Learning Across Grade Levels

From the mid-19th to the early 20th century, one-room schoolhouses served as the infrastructure of American education in rural communities. Enduring as a symbol of the past, one-room schoolhouses often stir up idealized images reminiscent of Laura Ingalls’s childhood including slate chalkboards, inkwells, children of all ages, and pot-belly stoves.

A similar phenomenon began in Italy in the early 20th century. Dr. Maria Montessori was asked to create a childcare center to support disadvantaged, unschooled children.  In 1907, Dr. Montessori opened Casa dei Bambini— “Children’s House,” serving a span of ages in early childhood. The success of Dr. Montessori’s approach spread quickly, and within three years, Montessori schools could be found throughout Western Europe and were being established around the world.

Each year, middle and high school students team up to complete a low ropes course, building confidence, cooperation, and leadership skills.

Fast forward over 100 years, and you’ll still find influence from these early education movements in schools across the nation. At The Summit, progressive tenets guide our approach and opportunities to learn across grade level distinctions are celebrated and encouraged. To foster academic excellence, The Summit uses student-centered, choice-driven curriculum, aligned with developmentally appropriate goals and standards. Teachers serve as facilitators of learning and research for students. There is a continual emphasis on learning mindsets and skills including critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and curiosity. Student work is often open-ended, hands-on, and project-based. To support whole child development, The Summit supports students in building a growth mindset. This gives students a chance to develop flexibility, autonomy, and independence. Intrinsic motivation is supported as students build strong character and confidence.  Physical and emotional health and wellbeing are supported across contexts and by all faculty members. 

What does a modern multi-age learning environment look like? In a mastery and challenge focused progressive environment, working with a group of students whose ages span multiple years is not so different from working with a group of grade level peers. In either grouping, students will present their own unique set of skills and capabilities. Summit educators support each student where they are.  Well-known psychologist Lev Vygotsky defined the zone of proximal development as “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peer”. That is, the zone of proximal development is somewhere between what students know and what students can know. Educators seek to steer students toward this ideal level of productive challenge to best develop additional knowledge and skills.  Throughout the day, students work together in various groupings for different purposes. Multi-age learning only enhances these opportunities.  There are social benefits to this structure as well. Students have access to an expanded peer group which supports social interaction, finding shared interests, or interacting with someone different from themselves. 

Upper school students spending quality time with their Early Learner “Raven Buddies.”

At The Summit, each division experiences multi-age environments daily.  Early Learners have a shared home base for 3, 4, and 5 year olds.  Lower School students gather in teams of Kindergarten-2nd Grades and 3rd-5th Grades for lunch, shared social opportunities, and one of their two daily recesses. For the other Lower School recess, all students Kindergarten-5th share the expansive green space and playground. These intentionally designed opportunities for mixed age interaction support school community, interdependence, and development of social skills.

Periodically, special events support academic partnerships across grade levels, shared field trips, and learning buddies. Rachel Heinz shares this story about the beloved Raven Buddies tradition and her daughter in Early Learners:

“Raven Buddies has been a really cool program that has helped [my daughter] grow through working with older students in middle/high school at The Summit. Students come into her preschool classroom and read books, do activities, and build a relationship. She has loved sharing details about Raven Buddies at home with us, and we can tell that she really enjoys these interactions with older students.”

At the Middle and High School levels, students have various opportunities to engage with a range of peers and across ages through multi-age classes, curricular content, and elective course offerings.  Middle school curricular content is organized in a multi-year rotation, allowing students of varied grade levels to investigate shared topics at the level of depth appropriate for their development.  This consistency of content enables students of varied ages to connect with one another through themed learning and shared experiences including projects, field trips, guest speakers, and service learning.  Students in these grade levels are offered physical education options of PE, Yoga, or Archery and elective course choices such as Culinary Arts, Board Game Design, Glee Club, Genius Hour, Resource Hour, STEM (including options to compete in LEGO Robotics), consisting of classes open to all ages of middle school students.  

A fifth grade student teaches Kindergarten how to fold origami hearts as part of a service project she developed to share messages of kindness and encouragement to deliver to senior care facilities and hospitals.

The Summit’s high school, aimed at preparing students for college, extends the multi-age learning philosophy, grouping high school students in multi-age classes, much like the college experience.  Once again students have shared connections through curricular content in addition to peer role-models and mentorship as multiple ages of students work and learn together.  Many students take advantage of dual credit options offered at The Summit, while others elect to take courses offered through one of the local universities. These learning opportunities translate to Summit classrooms through rich classroom discussions in which students integrate their learning across disciplines.  Outside of the regular classroom environment, students share time together in their full hour each day for lunch and recess. Football games, 4-Square competitions, and table tennis tournaments engage students across the grade levels. 


At The Summit, we believe that students benefit academically, emotionally, and socially from these opportunities and experiences to work outside of grade level groupings. Mrs. Heinz further shares:

“Mixed age settings have supported our daughter’s social development through giving her the opportunity to be around kids of various ages in the classroom, at summer camp, and during social periods at school (recess, lunch). She is able to both model and observe social interactions between both younger and older kids, and this helps her not only gain confidence but learn how to develop friendships with kids of all ages.”

It is The Summit’s goal to support all students with our whole child approach to help them reach their highest potential. Multi-age learning and social opportunities, combined with our small classes and progressive philosophy, help us achieve this goal to prepare our students for lifelong learning and success beyond the classroom walls. Curious to learn more about The Summit or want to see multi-age learning in action? Use this form to schedule a tour, ask a question, or request more information.

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