Organizing schools by ability instead of age is harmful to children

Another argument swirling around these days is that it is a disservice to children to educate them in “batches.” Meaning, people argue that we shouldn’t group them in grades by age, but we should focus on their abilities. There are some strong arguments in favour of this and I invite people to detail them below; perhaps you will persuade me. Currently, however, I think the idea is flawed and harmful to children.

I think it is beneficial and appropriate to group children by age in school. Schools serve as their primary vehicle to socialize and be socialized. They should primarily be part of a peer group at more or less the same stage of development (not necessarily ability). They learn about friendships and other relationships at school as much as they do about the curriculum. I think the development of these skills will be hampered if we are constantly re-ordering them as their skill sets grow at different rates. I also thing it creates other problems like: should an advanced 5 year old be partners with a 13 year old who is struggling especially in such things as health class or gym?

This brings me to my second point: consider those children who are struggling. People tend to focus on children who are being held back and who’s skills are more advanced in the argument for ordering be ability; however, we should be equally cognizant of the struggling student. By organizing them by level s/he is de facto failing. S/he sees his/her age cohort, his/her peers, continue to advance and drift away while s/he struggles with younger and younger students. This reality must be considered because implicit into the argument of arranging by ability is that students will grow at different rates (some slower), if not, then organization by age would be adequate. We stopped failing students because we started to value the whole child; we started to realize the damage we were doing to an individual by holding them back. The proposal of organizing by abilities seems to be a step backwards in this regards 

Finally, and the part of it that bothers me the most: By focusing on ability rather then by social peer group, age, or the whole child, we are visiting on our children a harmful practice that we usually reserve for adults. Students become their ability. This is analogous to adults being evaluated/ranked by their job. We measure the worth of a child by their ability, not human dignity, or peer group, or stage of life. The pressure to excel, to out preform, to rank each other by their relative success in school is visiting the worse elements of the ‘rat race’ on the most fragile members of our society. This really upsets me: I would much rather people see my son as a 6 year old and not as a good reader who needs to be moved up and challenged and who needs to struggle (“don’t worry, you’ll make lots of 11 and 12 year old friends in your new class”). I especially want people to see my autistic 3 year old as a child who should socialize with other children and not as a struggling reader who needs to be left behind the more advanced and promising students…doesn’t every parent?


  1. #1 by Devin on September 29, 2011 - 11:57 am

    You bring up many good points. The only concern it leaves me with is what to do with the advanced and excelling students? Are we to hold them back, even though they are begging to move forward? If a student is ready to move on, it seems counterproductive to hold them back just because they are young. It diminishes incentive to excel; students who excel, as a general rule, wish to go further. They don’t want to be restrained by the limitations of others. By all means, if a child is struggling, s/he should receive extra help, but not at the expense of those who are ready to advance.

  2. #2 by Patrick Tucker on September 29, 2011 - 1:28 pm

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t think that maintaining their peer group necessarily equates to “holding them back,” but your point is still a valid one. I agree that we must address their learning needs as well. While easier to leave them alone, the excelling student is equally deserving of their teacher’s attention as is the struggling student. That attention paid to the struggling student in the form of “extra-help” can equally be paid to the advanced student to meet their learning needs. Just because we teach them in “patches based on date” as Sir Ken Robinson says, we don’t need to treat them all the same and teach them the same things. Enrich a student’s educational experience without demolishing peer groups; its been called differentiation, and I find it works pretty well.

  3. #3 by rhialex on February 23, 2012 - 3:51 pm

    In elementary school, me and a a small group of peers (8 of 30) were sent to learn with children in the grade ahead of us from 2nd – 6th grades. We spent part of the day (English, Math, Science) with children in the grade above and the rest of the day (History, Social Studies, Gym, Art/Music) with our peer group. It was the best and worst of both worlds: the classwork was challenging and we all flourished academically; but the older children were irritated at having”babies” as interlopers in their domain and our peer group rejected us as “the smartey-pants” who were “too good” to learn what they were learning.

    If it became “normal” for children who are learning at the same level to be grouped together, I don’t think kids would find it disturbing. How would they know? I don’t mean to insult their intelligence, what I mean is that but age-based learning is an educator-imposed social structure. If the social structure were shifted, after the few children who lived through the transition, the new children would not know any other way.

    The feelings of being “held back” or “failing” may be projected onto the children or magnified by the eye of the adult beholder, rather than resident in the child him/herself.

    Finally, I think that children with skill levels above or below their age groups often have matching levels of precocity or developmental challenges, such that their peer group may actually be children who are younger or older than themselves.

    • #4 by Patrick Tucker on February 24, 2012 - 8:09 am

      Thanks for your response and sharing of your personal experience. I agree with some of what your said, specially the last sentence. I think that there are times or topics where it might be appropriate, maybe even beneficial (I don’t know if it advantageous over more traditional age based classes though). I think, however, that when you incorporate the rate of skill or knowledge accusation, not just kid’s starting point, we might start seeing different problems. The problem might not be starting out with younger students, but seeing those peers advance. Eventually, whether their group is called Lions, and later it gets changed to Tigers, and later to Bears, they will eventually see new “peers” – younger “peers” and that will be problematic–they will stigmatise themselves.

      Eventually, in this model, children like my son, children with severe autism, will be the oldest kid in school in a group full of kindergarten aged children — isn’t that failing? Is that really integration? I think that is the wrong model for him (and for those new 4 year olds entering school for the first time who will have to partner up with a 13 year old), I think it is the wrong model for anyone who learns slower than the average rate…I think that it is damaging to kids….

  4. #5 by Torn Halves on August 17, 2012 - 9:20 am

    Read an article about Mooresville School yesterday (a massive shop window for Apple) and saw how the laptops pull the rug from under the idea of children moving through school together. Each is working through stuff on his/her laptop at his/her own pace. A hornets’ nest of issues there, but everyone at Mooresville (and Apple, of course) seems to be loving it.

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