The idea of "multi-level" teaching, with children of varying ages in the same class at the same time, is as American as the one-room schoolhouse of pioneer days. Yet, with the advent of age-segregated classes, public schools discarded the one-room schoolhouse model, viewing it as archaic.
True, teaching different ages the same subject at the same time does not yield the streamlined efficiency of a single-approach lesson plan. Wider age spans equal wider academic and skills gaps. After all, five-year-olds do not cut as well with scissors, nor read or write on the same level as 13-year-olds. Is it even possible for students of such diverse ages to be taught together much less co-oped together? The answer is "yes" and "no" as well as "possible" and "impossible," all in the same breath.
The Possible: Start with an Activity
Activities are great teaching levelers and the real key to multi-level teaching and co-oping. With activities there is no reading and writing level that must be met in order to participate. Most 6-year-olds and above can participate, even if it is at different levels, in the same activities. While studying the character trait of Attentiveness with my KONOS co-op, we focused on the senses and using them to be attentive to God and His world. Certainly, we read about the ear and eye, but reading alone is not enough for young students. Not only is creating an ear to crawl through under the dining room table or dissecting a cow's eyeball more fun than merely reading about the ear and eye, it is also more memorable. Famous child researcher, Jean Houston accurately states:
Not only are activities key to learning, they are key to multi-level co-oping. Each activity is like a school bus. All of the children get on the same bus by doing the same activity, yet each child gets off the bus by leaving the activity according to his age or ability level.
When dissecting the cow's eyeball with a 5-year-old, an 8-year-old, and a 12-year-old, I required the youngest child to sit with me. He was amazed at the aqueous humor oozing out after he cut through the cornea. I found the perfect opportunity to moralize, "That is why mothers tell little boys to be careful when they are playing with sticks or sword fighting." He finally found the lens as it landed on the newsprint under our dissecting. "Wow! It magnifies!" With that he picked up the lens and peered through it examining the entire room as he sang, "Oh, magnify the Lord... " My youngest had gotten off the bus.
Still on the bus, the older children were required to know all the eye parts plus to label an eye they had drawn. Next, together they took apart an old camera and compared it to the eye. After all of that, the 8-year-old got off the bus, while the 12-year-old continued on his journey, writing a paper comparing the workings of the eye to the camera. Although the initial activity, dissecting a cow's eyeball, had been the same, each student took the activity to his or her level based on ability. The "bus" principal is the secret to true multi-level teaching and true multi-level co-oping.
A Unit in Action
Studying the character trait of Cooperation fits naturally with the KONOS States and Regions unit, since all states must cooperate sharing their products and resources. What a perfect unit to... pardon the pun... "co-op" with children of varying ages.
Our first activity, designed to give the students a geographic overview of the United States, was to draw all the states of the continental United States within a very large outline of the United States chalked on our deck. This required practicing the character trait of cooperation, because each co-op member had been assigned different states to draw at the same time. If the student drawing the Great Lakes states had his rear end in the way of his brother who was trying to draw in the Southern states, this necessitated the brother asking him (very politely) if he could move. Younger siblings, who had been assigned fewer and larger states to draw, finished earlier and got off the bus, while older siblings took longer completing the more difficult states on the map.
The New England and mid-Atlantic region were first on our march across the US. Since lighthouses are indigenous to the Atlantic coast, co-op students were formed into groups (each group having older, middle, and younger students) with the task of seeing which group would be first to build a lighthouse that actually lit. Older students took the lead and instructed younger students. Groups had to cooperate giving each in their group a portion of the project.
While building a barn without the use of power tools like the Amish of Pennsylvania, older students again took the lead modeling for younger students. In these two activities, no one was allowed to get off the bus and leave; rather, both young and old, finished together.
To be sure, older co-op members can execute and perform on a more proficient level in independent activities where individual effort is required, such as sculpting the Statue of Liberty or dramatizing a New England whaler. Independent activities allow individual capabilities and skills to shine. This still benefits the group, since the child who is particularly artistic or dramatic sets the standard for the rest of the group. In multi-age co-oping there must be a balance of group activities to develop group work habits of cooperation as well as individual activities to unleash individual achievement and creativity.
The Impossible: Junior High - The Time to "Move On"
Junior high years begin the years of growing from childhood to adulthood. As much as I am a proponent of multi-level teaching there comes a time to let older children "move on" academically. While elementary years have developed skills and equipped young students with basic knowledge, junior high years represent a shift toward planning and preparing for life's ambition and career. For students headed to college, compiling transcripts and portfolios begins during these years. In these years, students develop specific interests that may lead to apprenticeships or jobs related to their interests. Young people should continue petitioning God in earnest to reveal His call on their life to them.
Positive Peer Pressure
With the shift in intent and focus in the high school years comes the shift in co-ops. While co-ops can still encompass several different ages, the ages should be within a two to three year span, narrowing the age gap. Junior high and high school co-ops are terrific ways to form a one-day-a-week class that encourages positive competition and positive peer pressure.
As always the teacher is vital in setting the tone and standard. Homeschoolers began homeschooling to protect their children from a hostile culture's influence. There is no desire to allow a high school co-op to become the "company of fools." For this reason, strong, understanding, and yes, even fun co-op teachers are a MUST to shape the co-op into a positive rather than a negative peer pressure group.
Mature Topics Delayed Until High School Years
Every mother and father recognizes children have readiness factors. It is not necessary to launch into a full-scale lecture complete with diagrams on sexual reproduction when a five-year-old asks, "Mommy, where do babies come from?" Too much information often burdens or confuses young children as in the case of my niece Becky, who at four years old asked her mom, my sister, "THE question." After my sister finished a 30-minute theological lecture including the origin of marriage and Eve's action in the Garden of Eden, wide-eyed Becky concluded, "So you're never supposed to eat apples." My sister has since adopted the expansion theory of education that operates like an algebraic formula: the amount of information given on a particular subject increases proportionally as the age of the child increases.
Withholding information from children is not the same as sugar-coating information. With young children, parents often sugar-coat difficult topics, giving a whitewashed version of the truth which inadvertently distorts the true truth. In order to avoid overt sugar-coating and whitewashing, "mature" topics and literature are wisely left for high school years where whitewashing is not necessary.
Pagan cultures such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome with their pagan philosophies and religions definitely need to be studied, but in-depth focused study should follow only after very strong and deep Christian precepts and teaching have been thoroughly laid down during the elementary years. That strong Biblical base allows older children well versed in Christianity to compare their religion with that of pagan cultures.
Further, the literature of these cultures does not make good bedtime reading for young children. Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother. Media kills her two sons to spite her husband Jason, and Hector drags Achilles' body around Troy seven times, desecrating his body. Greek mythology and the Iliad should be saved for the more appropriate high school years when better understanding of tragedy, pathos, and alternate cultural beliefs can be examined in light of a fully developed Christian worldview, rather than reading a watered down versions to elementary age students lest they develop a warm and fuzzy picture of pagan Ancient Greece's culture or at best, become confused. High school students are more capable of critically assessing the positives as well as the negatives of ancient Greek culture; therefore, older students co-oping together better serves the needs of older students growing into adulthood studying subjects they are spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually ready to study.
So, is multi-level co-oping possible or impossible? The answer remains "both," depending on the ages and stages of the children. Parents immediately recognize when their children outgrow clothing. Wise parents will recognize when one mode of co-oping (no matter how wonderful it has been) should be shelved to make way for a new mode of co-oping, because their children are growing into adulthood. Homeschool co-oping is exciting and fun no matter what the level or mode.
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