'Teaching & Learning' is a weekly column on education and related issues.

Nine-year-old M. Vijay gives company to his six-year-old sister M. Vinothini in the class, making her feel at home in school. The unease of being amid strangers in a new environment is not seen in the eyes of six-year-olds such as Vinothini of Chennai Primary School, Thiruvanmiyur.

Thanks to the concept of mixed age setting followed in several schools, children like her are comfortable with their siblings and those from the neighbourhood.

“The parents now feel secure sending their children to schools as the brothers and sisters are in the same class, but once the children get accustomed to the environment they are put in different classes,” says Mary Stella, principal of the school in Thiruvanmiyur.

With the introduction of Activity-Based Learning, students aged between six and nine in many Chennai Schools, run by the Chennai Corporation, have been put together in the same classroom.

Depending on their skills, young and older students are grouped. Once the children master a concept they move on to the next group at their own pace, in a continuum rather than a series of steps.

According to R. Venkatesan, State Project Director, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, more than 37,000 government and government-aided schools across Tamil Nadu follow this system of education, out of which nearly 60 per cent are two-teacher schools.

“The learning capacity and speed of each child is different, it is sometimes difficult for teachers to keep track of each student. The mixed age group (MAG) classrooms solve this problem efficiently, as the students help each other and approach the teacher as and when required.”

The concept of MAG classrooms is an integral part of many of the alternative models of learning. Uma Shanker, Director of Centre for Montessori Training, Chennai, says: “A sense of harmony exists in a class that has children of different age groups, as they co-exist by helping and learning from one another. A six-year-old in this system is found to be more accepting of a three-year-old's differences.” They are not encouraged to elbow out one's classmate and climb to the top, but strive for their own excellence. She feels that since the students are confident and have a strong skill base they can face learning challenges ahead easily.

“Vinoth anna explains all the subjects well to us,” says K. Kavya (8) pointing at P.Vinothkumar (9) who is sitting in the middle of a small group of classmates explaining the solution to a maths question. “The students sit without fear and learn faster from their friends. When they miss out on classes, they can catch up fast, as they have their classmates to fall back on,” says D.Selvi, a secondary grade assistant of the Chennai School.

The teachers are of the view that the system has changed from being teacher-centric to student-centric. Once the teachers give a strong foundation to the students in the initial years, the rest of the learning is facilitated rather than taught. The students approach the teachers only when they have doubts.

Educationist S. Anandalakshmy says this system is relevant in village schools that don't have enough students to be segregated into different classrooms based on their age. Initially, the parents were concerned on finding their child studying with younger students in the MAG classrooms.

But now they have realised that their child is part of a class that satisfies the needs of his ‘ability' rather than ‘age.'