Multigrade an answer to education for all

Yet, as Article 4 of the Declaration stresses, enrolment and continued attendance are not enough in themselves. Actual learning acquisition and outcomes are the focus of basic education.

Article 7 of the World Declaration on Education for All stresses the importance of strengthening partnerships and Article 8 describes as essential the development of a supportive policy context, in order to realize the full provision and utilization of basic education. In many systems of education, where monograde classes are the norm, the multigrade classroom and the needs of the multigrade teacher are often unrecognized in national and international policy, in teacher education curricula, in curriculum or assessment studies of curricula and in education information networks. 'Basic education must be provided equitably so that all children …can attain a necessary level of learning achievement. An active commitment must be made to disadvantaged populations, for whom basic education is a means of reducing social, cultural and economic disparities.' Article VIII World Charter on Education for All

Multigrade teaching may be defined as the teaching by one teacher, of children working in several grades or age groups. In rural areas of the developing world, one teacher is put in charge of two or more grades' of children usually because of a scarcity of pupils, teachers and/or resources.

Ten years ago, participants of the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand, recognised, among other realities, that more than 100 million children had no access to primary education, that more than 100 million children failed to complete basic education programmes and that millions more satisfied the attendance requirements but did not acquire essential knowledge and skills during programmes.

One response to this situation has been an increased interest in and emphasis on multigrade teaching, as a means to increasing universal access to education, to decreasing drop-out rates and to focusing on learning acquisition and learning outcomes rather than just enrolment.


How multigrade teaching may contribute to education for all


The Declaration on Education for All (Article 3) states that basic education should be provided to all children and that underserved groups, such as rural and remote populations, should not suffer any discrimination in access to learning opportunities. The multigrade teaching research project aims to promote multigrade teaching, influence policy and depict multigrade teaching as a viable or indeed desirable alternative to monograde (or single year-group) teaching. If these messages are heard, children in rural and remote populations may experience improved access to a complete basic education. This might not be possible if policy or tradition dictated that one teacher were required per grade in order for any school to be established. In Vietnam, multigrade schools have been set up specifically with the aim of increasing access in village areas. The same is true in other countries, including the Philippines. For example, in one Filipino village, fifth and sixth grade children had to travel a few kilometers to monograde 5th and 6th grade classes in nearby villages, because their own village school only had classes for grades 1 to 4. Many therefore dropped out. By converting their own village school to a multigrade, complete grade 1-6 school with four teachers, the village children had a far greater incentive to complete their elementary education.


Bringing the School to the Child: Multigrade schools in Vietnam


Current multigrade classroom practice: Multigrade teachers are trained to give different lessons at the same time to pupils at different grade-levels. Children sit in grade-groups facing their own blackboard and if there are two grade-groups in the class the blackboards are placed at either end of the classroom with children facing opposite directions. During lessons the teacher moves frequently between the different groups. In the first lesson the teacher set grade 2 children to read aloud from their text book and gave dictation to grade 3. In the second lesson the teacher instructed grade 2's monitor to copy the previous day's maths homework onto their blackboard and told grade 3 to copy the handwriting exercises from their blackboard onto their slates. Class sizes are small, usually not more than 20 children. In some schools a teacher is giving different lessons at the same time to five different grade levels. In remote communities the quality of teaching suffered because teachers are isolated from the mainstream of education. Teachers in satellite-schools lacked the support to make creative use of the resources at hand. They rarely receive support visits and could not meet regularly with teachers from other schools.  The quality of learning also suffers because many communities are too poor to make the best use of the education provided. Poor attendance and high drop-out rates, especially for girls, reflect the need for families to use child labor on their farms. In many areas high levels of iron and iodine deficiency impairs the ability to learn and lowers achievement in school.

Strategies for enhancing the quality of multigrade teaching in remote areas:

Ending the isolation of teachers and 'bringing multigrade schools in from the cold'. One strategy is to organise more practical in-service training at centre-school level and to help teachers recognise the potential teaching resources existing around them. Remote schools should be provided with resource boxes for making teaching aids and a small library with picture books, comics, newspapers and children's games. This library would circulate between satellite schools. On-going teacher development would encourage teachers to become active learners, problem solvers, experimenters and innovators. In-service training would also help teachers both to exploit the so-called '15% window' in the curriculum for teaching local history, culture and traditions and to involve parents. Another strategy is to train multigrade teachers in health promotion, agriculture and microfinance. This would help to break the vicious cycle of low educational achievement, poor health and poverty and meet the perceived needs of the parents and children. The short three-hour school day leaves time for teachers to engage in these wider development activities.

