Pedagogy in small primary schools – The value of multi-grade teaching

Hyry-Beihammer, Eeva Kaisa; Hascher, Tina (3 July 2013). Pedagogy in small primary schools – The value of multi-grade teaching (Unpublished). In: 16th Biennial Conference on Teachers and Teaching (ISATT 2013). Ghent, Belgium. 01.07.-05.07.2013.

This paper aims to understand the value of pedagogy of small schools in Austria and Finland. In this paper, a small school is defined as a school with fewer than fifty students. Usually it is a village primary school (in an Austrian context grades 1–4, children aged between six to nine, called Volksschule; in a Finnish context grades 1–6, children aged between seven to twelve). Small schools locate usually also in a rural area. Typically there are two or three teachers teaching different grades in the same class; this is called multi-grade or multi-age teaching. In the school year 2009–2010 there were 1,909 multi-grade classes in Austria and 722 small schools in Finland. During the last twenty years, the number of small Finnish primary schools has decreased by 65%. Besides in Austria and Finland, small schools are under the threat of closure in many other European countries. Closures of small schools are often explained by economic reasons: small schools are too expensive, and it is cost-effective to transport children from villages to bigger centre schools (see, e.g., Knauf, 2010, p. 162). It seems that the significance and possibilities of pedagogy in small schools have been ignored when schools are closed.
Our study asks, which advantages and challenges does multi-grade teaching have to school education? This is answered by analyzing different teaching practices that are used in multi-grade classes. As empirical data is used ten narrative teacher interviews (Riessman 2008) and teaching observations that have been collected in four small primary schools in Austria and Finland during 2011–2012. On the basis of the content analysis of transcribed teacher interviews and teaching observation, the multi-age group processes and social forms that are used in multi-grade teaching are explored. The main categories “split timetable” and “common timetable” are used to analyze how teachers share time between different grades during teaching and how students in each grade may study the same subject at the same time (Cornish, 2006). The main categories, “whole-class teaching,” “within-grade grouping,” “cross-grade grouping” (different grades in the group), and “free choice group” are used to analyze how students are grouped during teaching (Cornish, 2006; Petersen, 1927/2001). Of special interest is how teachers use differentiation in their teaching in multi-grade classes, and therefore “differentiation” has been chosen as a main category, too. The educational forms of play, work, and celebration suggested by Petersen (1927/2001) are also analyzed in the data of this study. We are especially interested in the natural processes of helping and being helped in multi-age groups defined by Petersen (1927/2001); more specifically, we are interested co-operation or peer learning or peer tutoring. The processes of co-operation in multi-age classes are explored also through Lev Vygotskij’s (2002) socio-cultural learning theory.
Based on the first research results, it is clear that diverse teaching practices are used in the multi-grade classes in small schools. The results show that teachers find one of their most important and challenging tasks how to answer the needs of different learners in their classes. Expert teachers tend to work like multi-age teachers, looking at each student as an individual and orienting their teaching according to each individual’s needs. This becomes apparent from the different forms of differentiation teachers used. Younger teachers in particular express uncertainty about how to divide their time and how to use different forms of student groups in a multi-grade class in order to enhance learning in the best possible way. One method is to use “subject staggering;” which is teaching two different subjects concurrently, concentrating on “important concepts” by teaching one grade while the other grade works silently. According to research results, peer tutoring and learning occur spontaneously at classroom but teachers can use peer tutoring also as an intentional teaching strategy. Peer learning happens also tacitly, e.g. students in lower grade learn the common practices of the school from upper grade students. Teachers find that this type of student helping decreases their work, too. In the teachers’ narratives, the schoolyard seemed to be a central place where pupils play and take part in activities with other pupils and also with teachers. In particular, play and festivals are educational forms that are connected to situations when the whole school participates and the events occur mostly outside of the classroom.
The research results challenges teacher education: On the basis of the data, teacher education students have had only a little or not at all instruction concerning teaching in multi-grade groups, so we can expect that those teaching skills are mostly learned through practice. We suggest that teacher educators and researchers should become more aware of good teaching practices in multi-grade teaching like differentiation and multi-age teaching. That would add our understanding of the qualities and prerequisites for good teaching in heterogeneous student groups.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Speech)


07 Faculty of Human Sciences > Institute of Education > School and Teaching Research

UniBE Contributor:

Hascher, Tina


300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology > 370 Education




Selina Teuscher

Date Deposited:

28 Jul 2017 15:25

Last Modified:

28 Jul 2017 15:25


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