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Teachers Rocking Multi-Age Learning and Peer Feedback in Glenorchy, New Zealand

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

By Marilyn Taft

In Glenorchy, a quiet village nestled against a backdrop of towering snow-capped mountains in southern New Zealand, teachers are engaged by necessity in something we know works beautifully in educating children: multi-age learning. Students are clustered by grade level in two brightly configured classrooms: K-3 and 4-8. Surrounding fields are a wonderful playground, with a jungle gym, tractor, garden, animal hutches, and a small forest complete with a tree house built by and for the older students around the edges. The students are a varied group, willing and able to converse easily with adults and classmates. Their aspirations include becoming artists, writing novels, joining the national rugby team, making the equestrian team for the Olympics, farming, mountain climbing, and teaching.

Multi-age classrooms empower students to learn on multiple levels at their own pace. Because the focus is on individual progress, it normalizes the diversity of all learning stages. The teachers at Glenorchy school plan most activities on a continuum, providing an opportunity for students to participate at their level; these activities range from a science lesson studying the planets, an art lesson focused on one international artist, and a social studies lesson on important historical celebrations. The products students produce vary, but the general learning focus is the same. This allows students to view themselves as progressive learners and inspires cooperation rather than competition.

Students have an opportunity to mentor each other in a multi-age classroom in varied ways and the mentors and mentees change based on the activity. Glenorchy students have a variety of teachers: classroom teachers, community volunteers, peers, and older students. I watched one young student pause her on-line math activity to help a younger student with a language arts assignment. In another instance, three students worked together on one math task, “The three of us are all eight, we’re the only ones in third grade, and we’re best friends,” they said as they laughed. What was compelling is that among the three, two were helping one who needed a bit of a boost to master the material. At recess, the student who needed math help was teaching soccer kicks to the other two. In listening to their conversation, I suspected that in a more typical 30-student classroom, they might not have chosen each other as friends—that’s how diverse they were. But in this multi-age classroom, their diversity knit them together and made them stronger.

Teaching in multi-age classrooms can be challenging for regular classroom teachers who are used to tailoring one lesson to specific standards with accommodations for students above and below grade level. The Glenorchy teachers are highly skilled in their ability to focus on big ideas and differentiate by multiple learning levels, using the help of the older students as mentors to bridge gaps. The extended years a student spends with one teacher in a multi-age classroom is a huge advantage because teachers know the students well and understand exactly how to differentiate instruction for them to help them reach their potential.

Thinking about our brief time at Glenorchy School has again filled me with the same sense of wonder and acceptance for all I felt the moment I walked through the doors. It is a community in the best sense of the word. Glenorchy School truly provides a “gateway to lifelong learning” for all of its students.

Marilyn Taft is currently a visiting professor at Weber State University. Prior to that she was an elementary school teacher for 2 decades. She has attended several GEA programs, including Nordics, Southeast Asia, Puerto Rico and most recently, South Pacific.

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