Last week I was talking to a parent who’s child was embarking upon the adventure of primary 1. We spoke about her natural concerns and I was doing what I could to put her mind at rest (the pupil in question was not coming to our school). That was until the issue of multi-composite classes came up!
For any readers who haven’t explored my previous ponderings I am one of two teachers in a rural school in a picturesque corner of the Scottish Borders. Currently we have a primary 1-3 class and a 4-7 class. Despite this only being my 3rd year here I have had pleasure of teaching both classes. And learning from both classes. The parent mentioned could not get her head around the thought of the pupils all being together: “How can you teach them all at the same time?!” This has indeed led us here, so please sit back, make yourself comfortable and prepare to be blown away with the magic that we who have multi-composite classes perform (please read that with all the love it was intended to be read with. We are of course all magic).
The key to understanding this puzzle is the outlook that this parent showed from the outset. Why on earth would I do such an injustice as to teach my class the same thing without any consideration for their age, stage, prior learning or experience? I love teaching in a multi composite class, particularly with Curriculum for Excellence and the experiences and outcomes, because I CAN take a lesson for the whole class and guide my learners to the outcome that I have planned for them. Take a recent writing lesson I had with my P4-7′s. The lesson itself was our first piece back from the summer so I was looking for a baseline- if I leave them to write independently what can they produce without me. Looking at my primary 4′s during the lesson was illuminating: they were watching the older pupils taking dictionaries and the thesaurus and they, with very tentative steps, crossed the room and lifted one off the shelf as if it were going to evaporate stright out of their hands! These pupils were striving to be like their peers, to feel like they fitted in. They worked like troopers, putting in all the aspects I worked and worked at last year when they were in P3 without needing to be reminded.
Let us take another lesson that is perhaps not so independent. Maths. When it comes to teaching maths I get an instant sense of excitement- it is right up my street. There are rules and guidelines that makes it all work and a certain sense of organisation. There is (hopefully) an instant sense of achievement. Teaching maths to a multi composite class however is more similar to teaching a straight class set then most people consider. Who, is any class they have taught has not been able to divige the learners into 3 groups? We all come across learners who soak up learning and need little more than instruction before they can take out of the experience as we intended. Then we have those who normally need more support, who find applying the rules hard when they don’t have someone to act as a sound-board as they talk themselves through the steps. Then we have everyone in the middle. Being in a multi composite allows for this effectively as I am in no way limited to letting an eager and able group of P5/6 pupils work with my P7′s, and those in P4 who need support feel like they are doing “extra hard maths” because they may have pupils from P5/6 in with them too!
Teaching in this sense is simply a case of well thought out differentiation…but what about learning in multi composite classes I hear you cry? This is the bit that I really do feel is magical. Pupils are all too often better teachers that we care to admid after our years of training and nights after school on CPD courses! Social constructivism, scaffolding or any other fancy words that fly around the staffroom all apply so clearly in a multi composite class. The pupils often have a clear understanding of the task and indeed what their learning might “look like” and they in turn know how to explain it to others going through the motions that they went to (where as Mr Wilson just waffles). Take a recent ICT lesson where we were formally talking about emailing. I say formally as I know from 2 years ago that some of the older pupils have experience in the field. Rather than setting them a challenge at the outset I asked them to share 5 top tips with another pupil…some of there tips were brilliant! Displaying these on the SMART Board allowed all the pupils to strike up an understanding of what they could do before we evenbegan getting the netbooks out.
I find that teaching in this setting really does turn your learners into educators. Having spent time at an in-service being shown reciprocal reading my first thought was how I was doing it, just without the title. It also brought me full circle with my planning where I went to the 4 capacities and tried to link our learning journey to these…I couldn’t because there really were so many links I could make. Ask yourself this: when was the last time you were in a room full of people that were all the same age as you? Or who were expected to be the same ability as you? I haven’t had it since I was at school and even then we all knew that there was a massive range within us. Innovative learning with pupils often creating there own destiny. Seeing this spark in the pupils, the future shining through from their potential is again magical. Involving pupils in a multi composite class is the next pivotal key to success.
I would love to know what other professionals out there have found? What do you think is the key to making your composite class work? I would love to find out what others are doing too so any lessons that have ignited the passion and creativity in your pupils please comment back and we can share for the benefit of all learners, child and adult alike!
Explaining this all to the parent in my story was a fantasitc opportunity to dispell the opinion of one. I am hoping that this may go some way to convincing some others out there that multi composite classes are by no means a bad thing- it is the opposite! Unlock the potential and reap the rewards.