Advantages of the one-room schoolhouse approach to teaching

A neglected but extremely efficient approach

Teaching a class containing both advanced and beginning students can be extremely challenging, but, if managed well, can be far more effective than the traditional class in which students of equal experience and ability are grouped together. The latter approach, much like the mass production assembly line, requires far less effort and expertise on the part of the teacher than one that takes advantage of differing student abilities and learning styles. De-skilling the teachers’ job description by having them specialize in and repeat the same material year-after-year to an endless series of tenth graders is demeaning, both to the inspired educator and to the enthusiastic student, and is ultimately counter-productive if our goal is truly education and not simply compliance and conformity.

Mass-production education produces mass-production results. There is a better way.

The standard high school or college class containing 30 or so students at the same level has some serious limitations. The teacher, faced with covering the same material year after year, easily falls into a repetitive pattern which frequently fails to do justice to an ever-expanding subject and to the educational process itself. Such an approach can become extremely stultifying if the instructor does not take care to invent, research, and improvise. Unfortunately, this is the only type of teaching that most people know, and it is not one that works well in an educational environment in which a teacher has students with varied experience and abilities. A common mistake is to split a group of heterogeneous students into grade levels in order to apply mass production techniques. This is a grave error, as a mixed age and ability class has so much potential for students of all levels as well as for the talented teacher.

It is always possible to convert classes of stratified grade levels into heterogeneous-level classes and there are certainly some small-scale learning environments which can be handled in no other way. A collaborative homeschooling system, for example, more closely approximates the old one-room schoolhouse – English students ranging in age from 8 to 18, or a music class with some students just touching a piano for the first time, and others with 12 years of piano lessons — a language class or martial arts class with all levels of proficiency, even a randomly collected online education group class. If such classes were treated with the assembly-line approach, learning would be reduced to plodding stepwise progress and more advanced students would leave, given the option, to seek something more challenging. Taught differently, however, it can be a very effective learning scenario.

How to work with multiple levels to best advantage

There are many wonderful ways to take advantage of a wide disparity of abilities in a classroom and nearly everyone can learn more, faster, and more enjoyably than in a traditional classroom of students with similar abilities. It is absolutely impossible to accomplish much in this environment if one is limited to having everyone do exactly the same thing as everyone else all the time.

A simple example from a music keyboard theory class: one can give an advanced student a melody he has never seen and have him play it with variations in realtime, improvising the harmony as he goes along. Intermediate students can then be asked to analyze and identify what was just done and, with the help of the advanced student, try to emulate it. Then the beginning students can simply practice recognizing and playing the chords as recited to them by intermediate students.

A solution for both advanced and beginning students

It is critical for the advanced student to be able to practice the art at a high level. It is extremely valuable for newer students to be able to see the art practiced by an artist, to discuss, ask questions, and emulate. It is also essential for students at all levels to learn to teach as well as to perform. None of this is possible in a homogeneous classroom and only basics are possible if everyone is expected to do exactly the same thing.

Many subjects work very well using this approach — language study, theater, art, science, mathematics, martial arts — though the teacher may have to do some very creative thinking. Admittedly, beginning language or mathematics students are likely to be perplexed by more advanced topics, but this is not altogether bad. That exposure can plant amazing seeds that can work wonders in the long term, and the potential inspiration of seeing skills applied at a high level should not be underestimated. It is also quite a different experience to watch a renowned expert expound on stage, film, or at the podium and to see one’s own classmate practice the art right before one’s eyes. The latter can be an extremely moving experience.

An inspired teacher is required, but what talented teacher would not want that opportunity?

Multi-level classes can rarely be made to follow a textbook or planned curriculum. This puts the onus upon the teacher to provide cogent material for students at all levels and to respond to any possible student question. With the Internet, this is much easier than it used to be, and, as always, more advanced students can benefit from seeking out and presenting material to less advanced ones. The teacher must also be prepared to challenge the highest level students as well as the beginner.

Here are some suggestions, a checklist for optimizing student interest, retention, and progress in a mixed-ability classroom:

  • Warm ups: This can be defined as any activity that is present at the beginning of every class in some subjects. Whether singing gradually ascending arpeggios, limbering up joints and muscles, or reiterating safety regulations, warm ups should never take too much class time, and certainly not the major part of it. To the lazy teacher, they are a temptation, a convenient way to eat up class time. Warm ups should be varied, brief, and if possible, interesting. There are often ways to improve the time-efficiency of many parts of a warm up by combining procedures.

  • Review and reinforcement: recently introduced concepts, devices, and techniques should be repeated as necessary to reinforce them. Too much or too little review either wastes time in the current class, or wastes time time spent learning the subject for the first time in a previous class.

  • New material: Every class should see something new, something that has not been seen in the past six months, a year, or more. In every subject there is so much to draw from, and so often aspects of the subject are neglected by even the best teacher and the best text. An effort should always be made to find these and cover them — if only to explain why they are being omitted.

  • Expert time: There should always be time in every class for advanced students to practice, demonstrate their skills, and to be observed by beginning and intermediate students (especially if there are classroom visitors and recruitment is a goal). It reminds us all why we are practicing and where our efforts can lead. So often advanced practitioners in a field who are working with newer students much of the time are not challenged to achieve more. They need to expand their art too, and seeing that benefits the entire class.

  • Open practice time: When specialized equipment is involved, whether it is software, laboratory equipment, exercise equipment, or musical instruments, students need time to work on their own — not necessarily without supervision, but certainly without a lock-step regimen that must be followed. It is amazing what new minds and eyes can see that is missed by those who have acquired preconceived limitations.

  • Learning to teach: Learning how to teach as well as to perform should reasonably be part of any curriculum, particularly when teaching is the ultimate goal, but even when it isn’t. Student teaching is really always a part of a multi-level classroom.

The problem is that people who have gone through our standard school system, and adopted our age’s mass-production paradigm, know only one way to teach. It has been shown time after time that it is perfectly feasible to learn at a much faster pace than that possible given the traditional grade-level classroom approach –- and to enjoy the process more, which in turn engenders enthusiasm, dedication, and progress. Many collaborative-homeschool students have started taking college classes at age 10 or 11 and have done very well. This kind of thing happens only rarely in standard grade-level classes, but such classes can always be reorganized into multilevel classrooms, at least on a part-time basis, if teachers are willing to relinquish the comfort and ease of predefined, textbook-oriented mass-production education.