Grade Levels and Single-Age Classrooms

This fascinating article by Dr. Tracy Cassels of “Evolutionary Parenting” confronts problems in public education provision. Dr. Cassels first describes children’s varying abilities, stating, basically, that all children have strengths and weaknesses. They excel n some areas and fall behind in others.

But then I think of the myriad children I’ve encountered in my homeschooling group.  We have a large group of 6-9 year olds who are totally different in terms of what their interests are and yet all of them love learning.  We have children gifted in Math.  Children who are obsessed and beyond knowledgeable about French History.  Children who focus solely on Math and English are doing Grade 4 curriculum in what would be Grade 1.  They all love the learning they are doing.  But here’s the catch:  Though all of these students are ahead in many areas, they all have others they “struggle” in; in a regular school, they would never have the chance to move ahead in the areas they love nor be allowed to stay behind for a bit in other areas to focus on those they love.

According to the NAEYC, one of the principles of developmentally appropriate practice is that “Development and learning proceed at varying rates from child to child, as well as at uneven rates across different areas of a child’s individual functioning.”

Personally, I believe this to be very true. In public schooling, the tendency is for children to be expected to fall within the “average”, to not be too “gifted” and not to experience “difficulties” either. Those who do will either be bored and not stimulated by learning or suffer from underachievement and poor self-esteem. Both types of children will lose interest in learning, which is a great pity.

Even Lev Vygotsky’s fundamental theory is about bringing children from the known to the unknown. Teachers are to target instruction at the “Zone of Proximal Development”, that is, to “scaffold” a child’s learning and bring it to the next stage of learning based on what they know and have accomplished.

The other extreme is when homeschooled children’s needs are neglected and they fall far and possibly irretrievably behind in certain areas of learning because their lack of progress and need for additional help was not noticed. If something is wrong, do take notice! If your child is nine and can’t read or do addition, please take the matter seriously. Homeschool parents don’t have to take all the burden of teaching on themselves, and should in fact realise that there are areas in which they need outside help. For example, my mother was never able to teach us to play the piano even though she was a pianist herself – she needed to get teachers to work with us.

Anyway, one of the principles to which I hold is that education should provide supports for children for experience achievement and development in areas of weakness and opportunities to excel and advance in the areas in which they are strong.

Another point that Dr. Cassels makes is about mixed-age classrooms. In thinking about ways that educational provision can be changed, one of the ideas I’ve had is for mixed-aged classes.

I firmly believe the biggest mistake we made with modern education was getting rid of the multi-age classroom.  I think this one change could help so many of the problems we face today with modern education.

Forget segregating kids by age, each class should have a large enough mix of ages so that children can work at their level for a given topic.  One child might at a grade 5 math level, but at grade 3 in reading.  That’s okay.  Given the right environment and ridding ourselves of the idea that a child has to be at equal levels across all subjects because they are at a certain age, most children will thrive.  Because let’s face it, assuming all children should be at the same level because they’re born in the same year is as asinine as lowering the standards so that all children “meet” the bare minimum.

Multi-age classrooms also allow for children to teach other children.  Those who are advanced work with those who are not.  They help each other out.  You may end up helping your friend in Math then turn around and have your friend help you in English.  Not only will this help children realize they all have different strengths and weaknesses, but most importantly, children learn well from each other and teaching is one of the best ways for us to consolidate and enhance our own understanding of a topic.  Giving children the chance to master their own knowledge is invaluable.


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