A school, like any other institution, is a complex amalgam of intentions, processes, practices and of course, people. How does a school forge a vision that stays relevant in the face of societal changes? Can the steps taken in a chosen direction be taken together? Are apprehensions and differences just obstacles or are they valuable pointers to important concerns that need to be addressed? Can both attention to detail and long term vision go hand in hand? Can we learn from the experiences of other institutions and individuals or must we reinvent the wheel every time? These have been real and vital questions in taking decisions, both big and small, in our journey into restructuring the junior school at The School, Chennai.

This essay attempts to delineate our journey into a learning structure involving Mixed Age Grouping (MAG) in the junior school.

Structures in a School

Krishnamurti has pointed out that the mind often seeks escape and change through modifying outer realities. We try to solve problems by changing external systems, structures or beliefs. However, inner realities and conflicts remain unaddressed. Hence the question arises, ¡°What is the place of structures in a Kschool?¡± Is there any necessity to examine the ways in which time, space, processes and classrooms are structured? Can any one structure be substituted by any other? Several years ago, a thought-provoking article by John Gatto, an American teacher was circulated among our teachers. He had in the course of his career unravelled several of the unintended messages that school structures convey. For example, 'Learn not to invest too much in what you like because you have to be ready to drop it at the end of 40 minutes!'

This sparked off a shared questioning of the structures we take for granted. We began to look more closely and soon discovered that our school, in the way it was structured, seemed to convey and reinforce many attitudes that were contrary to our intentions as we saw them. In staff meetings over the last several years, we often spoke about the day to day processes and dilemmas we encounter in the classroom. Here are some of the issues discussed.

  • The Teacher as the Centre: In the teaching-learning process, the teacher, most often, is at the centre of the classroom. All eyes and ears are expected to be directed towards the teacher and the blackboard. It becomes the teacher's job not only to initiate the activity in every class but also to keep the class going on a moment-to-moment basis. The student's role can easily become passive. There seems little space for the student to take charge of his or her own learning. The teacher often feels, as one of my colleagues put it, like a steam engine, huffing and puffing to pull the carriages along! At our school, we had been attempting several methodologies in the classroom: project-based work, working in small groups, emphasizing speaking and listening among the students themselves etc. However, some questions remained. Was it possible to create a design that would put the student's learning at the centre of the classroom process, where the emphasis would shift from what the teacher was teaching to that of what the student was learning? Was it possible to create a context where children could also do work based on their own initiative? Could there be a design that freed the teacher from being the centre of attention, so that he or she could focus more on observing the student and his or her learning process? Was it possible to see students as resource people, learning from one another?
  • The Myth of the Average Student Student: Students differ in ability, grasping power, speed and learning style. Teachers often address themselves to a mythical 'average' student. Several students who are below this average may struggle with work which they are not ready to do. Those who are above this average may finish their work in a very short time, feel bored and inadequately challenged. 'Slow learners' often accumulate huge backlogs which they somehow try to cope with, but often do not. The usual remedy for this in progressive schools is pulling the child out of the regular class into a remedial situation. This to us seemed an unsatisfactory solution which held connotations of failure and inadequacy. Further it is clear that people do not learn in steadily progressive installments. There are times when there is a quantum leap in understanding or ability. We also hit plateaus of difficulty or disinterest. All this is not taken into account in the way we teach or in what we expect of our students.
In response to these perceptions, we did two things. We began exploring the creation of work materials that would pose a challenge that various children could meet at their own individual levels and in their own particular style. We also began to ask whether we could create a classroom where there was legitimate space for each child to work at his or her own individual pace.
  • The Burden of Incomprehension: The Yashpal Committee Report spoke of the 'burden of incomprehension' in students' minds being greater than the weight of the books they carried on their backs. It emphasized that 'a few things learnt well is better than many things learnt badly'. It was clear that a child could proceed to learn only from the place where she was, and not from where she ought to be. Was it possible to allow the child to learn at her own pace, learning few things well rather than many things badly?
  • Conformity and Competition: One of the constant struggles in a school situation, especially in the junior section, is that of maintaining order without threatening, punishing, cajoling or rewarding children. Whatever is going on inside young children is constantly being played out vocally and physically in the class situation. There is tremendous pressure in the class to subscribe to the dominant fashions and norms of behaviour. Deviation from the norm is often met with merciless teasing or exclusion. We noticed that even by class 3, boys and girls get polarized into distinct sets.

