Composite Classes and Teachers’ Beliefs

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  • Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 25, No. 3, 1997 225

    Composite Classes and Teachers' Beliefs

    1INLEY LLOYD, University of New England

    ABSTRACT Teachers in a large primary school were asked questions related to their attitudetowards and beliefs about composite classes. The teachers voted to increase the number ofcomposite classes primarily for reasons of flexibility, stability, mutual support and, in somecases, because of a belief in their educational value. This article discusses their responses in lightof the literature on multiage schooling. The problems most commonly mentioned by teachersrelated to whole-school rather than within-class factors, such as organisation, co-ordinationand timetabling. An inflexible grade structure was seen as a major constraint. The moreexperience a teacher had of teaching a composite class, the more likely s/he was to have positivefeelings about composite classes. In view of the large and increasing number of composite classesin NSW primary schools, some compulsory exposure to both the theory and practice of multiageteaching is recommended for teacher trainees.


    A recent article in this journal (Watson et al., 1995) reported a study which aimed toelicit from outstanding teachers a list of maxims for successful composite-class teach-ing. One strong conclusion from the study was that teaching skills which are desirablein a regular ('straight'), single-grade classroom are critical to successful teaching in acomposite class, diat is, a class where children from two or more grades are taught inthe same classroom, or, in the words of the New South Wales Department of SchoolEducation, 'one in which children of two or more age levels (known as 'years') aregrouped togedier to form one class unit' (New South Wales Department of SchoolEducation, no date, p. 7). In other words, 'Good composite class teaching is differentin the degree, and not in the kind, of skills required (pp. 162-163). The authorscategorised such skills under four headings (pp. 158-161): teacher expectations (needto be more sensitive in a composite class), routines (need to be more efficient in acomposite class), group work (needs to be more flexible in a composite class), andwhole-class teaching (teacher needs to vary the 'process demands', that is, to carefullygrade the activities, in a composite class).

    Two broad issues relevant only to composite classes which emerged from the study(pp. 161-162) can be categorised as: (1) grade versus class identity, and (2) parentalconcerns, bodi at the class and school levels. The study reported in dus article shedsfurther light on these issues which are specific to composite classes.

    Background to the Study

    As a teacher educator, I am very well aware of the role that attitudes and beliefs playin people's willingness to embrace new ideas. I have more than once heard this situationdescribed, somewhat pejoratively, as the role of so-called 'education' being simply to

    1359-866X/97/030225-35 1997 Australian Teacher Education Association

  • 226 L. Uoyd

    enable people to find support for their irrationally held beliefs, rather than to encouragethem to question and perhaps modify those beliefs. Studies have been reported whichsuggest that the beliefs and attitudes that student teachers bring to their professionaltraining are often not modified during the course of such training (see, for example,Zeichner ex aL, 1987). Calderhead (1987) has summarised this rinding thus: 'Studentteachers approach professional training with an existing body of knowledge that shapeswhat they extract from the training experience and how they use this knowledge indeveloping their own practice' (p. 17). Whilst this is hardly surprising on one level, itis important for those whose concern is to encourage students to challenge theirpre-existing schemas and perhaps modify them according to research findings and theirown changing experience. In a review of research on teacher beliefs and practices, Fang(1996) supported this finding but extended it to include practising teachers as well aspreservice students: 'Educators are now beginning to realize that teachers (preservice,beginning or experienced) hold implicit theories about students, die subjects they teachand their teaching responsibilities, and that these implicit theories influence teachers'reactions to teacher education and to their teaching practice' (p. 51).

    A concept in which I have been interested for some timemultiage classroomsseems to be one of diose concepts which arouses either enthusiasm or horror dependingupon one's attitudes and beliefs (rather man upon one's actual knowledge or experi-ence). Parents often have an extremely negative attitude towards composite classes inparticular, as reported from time to time in newspaper articles (for example, BeikofF,1994, p. 5; Whelan, 1996, p. 12) and, less publicly, in anecdotes by teachers. Given thediscussion above, is it reasonable to assume that teachers also hold strong beliefs basedon their 'anticipatory socialisation' (Zeichner et aL, 1987, p. 24; Kettle & Sellars, 1996,p. 2), and are such beliefs modified by experience?

