Education Revolution: Age-Grouping

Recently Jeff Livingston, senior vice president of College and Career Readiness at McGraw-Hill, suggested that as flipped classrooms and other more personalized digital approaches to education continue to expand, the next pertinent step in the evolution of American education will be the abolition of age-grouping in schools.

‘What does it mean to say that a child is in a certain grade?’ Livingston challenged. With new and rapid advances in educational technology, he argued, we need to reconsider even the most basic structural foundations.

“From his first daycare or preschool session, the typical Western kid spends much of his time housed with kids of his own age. Why? That’s pretty clear,” writes biological anthropologist Dr. Gwen Dewar, creator of Parenting Science. “Because it’s convenient for the adults.”

Dewar argues that age-grouping may be a time-honored and convenient construction, one which became popular in Western countries around the late nineteenth century, but it is neither natural nor the most efficient approach to kid’s learning.

“The current system of education was designed and conceived and structured for a different age… we have a system of education which is modeled on the interest of industrialism and in the image of it,” said Sir Ken Robinson in his famous TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk “Changing Education Paradigms.” “We still educate children by batches… we put them through the system by age group. Why do we do that… why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are?”

Studies unto today have found mixed evidence on whether or not mixed-aged classrooms are more successful than traditional classrooms. Early Childhood Research studies, however, find that toddlers who play with older kids engage in more pretend play, and a study conducted by the American Educational Research Journal found that preschoolers in mixed-age groups engaged in more complex play. Furthermore, factors such as inadequate teacher training and support may influence mixed-class success.

It has been suggested that grouping kids by age is a social-emotional learning tactic. However, Dewar argues that children who participate in mixed-age groups will learn from older role models and might even become more versatile communicators.

“[I]t seems to me that older role models and coaches are more likely to provide kids with the feedback they need to learn about etiquette, empathy, and self control,” Dewar writes.

Livingston believes that with schools already experimenting and striving for more individualized learning in the classroom, and with the growth of online, self-paced learning platforms, the tenet of grouping kids based on age instead of competency will diminish substantially within the next half decade, particularly at the high school level.

“It doesn’t make sense that all the 15-year-olds are in this grade and all the 16-year-olds are in that grade. It should be where your interests, your skills and your master of certain concepts takes you,” Livingston told reporters in a virtual roundtable.

As Livingston proposes, innovation comprises not only in the application of new methods, such as flipped classrooms, gaming, and other educational strategies that new and emerging technologies are driving; innovation also requires change in the fundamentals in how we view and understand education.

“If you are interested in the model of learning, you don’t start from this production line mentality,” said Robinson. “This is essentially about conformity. Increasingly it’s about that as you look at the growth of standardized testing and standardized curricula. And it’s about standardization. I believe we’ve got go in the exact opposite direction,” he said in 2006.

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