Friday, 18 October 2013

Composite Classes...Yay or Nay?

Our current mainstream education system groups children based roughly on age and year level (with year level being a - usually- pretty arbitrary measurements of how long a child has been enrolled in formal education) rather than any real reflection of development or ability. We know that children develop (physically, emotionally and intellectually) in their own ways and other than some broadly reliable generalisations (boys develop gross motor skills faster than girls, while girls grasp fine motor co-ordination) at their own pace. If we follow this point to its logical conclusion: all age based groupings comprise a broad range of development and abilities. So, if we accept this as true and hold each individual child's development at the heart of our profession the debate about composite classes confounds me.

Whether I'm still too new to the teaching game to know any better, too idealistic to see, or simply too enthusiastic to care, I really like teaching composite classes. (I like them as a parent too. Scoff away, I actually do. They've been great for my kids.) Whether the reading age range is 6 - 13 in a year 3 class or  6 - 15 in a year 3/4 class, the challenge of meeting needs across a broad spectrum already exists.

Sure, the challenges that arise in delivering a mandated curriculum with year level specific outcomes are interesting but not insurmountable.Often, at least here in Australia, the curriculum demands development of big ideas and concepts rather than specific content. And when specific content is described, there are always ways to combine; extend; offer smaller groupings or independent learning activities. These are the good challenges of being a teacher! (They certainly beat the challenge of sending home children to homes where they're neglected or worse.) These challenges offer us the chance to be creative and make connections between learning areas and topics. These challenges allow us to step up and create amazing learning opportunities. These challenges allow our communities to see us as committed, passionate professionals.

Working together in a 5/6 class
Conversely, the range of development in a composite class offers a plethora of opportunities: scaffolding lower achieving students through working with higher performing students; extending higher achieving students through peer demonstration and tutoring; a broader variety of social groupings; peer mentoring and coaching; leadership opportunities; the possibility for broader diversity in ability groupings for instruction; necessary differentiation leading to more highly individualised leaerning plans... The list is practically endless.  Composite classes reflect reality; very few other situations in our society group people based solely on age because it's not an overly useful distinction to make. We aim to prepare our students for life after schooling; composite class structures offer another tool to do so.

So why the debate? And why the defensiveness that schools show in choosing composite class structures?  Yesterday I read an email from a local school about the class placement process for next year that included a very defensive (and almost hostile) announcement of an ongoing composite class structure. It made me sad to see that the school has such a negative attitude about next year's class structure because it has to include composite classes. Isn't it time for schools to embrace this concept and make the most of the opportunities on offer?


  1. I'm with you! In fact why can't I have the opportunity to teach composite classes at secondary level? I can already see the potential groupings in my mind, now just to sell it to the powers that be.

    1. I understand the pragmatic reasons for age based year levels, but just because something is practical doesn't make it the best choice. I think developmental or ability based groupings would be fantastic for ALL educational settings. :)