    When the opportunity arose to find out what the parents and teachers at one schoolthought about composite classes I willingly took it. Accordingly, teachers and parentsat the school in questiona large rural primary schoolwere surveyed to try toascertain their beliefs about composite classes and whether these beliefs changedwithexperience. The fact that the school is a large school added interest in view of the statedviews of the president of the Australian Council of Deans of Education diat 'compositeclasses [do] not work in large primary school classes ... When you inflate the size andincrease the diversity, you get bigger problems and the overall teaching quality goesdown' (Zeller & Fortescue, 1994, p. 4). The findings from die teacher survey arereported in this article, and implications for teacher-training programmes are discussed.

    The school concerned had, in 1995, an enrolment of more man 650 students K-6.The teaching staff was very experienced (22 of die 28 teachers had more than ten years'teaching experience) and the school is noted for its staff continuity and lack of turnover(1995 was die Principal's twenty-first year in the school, and more than half dieteaching staff had been at die school for more tiian five years). The student intake isdrawn from a dispersed geographical area covering all parts of the town and diesurrounding rural districts. One distinguishing feature of die student body is dieproportion of English as a second language (ESL) students enrolled, often for arelatively short period of one to diree years while dieir parents are temporarily residentin die town, necessitating a 0.8 ESL teacher and a well-developed support network forteaching English and literacy skills. (This network includes English lessons for die ESLparents as well)

    For some time die beginning of each school year has been marked by disruption andreorganisation of classes several weeks into the first term. Two reasons for die instability

  • Composite Ctisses and Teachers'Beliefs 227

    of enrolment are: (1) the school is the only primary school in the town with no ceilingon enrolments so that as other schools nil up, late arrivals often end up there; and (2)a proportion of the town's population regularly turns over, with the consequence thata number of families enrol their children at the school several weeks after the beginningof term 1. If an extra teacher is then allocated to the school, the classes are reorganised.

    At the end of 1994 the School Council, acting in response to a parent's complaintabout the annual disruption to classes, decided to investigate more flexible options. Theenrolment figures for the previous three years were examined grade by grade anddifferent patterns of classes were looked at. It was found that increasing the number ofcomposite classes, taking into account enrolment bulges and sometimes splitting'straight' classes to form extra composites, had the potential to increase flexibility andminimise the possibility that classes would be reorganised. If the composites werenumerous enough, and were filled first, the 'straight' classes nearly always had space foradditional pupils. There was general acceptance by the teachers of Watson et al.'s(1995) proposition that routines need to be more firmly established in a compositeclass; hence the arrival of new students was seen as potentially less disruptive ofroutines in a 'straight' class than in a composite class, and 'straight' classes were thusmore easily able to accommodate new arrivals. (A related issue was how to allocatechildren to the composite classes. In the past, children were chosen on the basis ofindependent work habits but this had led to a perception by other teachers and parentsthat die 'behaviour problems' were consequently more numerous in the 'straight'classes and that the composite class teachers found classroom management easier. If amore random (which was seen as more equitable) distribution were adopted, thecomposite-class teachers would take longer to establish their working routines and so itwas felt diey should be given the stability of a fixed class. Filling them up first wouldhelp to ensure this stability.)

