Monday, 23 April 2012

The Pros and Cons of Composites and Strategies for Teachers

A common topic of discussion and debate around the school grounds, particularly among parents, is whether composite classes are beneficial or detrimental to students' education. I have recently had a fair amount of experience in a composite 5/6 class and a straight grade three, during which I have formed my own opinion.

The extent to which a composite is a pro or con, I think, depends almost entirely on the ability level of the individual student. I will use a 5/6 class as an example.

For the higher ability level grade sixes, it can be a con because they are generally not challenged as much as they would be in a straight level. It is crucial for a composite teacher to remember to cater for these students and provide extended work. In a composite class, the number of students in this group is usually less than for a straight one; for instance there may only be one or two as opposed to three to four. These students are often utilised as peer tutors, which can consolidate their existing knowledge but fail to extend it significantly. So long as they are provided with frequent challenges and extensive differentiation, higher grade sixes are not disadvantaged by a composite, but this is quite a task given their population numbers in the average composite class.

Lower ability level grade sixes can be overlooked and fly under the radar. The quality of their work may not raise the concern and alert of the teacher because they are subconsciously considering it in the context of the work produced by all students in the class, including grade fives. To counter this, a composite class teacher should always aim to identify their three to four lowest grade sixes (or lowest ability higher year level students) and focus on their progress as much as they do the lower grade fives.

Lower ability grade fives are noticed as being particularly, starkly low in contrast the the whole spectrum of the class. Accordingly, they receive a fair amount of attention, which is undoubtedly a positive. However, their confidence can suffer as they compare their work to not only that of their direct peers but also the grade sixes and they notice the amount of additional teacher attention they are receiving. Try to, as much as possible, avoid making this additional attention obvious by providing attention to others on their table while assisting them.

Higher ability grade fives are the biggest winners. They are challenged to work to the standard of the grade sixes and easily provided with extension work as they can simply be given the grade six material that has already been prepared by the teacher. For this group, I do not see a downside.

In Australia, there is another element to the discussion that is often overlooked at schools' and teachers' peril. NAPLAN, national tests, are run in grades three and five at primary school. This means a 5/6 or 3/4 teacher is tasked with 'preparing' (which does occur in most schools if we are to be honest) half the class for this test. The school, and therefore the teacher, is scrutinised according to their students' results, with schools ranked on the government's myschools wesbite, which parents may - and are encouraged - to use to choose a child's enrolment. Accordingly, the lower year level (5s and 3s), regularly receive extra attention during term one and the beginnings of term two in the lead-up to the test. Text types relevant to the test, recently persuasive writing, are emphasised and occasionally even over-taught to the extent that students tire of these writing sessions.

In Australia, team teaching is also becoming rampant. This is a fantastic innovation in terms of the opportunities for collaborative planning, resource sharing and improving lesson implementation. However, a composite class teacher often needs to attend two different PLT (professional learning team) meetings, particularly in a large school dominated by straight grade level PLTs.

Some would say this whole post is redundant. Certainly, prior to entering a composite class myself, I would have said the exact same thing. I would have argued that every class has within it a huge range of ability levels and a composite class does not significantly enlarge the range of abilities more than what would have already existed in a straight grade level. My view has changed profoundly from in-practice experience in composites. Sure, every class has major variance. But in a composite, this does significantly increase and, what is more, the teacher is aiming to - at the very least - bring students to a different set of standards. The grade fives must, at least, be brought to one set of standards and the grades sixes to another. This doubles the complexity of assessment, goals setting and teaching. A teacher can only hope to attempt to err on the side of caution and, when in doubt, try to bring the whole class up to the higher year level standard in terms of the material they teach.

Certainly, the role of a composite teacher is more challenging than that of a straight grade classroom teacher. My conclusions have indicated that the lower year level students (both those of higher and lower ability levels) benefit from the arrangement, and without particular focus and differentiation the higher year level students can be disadvantaged, either in flying under the radar or not being extended. A hardworking teacher can make it work such that the pros outweigh the cons, partly by using the strategies outlined above. So long as schools accept enrolments unconditionally, regardless of the consequences to their ability to form straight grade levels - which will, as is forgivable, be forever - teachers must be able to adapt and leverage the pros of composites, while reducing the cons of coexistence classes.

What do you think?


Deinich said...

Hi Anna,
I found your post interesting, reading this from Ireland I have to agree with many of your points.

In Ireland we have many schools which are made of composite classes. In our case we call them multi-grade classrooms. It is pretty common here as a lot of our schools are small rural schools, ranging from 2-4 classes within a classroom.

Are these schools common in Australia? I wasn't sure from your post whether schools choose to have multi-grade classes or not.

