Why use Cross-Age Learning?
Public schools throughout the United States have been required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation to focus upon increasing test scores in reading and mathematics among minority group, low-income, special education, and all other sub-groups as well as average students. Many educators believe that there are very basic flaws in the NCLB approach, that we are increasingly teaching just to standardized reading and math tests, and that Black, Latino, and other important subgroups are not improving in relationship to other students (Dillon, 2006; Neill, et al. 2004, Meyer, 2004). Principals, teachers, and students have conscientiously responded to NCLB, but many feel so much pressure to focus on test scores that they don’t feel they have time to emphasize other important needs, such as the good character building that has always been a primary goal of education.
If aloha, with its focus upon respect, compassion, and kindness towards others, is left behind in education because we overly focus upon test scores, the morale of students, teachers, and principals will seriously decline. As a result, test scores will actually fall before long, although they may improve a bit initially. On the other hand, if a balanced emphasis is placed upon building aloha in the learning process, both morale and achievement will improve indefinitely.
Helping others is fundamental to the feeling and expression of aloha. One of the most effective means of learning with aloha is cross-age learning, in which older students help younger students to learn. The value of few educational methods, if any, has been as strongly demonstrated by research as cross-age learning (Beery, 2003).
(For documentation of the following and additional information, see the Research Briefs, the Bibliography and the Web Resources sections of this web site.)
When classes of older students are enabled to help younger students to develop needed concepts and skills through cross-age learning at least once a week, both younger and older students typically improve significantly, both academically and socially.
Very importantly, even in the midst of mandates to focus on academic skills, the students of teachers who more frequently used cross-age learning had significantly higher achievement test scores than those who used cross-age learning less frequently (Beery, 2006).
Cross-age learning is particularly important and beneficial for low-income students whose parents often do not have the time, energy, or experience for providing learning models and direct learning help for their children. Older students can very effectively help to fill such gaps, as older students often influence younger students’ learning attitudes and accomplishments even more than parents do. Cross-age learning in classrooms commonly continues spontaneously on the playground and off the school grounds. And, very importantly, research shows that older students typically benefit both academically and socially as much or even more than the younger students.
In the process, teachers learn much more and gain greater job satisfaction from helping one another through cross-age learning. Parents and other community members become very supportive of schools which use cross-age learning in a consistent fashion.
The benefits of cross-age learning are even further increased if school principals meet with one another at least once a month to share ideas and moral support with one another around cross-age learning and other good things they foster in their schools. Such principal meetings greatly enhance their personal achievements and job satisfactions, as well as those of their staffs and their students.
Following are brief reports of schools which have used school-wide cross-age learning for a number of years. Most or all of the teachers paired up as cross-age teammates, such as a Kindergarten teacher with a 3rd grade teacher. The older students helped the younger students at least one class period a week while both teacher teammates observed and discussed the sessions together.
An elementary school in San Rafael, California, USA, had about 400 students attending Kindergarten through 5th grade (K-5) when they decided to go school-wide with cross-age learning. The school has a high proportion of low to lower-middle income families, the majority of whom spoke Spanish or other non-English languages at home.
As indicated by the graph on this page, before the school initiated school-wide cross-age learning, the students were achieving at a low average of only the 35th national percentile for Total Achievement (Reading, Language, and Mathematics).
By the end of only one year after cross-age learning began, this school’s achievement increased to the 45th percentile, and it continued to increase above the 55th percentile a few years later. Latino students improved at an even faster rate than other students, as did students with learning disabilities. The school, on the whole, improved more rapidly than other schools in its district.
Other than a small cost to print a copy of a Spanish-English picture vocabulary book for every student to use in school and at home the first year, the school neither spent additional money nor added personnel for cross-age learning. Teachers simply voluntarily organized cross-age learning themselves, typically one school period per week. Surveys showed that parents and other community members strongly supported cross-age learning.
Another elementary school in Corte Madera, California, USA, was a K-5 school of nearly 600 students when it began school-wide cross-age learning.
Compared to the low-income school, this school has a much higher proportion of middle to upper-middle income and two-parent families, almost all of whom have English as their primary language.
The school was at the 60th national percentile in its total achievement when it began school-wide cross-age learning. Within a few years, it had grown to over the 80th percentile and continues at that high level today.
Like the low-income school, this school did not use additional money or personnel to start and maintain their cross-age learning program. At both schools, teachers simply organized and carried out cross-age learning themselves, usually one school period per week.
Following are sample comments by teachers experienced with cross-age learning:
Carolyn: “Big Buddies” (older students) are able to teach or reinforce my own teaching, which enables me to do more for my students. And, because they are older, looked-up-to “peers,” Little Buddies are strongly influenced by positive attitudes and behaviors displayed by their Big Buddies.
Danielle: Among just themselves, some older students tend to act tough, even mean, before they become Big Buddies, but they have loving feelings that need to be expressed. Having a Little Buddy gives them opportunities to be gentle, caring, and nurturing, which makes them feel better about themselves and school. It’s a joy to see Little Buddies bring smiles to Big Buddies’ faces!
Sandy: Instead of being off in our own little rooms, feeling isolated, we all have another teacher to work with, enjoy, learn from, and give recognition to. It sure feels good when another teacher sees you do something well or expresses appreciation for an idea you contribute.
Leah: Teachers who usually do not talk about curriculum find commonalities and relationships that are on a deeper level of collaboration.
Michael: Because students talk about and look forward to their Buddies sessions so much, sometimes wanting to go to school for them even when feeling sick, parents become very, very supportive. At our school, surveys of parents, Chamber of Commerce, and other community leaders have revealed extremely strong support for these cross-age learning teamwork efforts.
Rebecca: This is a great way to build the reputation of schools while giving everyone some well-deserved appreciation.
Dorinda: If everyone could have observed Room 5 last Friday as 40 K-1st and 3-4th grade students experimented with measuring their body parts using nonstandard units of measurement, they would have been amazed at the multiple skills being utilized! Children were reading, spelling, writing, drawing, talking, counting, estimating, checking for accuracy... And the students were so involved together that they handled the activity for 30 minutes while teachers observed and noted learnings, difficulties and interactions. It was great!
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