Multi-age classrooms

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Salman Khan makes some fascinating remarks in his book The One World Schoolhouse:

Arguable, this separation by age is the most powerful division of all, because it has allowed for the development of set curricula and ultimately arbitrary but consensual standards of what kids should learn at a given grade level. Expectations move in lockstep, as though all eight- or ten- or twelve-year-olds were interchangeable. Once kids were grouped by age, targets seemed clear and testing was straightforward. It all seemed quite scientific and advanced, and it proved very convenient for administrators. But little or no attention was paid to what was lost along the way.

To state what should be obvious, there is nothing natural about segregating kids by age. That isn’t how families work; it isn’t what the world looks like, and it runs counter to the way that kids have learned and socialized for most of human history. … [A]s anyone who’s ever spent time around children can tell you, both younger and older kids benefit when different ages mix. The older ones take responsibility for the younger ones. … The younger ones look up to and emulate the older ones. Everyone seems to act more mature.  Both younger and older rise to the occasion.

Take away this mix of ages and everybody loses something. Younger kids lose heroes and idols and mentors. Perhaps even more damagingly,older kids are deprived of a chance to be leaders, to exercise responsibility, and are thereby infantilized.

Let’s consider this a moment. Of late there has been much hand-wringing about the state of mind of contemporary teenagers … I would suggest that at least a significant part of the problem is our failure to entrust adolescents with real responsibility. Yes, we stress them out with demands and competition … but only to do with themselves We deny them the chance to mentor or help others, and we thereby conspire in their isolation and self-involvement. Biologically, kids start becoming grown-ups around the age of twelve. That’s when they can reproduce, and while I’m certainly not advocating teenage parenthood, I do believe that nature wouldn’t have made it possible unless adolescents were also wired to be ready to take responsibility for others. High school kids are burgeoning adults, but by narrowly restricting them to the companionship of their peers, responsible for no one but themselves, we treat them as children—and children they tend to remain.


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