Should We Stop Segregating Students By Age?

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Almost everyone knows that racial segregation in schools officially ended with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. What many might not know is that another form of educational segregation began several decades before the Brown decision, when schools started separating students by age. 

A multi-age approach to education combines students of various ages in one classroom instead of separating them into graded classrooms. This approach practically vanished in America due to the influence of Horace Mann in the mid-1800s, who sought to emulate the Prussian school model. Aiming for efficiency, the Prussian model employed a graded system which would move children through school in a manner similar to the way a factory moves parts down an assembly line.

Yet, as modern research and common sense suggest, segregating children by age may have also done away with several important classroom benefits:

1. Character Development

Research demonstrates that multi-age learning environments encourage older students to accept responsibility and look after their younger peers. In turn, such responsibility fosters increased cooperation and fewer behavior problems as older students become good role models and help keep the younger ones in line.

2. Built-in Motivation

The fact that “little pitchers have big ears” is not always a bad thing, particularly in an area where learning is taking place! According to Dr. Peter Gray of Boston College, a mixed-age learning environment motivates younger students to work harder and advance more quickly in order to do the same lessons as their older peers. And because eavesdropping naturally occurs in a mixed-age classroom, younger children are introduced to advanced lessons and concepts several years ahead of schedule, which in turn can promote greater familiarity and understanding once they reach that same lesson. Perhaps this is why research also shows that a mixed-age environment allows younger students to increase their vocabulary at a greater speed.

3. Learning by Teaching

Multi-age classrooms come equipped with tutors for younger students in the persons of their older peers. