What is Vertical Learning (VL)?

'Vertical learning' (VL) is when students study academic subjects, such as English, Maths, Science or History, in mixed age groups. It is much less common in English secondary schools than Vertical Tutoring, but there are a few schools that are known to have used it successfully, including Cherry Willingham Community School in Lincolnshire and Settlebeck School in Cumbria. However, it is used widely around the world, especially in primary schools and in rural areas where the small number of teachers and students mean that it would be uneconomic to have separate classes for each age group. For this reason it is particularly common in the developing world (where poverty also means that not all children start learning at the same time and many have to drop in and out of education) but it is still quite widely used in more developed countries. According to 'Education for All and Multigrade Teaching' (2006), edited by Angela Little, a 2000 study found that this type of education was used to some extent in 25.4% of English primary schools. Vertical Learning is only one of many names for this type of education, and in the same book, Little says that the terms vertically-grouped, multigrade, un-graded, non-graded, multi-age, mixed-year, combination class, composite class, consecutive class and family-grouping are also used.

The idea of one teacher teaching differently aged students in the same classroom may seem impractical but there are ways of organising it (and if you ask any English secondary school teacher, especially in inner-city schools, they will tell you how students of the same age can have huge differences in their level of knowledge and understanding anyway) Three of these ways are briefly explained below:

1. Personalised learning: each student in the classroom essentially follows their own individual and largely self-directed lesson using resources in the room. These resources include the teacher, textbooks and other students. So while Student A studies Maths at level one using a level one textbook, Student B studies it at level two using a different textbook. Small groups of students at a similar level may study together and students at a lower level may ask others at a higher level for help (a process which helps both to advance). Meanwhile the teacher circulates, helping each individual and small group for short periods of time. This approach has been very successfully used in the Escuela Nueva schools in Colombia and elsewhere. The responsibility students take for directing their own learning and helping each other has been found to benefit their social responsibility as well as their academic progress.

2. Modular learning: two differently aged groups can study the same two year syllabus in the same classroom, even though they start and finish at different times, by dividing the syllabus into rotating modules.
Vertical Modular Learning Diagram