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Ideas and Findings

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Classes that mix students at different ages and grade levels are growing in popularity in schools worldwide. But teachers and parents often oppose the idea, arguing that learning suffers when educators have to contend with a wider range of student abilities.

A study published in the Winter 1995 Review of Educational Research suggests that such concerns may be unfounded.

Simon Veenman, a researcher from the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, analyzed 56 studies from 12 countries. He separated the research into two groups--studies involving schools that were mixing grades for economic reasons and studies involving schools trying out the idea for pedagogical reasons. He labels the two groups multigrade and multiage classrooms, respectively.

Veenman found that, for the most part, students in multigrade classrooms did not learn more or less than students in single-grade classrooms. And their attitudes toward school and toward themselves were no different than those of their peers in more homogeneous settings. What's more, Veenman adds that multiage classrooms didn't have any effect on student achievement either. But they did produce slight improvements in the way students felt about school and about themselves.

"These classes are simply no worse, and simply no better, than single-grade or single-age classes," he concludes of both classroom arrangements.

At the same time, however, Veenman calls for better training for teachers who have to work in these new settings. "Teacher training institutions should acknowledge that the multigrade/multiage class is a present and future reality."

Common wisdom has long held that low self-esteem can lead to a host of disturbing social problems, ranging from unemployment to murder. And schools have done their part to fend off those outcomes by taking steps to boost children's confidence in themselves.

But a new and potentially controversial report published in the February 1996 Psychological Review calls into question the conventional view.

Researchers Roy F. Baumeister and Joseph M. Boden of Case Western Reserve University and Laura Smart of the University of Virginia contend that high self-esteem--not low self-esteem--may be a cause of violence.

As part of their study, the researchers reviewed dozens of empirical studies from several disciplines on people with hostile tendencies. They looked at data on murderers, rapists, violent young gang members, and spouse abusers, among others. They also reviewed studies on political terrorism, genocide, prejudice, and oppression. In some of the studies, the aggressors' self-esteem was directly measured; in others, it had to be inferred.

Rather than feeling negative about themselves, the researchers found, "violent and criminal individuals have been repeatedly characterized as arrogant, confident, narcissistic, egotistical, assertive, proud, and the like." Moreover, the offenders became violent when their highly favorable--and often unrealistic--views of themselves were challenged. They point to the rapist, for example, who claims he attacked a woman because she acted "superior."

"The societal pursuit of high self-esteem for everyone," Baumeister and his colleagues conclude, "may therefore end up doing considerable harm."

Do boys do better in math than girls? The question has been a subject of controversy among researchers for years. In the latest study on the subject, a University of British Columbia researcher offers up an international perspective.

For his master's thesis, Xin Ma re-examined data on 13-year-olds and high school seniors from the 1982 Second International Mathematics Study to compare male and female students in Canada, Hong Kong, and Japan.

Within each setting, he found, female students at both age levels scored just as well as their male counterparts in algebra and geometry. But Ma did find some slight differences when he looked across the entire testing population. Analyzed that way, the data showed that male high school seniors had a slight edge over their female counterparts in geometry. Among the 13-year-olds, both genders performed equally well.

"If the gender gaps in algebra and geometry are fairly small up to the age of 13," Ma writes, "it is reasonable to suggest that boys and girls may notbe born with different abilities in mathematics." His study was published in the November/December 1995 issue of The Journal of Educational Research.

--Debra Viadero

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