Split with no cracks – flexible learning environments

“Flexible learning environments” has recently become a hot topic in New Brunswick. Dominic Cardy, Minister of Education, has proposed that instead of age-grade organization, young students should be combined into classes in more flexible ways, to better meet all academic needs and to balance behavioural challenges and learning needs in each group.  Busy parents are just trying to get through each week – one day at a time! – and may be baffled by all the jargon introduced by the government in Cardy’s recent Green Paper. Many are wondering what is going on and what all the fuss is about.

Perhaps we can help. At Touchstone, we’ve had “flexible learning environments” for most of our 20 year history. The term “split class” may sound a little more familiar – the situation when students from more than one grade are combined and learn together in one classroom. This year at Touchstone, our Grade 1 and 2 students are together in a split class and we also have a combined class for grades 3 and 4. In our experience, split classes can be amazing, provided that certain conditions are met. 

At Touchstone, teachers routinely plan the school day so that they will have time to work closely with different groupings of children and in one-on-one settings when needed.  Split classes actually make this approach integral to lesson planning. Knowing that older children benefit from “review” and younger children benefit from “stretch,” whole class learning activities have to be carefully planned to provide different levels of challenge. As one Touchstone teacher said, “As I plan, I’m fully aware that each of my students needs meaningful work and each needs meaningful attention from me.”  Another teacher recalled allowing one of her students to enjoy reading chapter books while she worked with the rest of the class on phonics.

It seems likely that more and more children in New Brunswick will experience split classrooms in the coming years as the government transitions to flexible learning environments.  Parents can take comfort in knowing that every student who walks into a classroom has always brought individual strengths and areas for growth, regardless of age or grade. All teachers, all the time, need to plan to meet a wide range of needs, and most have some experience in doing so.

 Even given the high degree of variation in all classrooms, most of the time, classroom learning outcomes take the form of a bell curve, with most children meeting expectations and a few outliers achieving above and below the majority. When parents worry about split classes, often their concerns are focused on learning opportunities for outliers. “How will my child be challenged if they are in a class with younger children?” “Will my child get the attention he needs in a class where children are older and working at higher levels?” She’s so bright! Will she fall through the cracks?”

The key to making split classes work is ensuring that teachers can effectively meet the needs of students, no matter how wide the age and ability range might be. According to research, this boils down to three simple factors: class size, teacher enthusiasm/positivity, and support from school administration and parents. The first factor is critical: the greater the number of students in any classroom, the greater the variation and the greater the burden the teacher will have to bear. But don’t miss that last factor! Yep, that’s right. Parents are part of the formula. You can make a difference just by being a supportive parent. 

 At Touchstone we are fortunate to have the flexible learning triple crown: small classes, oodles of teacher enthusiasm and a wonderfully supportive community of school staff and parents. Touchstone classes are often split, but never with any cracks for our students to fall through.

Posted in on December 6, 2019