Down with the Age Graded Classrooms

Before the Civil War the one room school house was common, being nothing more in the small towns and villages than a structure about the size of a single large classroom. In the cities where the students were more numerous it took a much larger building to house them all together. But in both the students were not separated into groups by age. What did this mean for the students? Did they learn better when they were in close contact with those both older and younger than themselves?

We don’t know if they learned more. I suspect they did from what I know about large families. We do know that reform, unable to leave things as they are, came along and changed things. The first and most significant reform, and one which is still very much with us, was the graded school. No longer those large rooms with students of different ages learning together but students stil in a large room but with others of the same age. David Tyack (in Tinkering Toward Utopia) says that this reform came about because school superintendents and school board leaders were impressed with the division of labor and hierarchical supervision common in the brand new factories, and sought to adapt this tidy and efficient system to education.

The change to graded classes came about quickly and just as quickly came the unintended and what would prove to be much later in the mid twentieth century disastrous consequences for our schools.  For while the graded school may have succeeded with a few, with those whose abilities and family and cultural backgrounds fit the school environment and curriculum, for too many others the graded school didn’t work at all.  For difficult now to understand reasons we had put students equally ignorant all together, expecting what, that they would all learn to swim? They didn’t.

This is our situation today. The graded school didn’t and doesn’t work for those kids who come from impoverished and disadvantaged inner city and rural areas. My conclusion? If you want to improve the schools, get rid of our age graded educational system.

There is actually one current reform movement that could help to bring this about. That is school choice. There should be many different schools out there, including no school at all, and those not based on the age of the student, for children and parents to choose from. And the many schools of choice ought to reflect the diversity which is no less great among students of the same age as it is among students of varying ages. Other current reform initatives such as the longer school day and year, merit pay, better teacher preparation, and the movement for higher standards and accountability, in particular No Child Left Behind, won’t do it. Keeping students equally ignorant and widely differently endowed together in an age graded classroom will prevent these reforms from ever having the desired result.

Learning succeeds best when the kids have been separated from one another, not by their age but by what they can do (the Math Olympiad), like to do (play soccer, piano, other games), want to do (write, collect, speak) etc. As long as we keep them all together, simply according to their age, as long as we disregard their enormous differences, say, of interests and abilities, there will be those who understand the lesson and those who don’t, as well as all those in between. There will be those who succeed, and those who fail and are held back, and those who drop out. Now it seems to me unbelievable that this situation has been with us, for at least 100 years, and we haven’t tried to change it, let along do away with it (home schooling being an exception to this), but have kept it pretty much intact, even while changing everything else.

The kids themselves are aware of this situation by the fourth grade if not before. In the fourth grade large numbers of them lose their excitement and interest in school. The classroom activities are now more boring than anything else. The situation is much more pronounced in the “common” or public school classroom because many of these children, coming from poor and immigrant families, especially in the cities, are much less prepared for the learning activities that the school would have them do. So in addition to the differences of interests and abilities among them there is also the difference between the culture of their home and community, and the new learning culture of the school. The situation although present is less pronounced in the private schools, or in schools where the students are selected, because in these instances there is a better match between the culture of the home and that of the school.

So what is to be done? As early in the learning process as possible, certainly by age 8 or 9, that infamous fourth grade, we need to have fashioned for each child individualized learning environments, not tracks, but sets of expectations and opportunities, that take into account each child’s inherent talents and interests. I admit that what I am proposing can’t be done without fundamental changes in our outlook. First and foremost learning has to be taken out of the school, and put back into our lives.

If we continue to do nothing, if we don’t “reach” the child at an early age, when he is still ready to listen, we are probably going to lose him for whatever number of years he does remain in school. This is what is happening now. While gaining the few who take well to the age graded classroom we are losing the many who don’t. You can see this clearly if you follow closely a group of middle school students (that time when most kids are lost to their education), say, in any one of their subject area classes such as math or foreign language. How many children in the class will clearly have no interest in, let alone achieve evident mastery of, either one?

The mantra that you hear everywhere among school people is that every child can learn, every child succeed, that every child can go to college. I too believe that every child can succeed, that every child can go on to higher education, but not, as now, by following the same track. We need many different tracks to success for our kids and now we don’t have them. We have only the one with the result that everyone is required to get over the same obstacles, such as state requirements for high school graduation and college entrance examinations. And of course it’s not going to happen. Everyone doesn’t get over these obstacles. A third of our young people nation wide will drop out of high school, a third or more of our college students will not finish. And to this situation so far we have only one answer, more and better test prep.

Now our educational system awards with first good grades and then good jobs those young people who are particularly endowed with either math of language abilities. When they have both they gain admittance to our most prestigious universities. But these abilities are just a part of what we are as human beings. That is, they are not what we are, as sometimes our tests would seem to be saying, but just a part. Together they represent just two of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, the logical-mathematical and the linguistic. We know that if we tested those fourth graders for mathematical ability that the result would be a Bell curve for student performance. There would be those on the left showing little ability in the area tested, those on the right with great ability, and the many with average ability in between.

We know all this about our students (and about ourselves) and yet we go on year after year insisting that our students go on year after year being painfully made aware of their respective positions in relation to the logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligences. Why should either one, or both these particular abilities, have such great power over the individual without them? Once it was asked of high school dropouts just why they had dropped out of school. The most common response was math class, algebra, something year after year they were required to fail at. For many of us who were only average we can understand their dropping out for that reason.

If we really do believe that all children can succeed we ought to make sure that whatever each child has in the way of a gift, be it one of the two mentioned, or one of the other of Gardner’s seven (now eight?) intelligences, the musical, the bodily-kinesthetic, the special, the inter- and the intra-personal, that this gift be recognized and given a favored place in the child’s home and school learning environment. Because it will only be through this “intelligence” or particular gift that the child will ultimately learn and be successful.

The learning environment of the school ought to directly reflect the interests and abilities of the children, not as now their ages. When children are in fact doing what they most like to do, acting in a play, playing on a team, being a part of a musical ensemble, staffing a computer clubhouse the age differences are disregarded. Isn’t this fact telling us that the school itself needs to structure its activities not on age, but on what the child most wants to do, and through which activity the child will most learn? A no-brainer, yet look at what we are now doing.

Finally, to expect that all kids can become proficient in math and language, if proficient does represent a real standard of excellence, is as ridiculous as expecting that all kids can reach the master lever of chess playing. It won’t happen. But to expect that all kids want to learn, that all kids have within them a spark that once identified will fire up their school years and take them right on into meaningful and successful lives, that may happen if we change the way we’re doing things in our schools.

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