Rethinking a 100 Year Experiment

Education has come a long way since the days when all learning was rote and most students didn't finish 8th grade.  We have better teaching methods, better trained teachers, many more teaching materials and state and national learning standards.  I applaud all that we do better now than in the old one-room schoolhouses.  We offer more subjects, more sophisticated learning tasks and graduate the vast majority of our students.

In spite of our gains, public schools still face some daunting challenges:
  • High numbers of students labelled "special education" and requiring extra help to make gains
  • Bored gifted and talented students who may learn next to nothing new in an entire year
  • Class disruptions from student misbehavior
  • Social distractions such as peer pressure for drug and alcohol use and early sexual experimentation, student conflicts and kids who feel they just don't fit in with their peers
  • Teachers challenged to provide appropriate education to an ever-growing range of student learning levels, from several grade levels below to several above in reading, math and other subjects
In order to seriously address these barriers to education, we need to stand our current system on its head and ask ourselves...

"Is grouping students by age still the best way to organize learning?"
Academics and Age Grouping

Imagine instead a more fluid public school, one that offers a range of levels rather than a range of age groupings.  If an elementary school currently has 5 levels of math curriculum (one for each grade) and 4 math groups sorted into each classroom, why not make those 20 math levels fluid to accommodate an individual child's actual needs?  An exceptionally precocious child might begin at level 6 in 1st grade; another might move more slowly through the groups, ensuring mastery of each level before moving on.  Imagine the same for reading, science, writing, social studies, physical education, music and art.  
This is not like the tracking of my old elementary experience.  A student excelling in reading and struggling in math could have both taught at her correct level and pace.  Students would not be labelled as we were but would move fluidly through the levels at their own paces.  Students currently labelled "learning disabled" may find no special instruction is needed, just reinforcement and appropriately-tailored instruction.  Gifted students will not be held back by their peers.

Behavior and Age Grouping

But what about behavior?  How would eliminating age grouping improve behavior?  
Think about families for a moment.  Within families, children of all ages learn to get along (hopefully) and to experience family events and activities together.  Walk into your nearby middle school and observe behaviors.  All that is most extreme about pre-teen behaviors and attitudes are amplified by throwing 100 or more 12-year olds together.  Those who might prefer more innocent childish pursuits are thwarted by ridicule.  Those who prefer adult company and activities are likewise neutralized.  The acceptable way to be is stereotypically 12.  The same is true at any other school age:  7-year olds thrown together behave differently than 7-year olds with mixed age groups; 14-year olds do fine in mixed classes in a high school and are more difficult to manage in freshman-only classes.
As children, many of us felt out of place with our peers.  We liked other things:  maybe chess or climbing trees or reading or playing with Legos.  Each of those has -- per our peers -- an acceptable age.  But woe to the child who wants to build with Legos at 13 or to read at 15. 

As a child, I played with much younger children and also sought the company of adults.  Children my own age seemed least like me growing up.  Yet I tried my darnedest to conform to the expectations of my peers, usually unsuccessfully.  As an adult, I have good friends who are 15 years older than me and 20  or more years younger.  At no other time do we expect individuals to group together by birth year. 

School Reform and Age Grouping

We've changed junior highs to middle schools, created smaller schools and IB schools, tried team teaching, multiple intelligences, thematic instruction, cooperative learning, school-to-work partnerships and brain-based learning.  Through every school reform we've tried though, grouping students strictly by age remains unchallenged.   There are many exciting innovations in teaching and learning but continuing the structure that contracts learning for many and exacerbates developmental behaviors impacts every other change we implement.

Group by age if your hope is to make everyone academically average and behaviorally extreme.  I'm guessing we want neither of those.  Let's rethink age grouping in schools, beginning with when children are first admitted and including decisions about retention and grade-skipping.  The stigma of being younger or older than your peers doesn't exist in families; it needn't exist in schools either.  Once classes are appropriately mixed, age differences will be the norm.

We can do better than the old rural one-room schoolhouse.  But our experiment with age grouping needs to be re-examined.