Other strategies ... in the classroom


Method: The teacher writes instructions for things that the children must do on a set of cards. The children read the card and do the work. When they have finished the teacher marks their work and gives them another card to do. The children work through the cards, often alone, sometimes in pairs or perhaps in small groups. By writing different sets of cards for each grade -children can be given an appropriate card for the age group they are in.

Problems: This takes a long time to set up as the teacher has to write everything that every child will need to do during each day, each week and each term for the year. But once this has been done teaching is relatively easy -just sit back and hand out the cards. The WORKBOOK model is even easier. Just hand out the workbooks that have been written for the grades in the class -ask the children to turn to which ever page they were working on last and carry on from there. This sounds very simple -so where is the problem? It is at this point that we must consider what the job of a teacher is. And I would answer that question by saying that a teacher's job is to teach! The biggest problem with the workbook or work card model is that it gives very little opportunity for actual teaching. The teacher becomes a manager dealing with simple, low-Ievel administrative problems such as finding the next card. The children must attempt to teach themselves. They read the instructions on the card or in the book and complete the exercises. If they do not understand, they go and ask. Queues form around the teacher who has only a few seconds for each child to give a word of advice here and there. And each child comes with a different card and a different problem, so there is no continuity of teaching or opportunity to expand on explanation for the benefit of a wider audience. The only time that a teacher knows that a child has a real problem is when they come with finished work that is all wrong. This is the worst form of teaching, where children are exposed continuously to failure. Where is the enthusiasm to get involved with work? The children must try to motivate themselves; working at their own pace -or perhaps not working at all, the actual contact time with their teacher may be reduced to a few seconds a day. There is a considerable body of opinion to suggest that the most effective teaching comes from frequent, direct interaction with children.


Method: Where there are two or more different grades in the teacher plans the day as a series of lessons for each grade, plus a series of holding activities. While the teacher is teaching one grade, the other children are given something to get on with that will not need the teacher's direct involvement. This is called a holding activity -some simple but usually enjoyable task to keep them busy, to keep them quiet and occupied until it is their turn for a lesson with their teacher. For example, while the teacher is working with one grade on mathematics, children from another grade may be sketching or painting a picture, or perhaps engaging in paired reading or some similar activity. When the maths lesson is over, the two groups change places. The maths group works on some holding activities while the others have their maths lesson, or whatever. In this way, for at least half of every day each child benefits from direct interaction with their teacher on high level and demanding learning tasks. Half a day is far better than none.

Problems: Problems can arise with the group on the holding activity. Unless it is particularly simple, children will inevitably want some help or guidance from their teacher. There is also the problem of supervision. Should the group remain in the classroom, where they may be distracted by the lesson going where they may distract the children working with the teacher? If they are sent to work outside who looks after them and makes sure that no one comes to any harm or gets in to any kind of mischief? One possible solution is to use a classroom assistant. In some countries it is possible to employ assistants. These are not teachers but they are responsible adults with an interest in education whose job is to work with the teacher by supervising groups working on other activities, while the teacher is working directly with another group of children, In some schools this is done by using unpaid adult volunteers -often a willing parent of one of the children in the class. They play a very important role but it is important to remember that these volunteers are not teachers. With the holding activity system the teacher maintains total control over the content of all the activities and lessons. The assistant is only there to help support the teacher, not take their place.


This is exactly as it sounds. The teacher begins by teaching the first pupils, then, while they are busy on some related activity, the teacher begins work with the second group. Usually the lessons are from the same subject, such as language teaching, science or mathematics, but this is not essential. For example, the teacher introduces a new mathematics concept to children from one grade. Perhaps it Is measurement, using a ruler. Once the children have understood how to use their rulers to measure various objects. While they are busy doing this, the teacher can turn his or her attention to the children in the second grade and work on a different maths concept with them - for example addition with carrying. The teacher can then set some exercises for the second group to complete while he or she goes back to the first group and discusses with them what they have done. (The use of workbooks or work cards to support the direct teaching is quite appropriate in this context). While the group writes up their findings following discussion of work completed, the teacher goes back to group two to check on their progress on the written examples for addition. Both groups benefit from direct teaching and both have an opportunity to their new found knowledge in some practical way, with time at the end to discuss and consolidate what they have done. This requires good lesson planning and preparation, but has been shown to be a successful model in practice. And it is a model that can also benefit from the use of a classroom assistant or volunteer to oversee the work of each group during the practical activity or work stage. There is a further adaptation of this model, which requires very skilful lesson planning and careful adaptation of the syllabus for each grade in the subject being taught. The idea is to teach the same concept to all the children- but teach it at different levels simultaneously.