Same age group classes also breed intense competition. All children do not learn to crawl or walk at the same age, they don't begin talking at the same age. Yet children at school are all expected to be at the same academic level, and that too on a daily basis. Parents are anxious about their children keeping up with their peers. Children who learn fast become confident, while slow learners often get disheartened, compare themselves with others and feel small. While these issues have been addressed in K schools through conversation and class discussions, the very act of placing children of the same age into one learning context seems to sustain and reinforce this expectation of identical ability.

Schools are virtually the only places where people are segregated on the basis of age. Groups of children playing together in a neighbourhood, or learning music or dance, are often of different ages. So why is it that we feel that Maths or English must only be learnt in the same age group? Younger children often learn from watching older ones. Older children can actively teach the younger ones, often with greater patience than adults do. There develops tolerance for varied ability as one gets to expect this in a mixed age group. There is no norm to conform to.

With these questions and insights in mind, we began to experiment with contexts where 'non-directed multidimensional learning could take place under the watchful eye of an adult'. In 1995 we set up a Junior Resource Centre where children came in mixed age groups and picked up whatever interested them. By 1997 activities like clay work, art, craft, music and games were already organized in mixed age groups.

The Pilot Programme 1997-98

During the academic year 1997-98 we were ready to attempt a pilot project in subject learning for a Mixed Age Group (MAG). Kamala Anilkumar, who had experience in a Montessori School, took the lead in anchoring this programme. A four year age range seemed appropriate, i.e. from class 1 to 4. We did not want more than 5-6 children from any one age group since similar peer group dynamics would again take over. It was decided that the pilot class students would join their peers in a Same Age Group (SAG) setting for the second language sessions. And of course other activities would continue for the whole junior school in the MAG modality.

A crucial piece of preparatory work was done over the summer. The teachers who had worked in junior school met along with others to evolve clearly graded, detailed learning objectives in English and Mathematics. Some wider learning objectives were also articulated, and some general criteria evolved for the creation of learning material.

Key insights that emerged that summer were:

  • Children at all levels must be allowed to face unfamiliar challenging situations that call for resourcefulness.
  • The work material and tasks must be designed so that there is a part accessible to all, a part meant to be graded and some of it so challenging that none of the children find it easy to attempt.
  • The learning context must always cover a wide and complex area, allowing for a variety of unplanned learning. The specific skill/concept to be evaluated should be just a small part of the entire learning context.

The pilot project was confined to those children whose parents had volunteered to try it out after a meeting with the head and the junior school teachers. The response was very encouraging. The year 1998–1999 began with 19 children as part of the MAG pilot programme.

In her regular briefing to the rest of the staff, Kamala reported that there was a tremendous degree of learning from each other in the MAG class. Boys and girls seemed much easier with each other. There were several friendships between children of different ages. Older children often took active charge of younger ones. There seemed to exist a friendly, cooperative and learning atmosphere by and large.

Feedback from parents was also very encouraging. Many remarked on the absence of competition and peer pressure, and the creation of an active learning atmosphere. One question that emerged in the pilot programme was that while the younger children were benefitting enormously, was there in it adequate challenge for the older ones?

By January 1999, it became clear to us that the psychological health fostered by these mixed age groups was immense and that there was nothing we could not do in a MAG that we could in a SAG structure. We began to seriously consider a MAG structure for the whole of the junior school in the academic year 1999–2000. It was very clear that we needed a planned approach to the transition.

Planning for the Transition 1998–99

The plan addressed six areas.

