Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ageism Rules

Why is it that schools and school systems designate their students to age based grades and expect them all to achieve standardised, age based outcomes?

I'm really frustrated by this. Maybe part of my frustration is because it's a 'rule' thing ( see my previous post for my feelings on rules!), but mostly I'm frustrated because my teaching experience tells me that age expectations are so restrictive for some and downright depressing and unachievable for others. Just as kids differ so remarkably in physical development, cognitively and socially they are all over the shop as well and deserve to be taught where they are at, not where some arbitrary, chronological line assigns them.

In my own teaching unit I am lucky enough to work with two colleagues who share my opinion of the negative effects of pigeon holing by grade. We teach 64 kids from year 5 to year 7 and within our core classes we group them by learning style, not by age. The work we plan for them and the expectations we have of them are based on their individual needs, not on the grade list they belong to. We don't even think of them as being in particular grade levels and when asked by someone from outside our unit, we often have to stop and think very hard to say whether they are in year 5, 6 or 7.

The academic data from our unit is exceptional, especially at year 7 level and the break down of academic achievement is also interesting. In mathematics, for example, the range of achievement goes from a VELS level of 1.9 to 5.2. In reading, from 2.3 to above 5.8. Interestingly, the lowest scoring reader is a year 7 student and, you guessed it, the highest scores in both areas come from year 5 students. And yet, I read just as recently as this week, that it is very nearly impossible for a student to be graded at a higher level than grade level in mathematics because the subject is of a lock step nature and the child could not possibly have learnt the material necessary to score so highly! I just really don't believe that and our data refutes it. If my students' achievement was restricted to only what I, personally had taught them, then it would be a shame. Even I'm not egotistical enough to think all their knowledge comes from me. Heck, I have kids who know how to use semi colons properly; and they certainly didn't get that from my classroom ;-0. I have also heard it suggested that year 8 students shouldn't work in vertical groups with year 10s because they will hold the older students back. I would have a few year 8 students who would suggest it might be the other way around because chronological age is a pretty poor indicator of maturity in adolescents!

I've done a fair bit of surfing through Google Scholar while I've been thinking about this and while there isn't a plethora of research available, the work that has been published quite overwhelmingly comes down in favour of multi age grouping that involves individual and differentiated learning tasks. The interaction between the different ages not only enables individual progression, it allows for mentoring, role modelling and nurturing and creates opportunities for a team or family like environment in the classroom.

I'm not sure if it is a status quo thing, as in that's the way it's always been done, because age segregation is actually a relatively recent phenomenon and I found an old but easy to understand article that explains the evolution of this type of education in a far more articulate fashion than I can manage.
On the merits of Multi Age Classrooms.

My gut feeling about the continuance of age/ grade grouping is that it's done that way because it's 'easier'. Easier for teachers, easier for text book writers and test makers, easier for planning the furniture allocations, easier to explain to parents who were themselves taught that way and so think it must be the best way for their own children.

My hope is that this is one of the factors of education that will change dramatically through online learning. I certainly know from my own experience that one of the great benefits of online communication is that you meet the mind first. Your interaction and opinion of another person's intellect and personality is not prejudiced by what they look like, how old they are, or what their social or economic position is.
Imagine if this was the case with our students.If we took away the expectations we have of our students due to their age or grade level, how would that change the way we teach them and the ideas to which we expose them?

1 comment:

  1. Mostly we group students by age / year level because it suits the 'way we've always done things'.
    The shame and the reality of it is that grouping students in year / age groupings has very little to do with the students. Equally alarming is the one size fits all approach that comes from text. As a maths (numeracy) teacher I find it mind blowing that students who are achieving at least 12 months ahead of their 'year' level are mainstreamed back to their peers in the years after I teach them.
    We approach struggling students with individual learning plans, why not talented students. As for the idea of a lock step approach that only suggests a lazy teaching approach and a very arrogant understanding of the way students learn. They certainly do not necessarily learn things in the same order as we teach them. (Thankfully!)