Let us consider a typical lesson plan. The lesson begins with a few minutes revision of previous work or some mental maths work to get the children thinking about and using the concepts and skills they will need for the lesson itself. The teacher then explains the aim of the lesson and introduces the work through direct teaching, discussing the mathematics involved, using appropriate examples and involving the children through questions and answers. The lesson proceeds to a practical session where the children get to use concepts for themselves. This can be through worked examples, or some form of practical investigation or even a game for groups to play. The teacher uses this time to visit individuals and groups to check on their progress, assess their understanding and provide support for slower learners or extension activities and challenges for those who are faster learners. The lesson ends with some form of consolidation where children can show and discuss what they have been doing to reinforce the concepts in children's minds and celebrate individual achievement. A teacher who is extremely well prepared and knowledgeable on his or her subject matter can organise such a lesson to meet every child's needs in a multi-grade class, at a level appropriate to each child's age and stage of learning. For example, the few minutes of revision and practice at the start can be sufficiently broad in scope to encompass the levels of understanding of all the pupils. The teacher can direct harder and more demanding questions at older or more able pupils, and ask less demanding and more supportive questions of slower learners and pupils with lower levels of knowledge and understanding. In this way every child can enjoy success in answering questions at their level and make some contribution to the start of the lesson. The lesson itself can begin with a common introduction. For example, the lesson may be about using notes and coins in simple transactions. The teacher can describe a shopping trip and show some items that have been bought- a bag full of boxes and packets would make a good visual stimulus. He or she can give the cost of each item and ask various individuals or groups in the class to say what combinations of coins and notes could be given for that amount of money. By varying the costs and directing the questions to appropriate groups all children can be fully involved. The teacher can then introduce some games or activities or practical problems and investigations, based on the giving and receiving of correct sums of money. For example, children may be using coins at grade 2 and coins and notes at grade 3, or whatever is appropriate as determined by the school curriculum. While the groups are occupied on their tasks, the teacher can visit the groups and discuss the work with the children, supporting and extending as described previously. Such a model of teaching can, and perhaps should, be adopted by every teacher as it is a means by which children of very different levels of ability and understanding, even within just one grade, can be successfully taught at a level that is appropriate to their individual need. This multi-level technique that is equally applicable to a multi-grade situation. The problem with this approach in terms of multi-grade teaching is that many syllabi are written grade by grade, rather than concept by concept. Many schemes are not written with the multi-grade teacher in mind and fail to give appropriate progression of concepts in a way that is easy to follow. If such a model is to be proposed to teachers then there must be great flexibility in the way in which teachers are required to teach programmes of study exploit progression of concepts. The aim of this brief paper is not to cover every possible model of multi-grade teaching but to raise issues that need to be addressed if multi-grade teaching is to be tackled successfully. For example, some models are very demanding in terms of preparation time. Can this be done for teachers by working parties who write suggested lesson plans to aid multi-grade teaching? Should curriculum developers and policy makers ensure that the needs of multi- grade teachers are met in full by the production of appropriate curricula that acknowledge the needs of pupils and teachers in multi-grade classes? Is there some mechanism by which schools that are required to adopt multi-grade teaching can be given an additional allowance to recruit classroom assistants? Can class sizes be guaranteed to be at the recommended level? It is certainly extremely difficult to tackle the problem of multi-grade teaching with classes larger than say 30 to 35 pupils. If multi-grade teaching becomes a requirement of teachers in any system, It Is reasonable for teachers to expect that the system will provide all possible support and training. Something that is sadly frequently lacking. The matters outlined here do need to be addressed, and solutions to the questions raised will need to be found if children are to benefit from the quality of learning experience that they rightly deserve. And that is the bottom line. Those who are in the business of education are there for one reason only -and that is to ensure that every child receives an education of the highest possible standard, regardless of gender, religion or social position. And regardless of the fact that they are probably one of the millions of children world-wide who live in poor, rural communities where multi-grade teaching is necessary because of a lack of teaching staff.