On blends and splits…

May 30, 2010 | 5 comments

Oysterville School Children, 1917 – Front Row: Willard Espy on left; Edwin Espy, third from left. Back Row: Mona Espy, second from right.

     As most people know, to blend is to combine ingredients until the individual components can’t be distinguished.  And, as most people also know, to split means to divide.  These definitions don’t need to be spelled out– until it comes to education.
     For many years I taught in blended (also called multigraded) classrooms – usually 1st/2nd/3rd grades.    As many times as I tried to explain the concept, however, most parents and even some educators referred to my multigraded class as a “split.”  Yet, those who came into the classroom to observe us at work could seldom distinguish first graders from second graders from third graders – not from their appearance; not from the work they were doing; not from their behavior.
     In many ways, multigrading made teaching simpler.  It was easy to foster a family feeling; younger students looked up to their older classmates and the older ones took on the roles of helpful big brothers or sisters.  Beginners aspired to do what their more advanced classmates were doing; those who needed more review often became ‘tutors’ for those working on the basics, reinforcing their own understanding as they taught simple skills to beginners.  Behavior problems were minimized.  Co-operation rather than competition was the norm.
     It’s interesting that the only place in our society where people are divided by age is in school.  To me, it’s an unnatural division; it’s not how we learn within our families, in the neighborhood, or even in the classroom.  Because a child is six does not mean that he will automatically learn to read, write, and cipher a prescribed amount of information.  Almost any parent can tell you that.  Why, then, do we persist in grouping kids by age at school and then berating sixth graders (or third graders or first graders) for their miserable behavior?  How easily those situations could be diffused by thinking out of the box!
     Maybe I am a throwback to the days of the one-room school.  My mother and her siblings all completed their  first eight grades at the one-room Oysterville School.    My aunt Mona took ten years to complete those eight grades.  My uncle Willard, on the other hand, completed eighth grade by the time he was ten and went on to finish high school at fourteen.   Both Mona and Willard had fond memories of their school years, as did all the Espy children.  And all of them credited much of their success in life to the start they had in a one-room school.   Whether they knew it or not, they were believers in the concept of ‘multigrading’ or ‘blending.’  Me too!


  1. Linda J

    I suppose the practice of separating students by age has been around for a long, long time, but why? I completely agree with you. It makes much more sense to blend. Where I teach, multiage groupings are only done when enrollment is lopsided, and when it is done, there are always parents who complain if their kids are in the “split.” They should be rejoicing.

  2. sydney

    I’ve always thought that grouping students by age began soon after the 1870s when there was a huge influx of immigrants to the United States and it became necessary to educate large numbers of children as ‘efficiently’ as possible. Efficiency during that time period was equated with the growing industrial movement and its assembly-line production methods. Hence, assembly line education. The growth of urban centers must have added to that need, but one-room schools remained the norm in rural areas for many generations.

  3. Brigid

    My mom’s stories of her one room school house are classic. Jumping out the window to get away from a pervert teacher just one of them. Her family donated the land for the school and boy did her father get mad when he found out about the teacher. But the guy wasn’t fired, everyone just knew to keep away from him. On another note…We have a teacher from Kubasaki headed to a DODEA 280 student K-12 school in Turkey whot will be teaching mulit-grade. That sounds like fun to me. High school is somewhat multi-graded as far as electives. I don’t know what year in school a student is unless I ask.

  4. Crystal Tompkins

    As someone who experienced one of your blended classrooms (thank you!), & now teaches rooms made up of 14-19 year olds… I totally concur.

  5. Sydney Stevens

    Thanks, Crystal. It’s always nice to hear positive comments from former students. But the greatest affirmation of all is that you, too, are now a teacher! I am so proud of you!


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