Nasir Baba is a Faculty member with Usmanu Danfodiyo University and a fellow of the African Humanities Programme (AHP), ACLS.
Schools in rural areas are often characterised by absenteeism, irregular attendance, frequent cases of dropout, or outright refusal of parents to enrol their children. Schools may also be distant from homes. This leaves many rural schools sparsely populated. Even when they have large enrollments, these schools may lack the basic resources to support meaningful learning. Scenarios like these make it difficult for available resources to be utilized optimally. It is either that the resources are under-utilized or over-stretched in ways that limit learning effectiveness. Schools in these situations may require instructional approaches that deviate from the normal to ensure that learners enrolled are not excluded from the benefits of education. This essay explores multi-grade teaching as an approach that has the potential of increasing the access of children in rural or resource-lean schools to meaningful learning.
Meaning of Multi-Grade Teaching
The teaching arrangement we are most familiar with is one in which a teacher teaches one class at a time in the same place. This is mono-grade teaching. The less common practice within the formal school set up is one in which one teacher teaches more than one class (grade) at the same time in the same place. This is multi-grade teaching.
This definition describes the basic structure of a multi-grade teaching arrangement. However, there are variations in its specific applications in different contexts. For instance, the arrangement may be one teacher teaching two or more classes in their separate rooms, or in the same room partitioned into two places. The practice also goes by several other names such as “multi-level”, “multi-class”, “composite class”, “vertical group” or, in the case of one-teacher school, “unitary school”. It should be distinguished from “mixed-ability grouping” which is often a response to substantial differences in the abilities of learners within the same grade. It is also different from “multi-age within-grade” teaching which happens when there are remarkable differences in the age of pupils within the same age grade, as is the case in some African countries where the age of entry varies and the practice of grade repetition is common.
Multi-grade teaching is not a new phenomenon in many African societies. For instance, Muslim societies that have long traditions of religious education in the form of Qur'anic schools, have these schools ungraded. Learners of different age, abilities and levels of attainment are taught by one teacher (sometimes with some teaching assistants) in the same learning space. Similarly, in some rural public schools, teachers do combine classes due to a shortage of teachers or classrooms. Even in North America and Europe, the earliest state-supported schools were ungraded. The school was simply a single room in which one teacher taught basic literacy and numeracy to children aged six to fifteen. Therefore multi-grade teaching is an old practice that is gaining renewed attention.
Multi-grade teaching is not a new phenomenon in many African societies. For instance, Muslim societies that have long traditions of religious education in the form of Qur'anic schools, have these schools ungraded. Learners of different age, abilities and levels of attainment are taught by one teacher (sometimes with some teaching assistants) in the same learning space.
The Rationale for Multi-Grade Teaching
Multi-Grade teaching can be a response to certain educational problems afflicting largely poor and rural communities. These are problems that the regular monograde teaching arrangement cannot adequately provide for or solve. The multi-grade teaching provided in response to these problems is called the ‘necessity model’. However, multi-grade teaching can also be adopted as a deliberate policy of responding to the needs of individual students by grouping them together irrespective of their age or grade where this is thought to be beneficial to their educational stimulation and success. This may not be responding to any peculiar problems but may be used as an intervention to provide students with some additional beneficial experiences. This model of multi-grade teaching is called the ‘design model’.
However, in most of Africa and indeed other developing countries, the adoption of multi-grade teaching is often more out of necessity than choice. There are peculiar characteristics and problems that rural schools, in particular, possess which make the adoption of multi-grade teaching imperative. These peculiarities include sparse population density, low pupil enrolment, teacher scarcity, and resource-lean learning environments.
Given the circumstances described above, it is generally thought that multi-grade teaching has the potentials for substantial improvements in school learning because of these reasons:
- Since multi-grade teaching situations are flexible and can be established cheaper than regular schools, many of such settings can be replicated and located closer to the settlements where the children live. This may increase access to education.
- Multi-grade schooling is often the only option that small and rural communities have of educating their children. When communities only have mono-grade schools, requests they make for adequate staffing can only be justified to the educational authorities by evidence of regular school attendance of a significant number of learners. Since they often fail short of this requirement, such schools attract scant allocation of teachers or none at all. In situations like these, multi-grade teaching assures more efficient use of scarce teachers.
- Multi-grade schools, being smaller and more dispersed, would enjoy closer links with the small communities that they serve. This could have a positive effect on local attitudes to formal schooling and increase access to education among hard-to-reach communities.
Multi-grade teaching can be a response to certain educational problems afflicting largely poor and rural communities; problems that the present structures of the monograde teaching cannot adequately provide for or solve. The multi-grade teaching provided in response to these problems is called the ‘necessity model’.
