By Tracy G. Cassels
Public education was one of the best inventions of the modern era. All children given the same education regardless of sex, race, or money? Genius. And for a while it worked better than we might have imagined despite the SES disparities in individual school districts. Now we have today. Today things are seemingly going downhill and getting worse. Like a rock gathering moss as it plummets down the hill to the very bottom.
Families are looking to alternatives in droves. Homeschooling, unschooling, private schooling, religious schooling. You name it, there are parents trying to figure out how to make it work. What went wrong? Wasn’t public education the dream of many nations? Weren’t we supposed to bring up all of society by making sure all children had the basics of education?
Yet when you look at schools in many nations, we see the failure of students to even succeed at a basic level. We have to ask ourselves, “Why?” We’re fighting high drop our rates, illiteracy rates, and a more general problem that kids these days often don’t enjoy school at all. But we’ve decided that this should be “normal”. Hating school? Well, that’s just part of the world.
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.
And that’s key.
Kids often don’t follow this weird trajectory we have decided they should when it comes to learning. They may spend early years excelling in math because it interests them and then only later develop of love of books and reading, or vice versa. Some kids will develop interests at the same time, wanting to spend equal time on math and reading and science. This is how kids work. Heck, it’s how us adults work too when it comes to obtaining information and becoming learned.
Learning is not the same as schooling.
In schooling, especially in North America these days, we focus on set milestones children should be reaching together based entirely on age and completely ignoring the child’s interests in favour of set curriculums. We teach them the way we think is best, regardless of whether or not it works for a given child. And so children are schooled – for many hours a day – but are they learning? I would say some are, but many aren’t. It’s not fair to put this on teachers though, they’re stuck in a system that is, let’s face it, broken.
Where did we go wrong and what can we do to fix it?
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.
These multi-age settings also improve social skills and increase empathic behaviour. Children learn to socialize with those older and younger. They learn how to care for younger children (and we know that caring for younger children lowers bullying and increases empathic behaviour and social skills). Games involve everyone instead of same-age peers and for those students who may be “socially immature” there is no stigma anymore because you can play with those you are most comfortable with.
I’m not a teacher so I can’t speak to how it would change the way teachers approach teaching, but they managed to do it for many years, at a time when public education thrived, and I think they could be up to the task again. I imagine it means a lot more one-on-one with students to see where they’re at, and also structuring learning so that children can learn at their level doing the same tasks. A science experiment teaches different things to different children of different levels, but they all get something out of it and will get out what they are developmentally ready to learn.
I don’t know that we’ll ever see this type of overhaul to go back to where we were. I hope we do though because I feel so strongly that too many children are missing out on learning with the way our current school system is.