I agree that there are positives and negatives, however I do feel that it is dependant on the size of the class and the approach the school take towards the curriculum as well.

Many parents here feel that their children will receive more of a one to one approach from the teacher, they also feel that socially their child is less likely to fall through the cracks of the educational sector as well.

Would this be fair to say about the Australian system or how does it work?

Our PTR really determines the size of the classroom and whether the classes are slpit or not.

In some cases a schools spilts a number of classes within the school. Is this similar to Australia?

Thanks for your post.

Anna Kapnoullas said...

Hi Deinich,

Thanks so much for commenting. I really enjoyed hearing about the Ireland system.

In Australia, metropolitan schools generally decide whether to make composites or straight classes on a school-by-school policy basis. There is no official government policy as far as I am aware. Sometimes there will be an inconvenient number of students across two grade levels and the school may have one or two 5/6 or 3/4 classes and the rest will be straight grades. There is one exception. It is very uncommon in Australia to have a prep/1 class, preps are generally kept separate regardless of the situation across the other grade levels.

In more rural Australian schools, multi-age classes are indeed very common. Depending on the school size, there may only be two teachers and one principal. Therefore, one teacher might be responsible for prep to two, the other for three to six. I think this is more a matter of survival than the choice of the school (to be able to accept as many enrolments as possible); but I cannot speak from extensive experience in these type of schools.

From what I know, rural schools with multi-age classes are much more focused on individualised education where children have ongoing projects and more student-specific learning goals. I also think the teacher may be forced to consider each child more as an individual in this context, but a good teacher does not let any child slip through the cracks, regardless of the set-up.

I agree also, the type and nature of curriculum - particularly the extent it lends itself to differentiation - can significantly influence the impacts of a composite class.

Thanks again,

Karen said...

Hi Anna,

I came across your blog as I am just starting to research the advantages of having a straight Grade 6.

I have twins in Grade 4 this year, who are in 3/4 composite. Two years ago the school made the decision to have straight grade 2's and 1's that year as there were so many of the lower grade. This, to me was a great decision that benefited everyone. This year they have chosen 3/4 composite, having 7 grades of 3/4, with the majority being grade 3 students. Both of my boys are quite bright and benefited last year being in grade 3/4, as grade 3's and were extended to do work with grade 4's as you mentioned above. This year I am not so sure...

My concern now is how will they go in Grade six if it is again a composite 5/6 with the majority being the lower grade. Grade 6 is an important year, with the transition to secondary school. I am keen to put forward some ideas to the school to help them even look at offering straight grades in that year as I really want my children to have the best chance of success in secondary college and be extended in Grade 6.

I am a pre-service teacher at present, also Vice President at our school PFA as well as do alot of Parent helper duties in the school. I would be really keen to hear what you have to say about the advantages of straight Grade 6.

Anna Kapnoullas said...

Hi Karen,

Everything in this reply I qualify by saying that I believe the quality of the teacher is a far greater influence on student outcomes than whether a grade is composite or straight, and that in either type of class, differentiated instruction is equally possible and valuable (which is why I don't believe in one of the main justifications for composites).

Having now taught in a straight grade since this post, I am totally in favour of straight grades even more so than before. It provides a lot less to teach in terms of the required curriculum, which means the teacher is far less pressured to provide breadth and much more able to cover things in depth, allowing for mastery of content. I can quite ably ensure the grade threes leaving my room have mastered the grade three content I've taught this year; it's much harder to try to ensure that of grade threes and grade fours with different content objectives.

In my experience, there is also a huge difference between grade 5 and grade 6 mathematicians, speaking generally of course as there will always be high grade fives and low grade sixes.

There is also a huge difference in grade 5 and grade 6 numeracy content, place value basically doesn't exist in grade six apart from higher order decimal skills. Likewise, grade three expectations in math are very different to grade four, and grade three don't really deal in double-digit addition officially, grade fours should. This means there's a lot of reteaching for the higher grade students in the class when they should be receiving whole-class modelling (a very important part of the teaching process) on newer, grade four or grade six content exclusively (and then receive differentiated modelling individually or in small groups).

Grade six is also full of events like leadership, graduation, yearbook writing (if it's a grade six yearbook), transition, sex ed and heaps more. In a straight grade, these can be tackled as learning events as a class. In grade 5/6, they are add-ons and distractions.

Plus, camps are starting to find great difficulties in catering for large groups of composite classes, so some schools are having to choose from a restricted selection or having to split camps, which goes against the purpose of camps providing for unity, relationship-building and team-building exercises.

Most schools justify composites as a way to split behavioural kids, but in many schools it would be just as possible to split the behavioural kids amongst the straight grades. Composites also create large teaching teams, personally I prefer smaller ones as they're generally more cohesive and tight-knit.

Hope this helps,