Issues in the Management of Multi-grade Teaching
The decision to adopt multi-grade teaching in any setting must be based on a systematic analysis of the use-setting. This is because multi-grade teaching requires a fundamental shift in orientation about teaching, learning, and the roles of a teacher. This shift is necessary because the mono-grade school culture has become so dominant in the thinking of teachers, school administrators, policy planners and scholars. However, the circumstances warranting the use of multi-grade teaching are often quite different from and more demanding than the familiar contexts of the mono-schooling culture. Hence, charting a framework for the use of multi-grade teaching requires some attention to these details:
a. The Curriculum
The curriculum model for multi-grade teaching should emphasise two important elements: flexibility and integration. Flexibility means allowing for variations in curriculum content, its organisation and timing to reflect diversity in learner characteristics and other situational factors. In this curriculum, prescriptions of what learners must attain at a certain level or what teachers must do are kept to the barest minimum. Within this context, the boundary between the formal curriculum and the hidden curriculum is broken as learners acquire all meaningful learning possible from all the available sources.
Integration is the second element of a multi-grade and it occurs at four levels:
- Integration of pupils from different classes and competencies;
- Integration of subjects across the curriculum: science & mathematics, all the social sciences, and languages.
- The designers of the curriculum should form one integrated community of stakeholders: teachers, administrators, policymakers, scholars, parents, community members and possibly students.
- Teachers should be prepared to work with students, local professionals in the community, and teaching assistants as one integrated group responsible for implementing the curriculum.
b. The Teacher
One of the major challenges of planning and implementing multi-grade teaching is the teacher factor. As earlier observed, some teachers are compelled by circumstances to manage two or more classes at once with little or no training. Considering the multifarious roles that a teacher has to play in multi-grade schools, special attention must be devoted to their training and re-training. The training needs may revolve around these areas:
- How to identify themes and topics within a curriculum that was designed for mono-schools: teachers have to learn to carefully select and modify learning materials to suit the type of learners they have.
- How to select, design and develop resource materials that can be used independently by different grades and different groups within a grade. The bottom line is to make learners self-directed.
- How to organize and group pupils for instructional purposes; grouping becomes inevitable in the pedagogy of multi-grade classes.
- How to organize and make flexible use of classroom space i.e. in order to accommodate the different classes who are to use the available space.
- How to manage available time effectively to accommodate parallel tasks as the teacher handles multiple classes.
- How to relate well with the community and mobilize community resources for enhancing effective teaching and learning.
- How to monitor and assess the learning achievements of every pupil in a multi-grade classroom.
The training given to multi-grade teachers must emphasise the paradigm shift of the recognition and respect for the diversity that exists among learners.
c. Instructional Strategies and Methods
Strategies and methods used in multi-grade teaching must facilitate independent or self-directed learning among learners. Teaching will therefore not be based on the broadcast or transmission model. Learner-centredness, collaboration and support are the pillars of whatever instructional strategies or methods the teacher must use.
Grouping including the use of team and peer teaching is central to the successful implementation of multi-grade teaching. Because teaching and learning take place in the same room, each grade or class is essentially a group for instructional purposes. To facilitate learner involvement, each grade must be broken into working groups based on ability, interest, sex, or any relevant consideration.
Grouping including the use of team and peer teaching is central to the successful implementation of multi-grade teaching. Because teaching and learning take place in the same room, each grade or class is essentially a group for instructional purposes.
Multi-Grade teaching is a response to the crises that many rural schools experience which often result in low demand for education and poor learning outcomes. However, for multi-grade teaching to be effective, teachers must de-emphasize the teacher-led strategies that have become dominant in mono-grade classes. The strategies used in multi-grade classes must provide more opportunities for learner involvement. Areas that need special attention if multi-grade teaching is to be effective have also been highlighted. They include a movement towards a more decentralised and flexible curriculum, intensified teacher training and motivation.
Birk, I. & Lally, M. (1995)/ Multi-Grade teaching in primary schools. Bangkok: UNESCO Principal Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
Guskey, T. R., & Lindle, J. C. (1997). Research on Multi-Age/Multi-Grade Classes: Report to the Teaching and Learning Issues Group. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED420915
Juvane, V. (2005). Redefining the role of multi-grade teaching. A paper presented at a ministerial seminar on Education for Rural People in Africa: policy options, lessons and priorities, at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 7th – 9th September.
Little, A., & No, S. (1995). Multi-grade teaching-A review of research and practice-Education Research Paper No. 12. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED459042
© 2021 Nasir Baba