    Flexibility and stability were certainly seen as attractive by-products of a deliberateincrease in the number of composite classes. (This view is supported by the experienceof another large rural primary school, whose principal claimed that composite classeshave helped solve their problem with disruption and the reformation of classes causedby high student turnover (see Beikoff, 1994, p. 5). A third factor which featuredstrongly in the teachers' discussions was the increased potential for collegial support.When the composite classes were formed purely for administrative reasons, that is, tocope with grade 'bulges' above the funded maximum number of students, it was oftenthe case that, for any designated grade, a lone teacher had a composite class. Teacherswho had such an experience reported a feeling of isolation, which was accentuated if thecomposite class crossed the boundary areas between infants and primary (that is, Years2 and 3) or between lower and upper primary (diat is, Years 4 and 5). Apart fromtimetabling difficulties, the teachers had problems attending grade meetings, sharingresources, meeting compulsory curricular requirements without repetition of units forsome of their students and generally identifying with a particular teaching cluster. Theoption of making sure there were at least two composite classes for every grade was seenas a way of allowing teachers of the composite classes to seek support, to shareprogrammes and resources and to arrange for the students of any grade to join withtheir grade peers for certain activities (for example, if mere were two Year 4/5composites, all the Year 4 pupils could sometimes join together for grade activitiesrather than class activities). This latter option was seen as particularly desirable in thelight of parental concerns that the children in a composite class could lose contact widitheir grade peers.

  • 228 L. Lloyd

    At a combined meeting of the Parent Association executive and the SchoolCouncil, concern was expressed about the potential parental reaction to an increasein the number of composite classes. Watson et aL are correct in reporting thatcomposite classes are surprisingly under researched in Australia, though there is quitea body of American literature relating to multiage classes (for a selection, see thecollection of articles by Fogarty, 1994; Veenman, 1995, and other sources listed inthe references). Although the existing terminology[l] makes it difficult to interpretthe relevance of much of the published work a growing body of literature has reportedpositive findingson academic, social and emotional dimensionsfor multiage class-rooms. Indeed, some states in the USA have now legislated for such classes to becompulsory in the elementary school: the Kentucky Education Reform Acts (KERA)of 1990 made ungraded classes compulsory from kindergarten to the third grade (thatis, for primary classes); the Oregon Educational Act for the twenty-first century,passed in 1991, specified development of a model for non-graded primary class-rooms; and Mississippi legislation in 1990 mandated the phasing-in of elementary(K-6) multiage classes (Stone, 1996, p. ix). Pennsylvania, Florida, Alaska, Georgia,California, Texas, Tennessee and New York have been investigating similarprogrammes (Fogarty, 1994, p. 35). An example of the early findings, from Ken-tucky, has been given by Cantrell (1994, p. 40). "You might ask, "Has Kentuckyresearched their own results?" Indeed, they have, and the initial results are reportedas fairly positive ... Accomplishments realized included student success, co-operativeattitude among students, improved standardized test scores, elimination of teacherisolation, and increased teacher empowerment. Individualized student progress wasthe most frequent advantage.'

    These positive research findings are surprising when compared with the generalperception amongst parents, teachers and the media that composite classes are not, onthe whole, desirable. The Teachers' Federation claims to support composite classeswhen they are formed for educational rather than administrative reasons, but thisqualification tends to get overlooked in media coverage and this is certainly the case forthe parental grapevine, perhaps for the very good reason that most such classes are notpromoted on educational grounds. Since the Federation itself seems somewhat contra-dictory in its stated support, this is not surprising; in a newspaper article in 1994, forexample, the senior vice-president Denis Fitzgerald was quoted as saying that theDepartment of School Education's support of composite classes, albeit under a newname, amounted to support of 'something which is often educationally undesirable'(McDougall & Fortescue, 1994, p. 4).

    As a result of the predicted negative response of parents, the Chairperson of theSchool Council agreed to address a meeting of parents and another of teachers to reportthe positive research findings for multi-age classes. The end result of the meetings,investigations and discussions was that the teachers voted to increase the number ofcomposite classes in the school during 1995 and the Chairperson of the School Councilagreed to survey parents and teachers to ascertain their reactions and beliefs.

    For the first week of school in 1995, children stayed in their 1994 classes. Thisallowed the Principal, two Deputy Principals, and the Chairperson of the SchoolCouncil to arrange the structure of classes on the basis of the actual (rather thanprojected) grade-enrolment figures. Parents were informed, and at the beginning of thesecond week children were placed in their 1995 classes. As hoped, these classesremained as the stru...


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