10 Basic Principles of Our School System, Part 8: Age-Based Classes

  1. homework
  2. class tests, tests and exams
  3. grades
  4. schoolbooks
  5. the curriculum
  6. 45/90-minute lessons
  7. class size
  8. age-based classes
  9. subjects
  10. teacher focus

 Another aspect of school that seems so essential that you don’t even think about it, which is the fact that the different classes are based on age. What does that mean exactly? It means that normally kids in grade 7 are between 12 and 13, in grade 8 between 13 and 14 and so on. That is the natural order of things, it seems. When I see kids I don’t know, I’m pretty good at guessing which class they are in and then I can convert that into an age. Not the other way around. And it works because if you’re older or younger, you are an exception to the rule. Alright, you say, but where is the problem? Well, there is more than one. 

First of all, if you’re an exception, you really are. If you entered school earlier than others or failed a year, you’re suddenly the one person that one year away from everyone else. So, either you’re the little one and you have to fight a little bit to stay on top (something I experienced myself) or you feel ahead of everyone else and/or slightly stupid for being older because it implies that you failed somehow. Either way, it’s awkward.

If you think about the maturity levels of different genders, you can see another problem. Especially during puberty, girls are often a bit further ahead so that to them the boys quickly seem really immature. Boys on the other hand, don’t understand why the girls are not interested in them. “Why do they only care for the older boys?” Well, that’s just the way things are, but the divergence created by putting everyone in one class of the same age group can be tricky.

The biggest problem for me (which at the same time is the best argument for doing it in a different way) is the fact that it mostly rules out that students can learn much from each other. They are mostly at the same comprehension level (with limited variation), so except for having some talented or untalented students in certain subjects, everyone starts on the same page and usually has to rely on the teacher.

Now imagine a different scenario where students sit together in classes of more mixed ages, with a variety of 3-4 years. On the surface, you could argue that they have less ability to connect, but that’s not necessarily true. Actually, two things can happen that almost never happen in normal classes. Younger students can learn things from older students, which can be more effective than from the teacher because they understand each other better and the older students have an easier time understanding what the young ones need. Older students then learn early on to have responsibility, to be able to teach, to feel more mature and helpful. Both can learn from the other one’s perspective in a way that the normal teacher-students relationship doesn’t allow (more on that next time).

It would also allow and nurture more work among students, so that each student’s individual needs are heard and dealt with more than in an environment where 20-30 students have very similar needs that often remain unsatisfied. Besides, this is a much more “natural” learning environment that tribal cultures have used effectively since the beginning of time. Only in our culture of civilization we started separating kids from each other and putting them in more narrow categories. There is no real good reason for this, except for creating deceiving labels and increasing the dependence on teachers. Many alternative schools and kindergartens practice mixed-age classes and if you have ever seen how well this works, there is no doubt that the normal system is not nearly as effective.

What do you think?