  • Building the basic material (workcards and worksheets) for use by individual students: To this end we first began by compiling all the material we already had in English, Mathematics and Environmental Studies. The compiled material was sorted out into areas, graded and checked for comprehensiveness.
  • Gaining an understanding of the areas that could not be addressed through worksheets and workcards, areas for which we might need a SAG configuration.
  • Attending to the physical design of the classroom space. What academic and non-academic materials (such as dotted paper, board games etc.) would the classroom need to stock? How and where would things be stored?
  • We needed to explore other wider questions, without which any structural change was bound to be superficial: What kinds of learning (in the physical, psychological and interactional realm) did we feel was required by children of this age group? What kinds of demands would we need to make, what kinds of contexts did we need to design in order to facilitate the necessary learning? What kinds of discussions, both contextual i.e. arising from an immediate situation, and acontextual, dealing with ageless questions about human life, did we need to initiate with children of this age group?
  • We needed to address the individual apprehensions of teachers who were to anchor the unfamiliar setting of MAG classes. There were fears about being able to deal with older children for those who were used to working with class 1 or class 2 children. Brainstorming sessions and group planning sessions were ways in which these anxieties were addressed. Teachers were asked to observe the pilot MAG class and become familiar with the evolved material.
  • Timetabling was a final area : Allocation of time under each head (MAG, SAG, 2nd language, activities, games etc.) was a large group exercise involving the entire teaching staff of the school. Teachers wanted a long morning session in the MAG. Second language would continue in SAG. Some SAG time for other things was also allocated. Activities and games needed to be fitted into the timetable. One concern was that a child should not need to move back and forth between MAG and SAG several times a day as this would be confusing. The positioning of assemblies has always been an important thing. Assembly time was moved to before lunch rather than at the start of the day.

The responsibility for facilitating dialogue and teacher learning in the above areas was shared by various teachers. As part of the preparation, visits were arranged to two schools, Vikasana School in Bangalore and to the Rishi Valley Rural Education programme, both of which have evolved a MAG structure.

Observing these alternative models of education was a source of immense strength.

In January 1999, we announced to the parents our intention to restructure the junior school. It was felt that an early announcement would give parents essential time to consider if they wanted their children to continue here in the face of the proposed changes. The risk of massive withdrawals was preferable to large numbers of discontented parents who felt stuck with the changes.

Shortly afterwards there was an orientation meeting for the parents of the junior school outlining the intentions and details of the restructuring. The parents who had participated in the pilot programme shared their experiences and perceptions. There was an air of optimism and enthusiasm for the venture. They 86 integration of the MAG classes into same age groups in class five. While there was no clear answer, the intention and the determination of the school to seriously address the question was communicated. Parents extended their full support to the proposed change.

The Junior School MAG Programme 1999–2000

School began in 1999–2000 with 4 mixed age groups in the junior quadrangle; Pipal, Jamun, Banyan and Mango. Each group had about 25–26 children, with roughly equal numbers of boys and girls and a distribution across the ages of 5 to 8. The configuration of the groups was, in all other ways, completely random. There were six possible teachers for the programme. However, it was decided that the teachers teaching classes 1 to 4 would anchor the MAG classes. Each one of them had shifted from initial uncertainty to a position of confidence and readiness. A fifth teacher was inducted, for the purposes of substitution and support. All five of them meet for an hour every day to jointly plan for classes and to discuss difficulties.

Now, something in the chemistry of the junior school has distinctly changed. The quadrangle has become an extremely quiet and orderly place. Where earlier the children could be heard all the way upto the office building, now the atmosphere of quiet makes it difficult to believe that a hundred children are working together. are seen playing together. This is in marked contrast to the earlier scenario where class 4 boys would play separately, class 2 girls separately and so on. Something new has happened!

This year’s Junior School Parent’s Day was another context which revealed the health of the MAG configuration. Teachers reported that rehearsals were largely disciplined and self-regulated with older children often taking charge of the group. Even on the final day of the programme, very little teacher energy went into maintaining order. There was a beauty and charm in children of various ages taking part in the same dance or play.

At The School parents of each class are invited for meetings around themes. We have decided to hold these meetings according to the MAG classes and not the age-wise grouped classes. The meetings this year were marked by near complete attendance. A large number of parents shared their perceptions with the large group. They seemed to speak as parents of a particular child rather than parents of a specific class. This revealed to us that parents also experience the pressures of keeping up with other parents of the same age group. The MAG programme seems to have strengthened the process of individuation for parents, as well.

Implications for the school and beyond

In summation, we would like to note that the transition to the MAG structure in the junior school has three far-reaching dimensions that seem valuable. First, the transition to MAG classes is an expansion of styles and therefore possibilities of learning. Second, it has brought the whole school together in giving support to four teachers in making such a transition in style and content. And finally, this step within a single school though it may be small in itself, could have wider implications. For it opens up the possibility of people starting small, effective local schools in urban settings, thereby challenging the dominant model of monolithic institutions.