attempt to explain and justify their point of view, they will

begin to move toward a higher level of development…. In the process of

resolving cognitive conflict, group members can develop new concepts and

structures of knowledge. (p. 445)

Requiring students to respond to all seven steps on paper allows student pairs to have more effective co-construction. By working through the seven steps with a partner, teachers are asking students to use all of the effective construction strategies outlined by Webb and Farivar (1999): summarizing or recalling information for other group members, responding to peers’ critical thinking questions, and responding to specific prompts to give elaborated explanations. Also, by asking the partners to come to an agreement on a step before moving on to the next one, teachers are requiring partners to share cognitive responsibility for the task.


Teaching in a multiage classroom involves planning for instruction that often takes place within the structure of collaborative peer learning contexts. As described above, instruction that capitalizes on the different ages and abilities that exist in the mixed-age environment is inherent in the multiage philosophy. The flexible grouping strategies utilized by multiage classroom teachers allow opportunities for students to form small groups based on common interests and shared tasks. Peer learning takes place in structured, purposely planned instruction, as well as in less-structured situations that occur in the classroom every day as students are flexibly grouped for instruction.

Various theoretical perspectives on peer learning explain the potential social and academic benefits for students when teachers understand these perspectives. A multiage classroom is an ideal environment for capitalizing on peer learning opportunities; in fact, a hallmark of multiage classrooms is their collaborative environments.

The decisions the teachers made as they planned the peer learning technique involving the “Seven Steps to Solving Word Problems” illustrates how theories are put into practice. Recounting the thought processes and theories that shaped collaborative learning opportunities demonstrates theoretical support for these classroom decisions.

Table 1

Flexible Grouping for Instruction

Types of Groupings Primary Uses

Whole-class Community-building, planning,

meetings introducing new concepts or

skills, reading/writing/thinking

strategies, closure

Teacher-led Common need, guided practice,

small groups task-focused help, sharing reading,

and writing assessment

Student-led Supported practice, shared tasks,

small groups collaborative responses, common

interest, sharing reading

and writing

Partners (dyads) Supported practice, mentoring,

tutoring, shared tasks

Individual One-on-one instruction, individual

assessment, independent

practice, individual response

Source: Chapman (1995).


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Webb, N.M., & Farivar, S. (1999). Developing productive group interaction in middle school mathematics. In A.M. O’Donnell & A. King (Eds.), Cognitive perspectives on peer learning (pp. 117-149). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Woolfolk Hoy, A., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (1999). Implications of cognitive approaches to peer learning for teacher education. In A.M. O’Donnell & A. King (Eds.), Cognitive perspectives on peer learning (pp. 257-284). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Jo Hoffman is an assistant professor of education at Kean University, New Jersey.

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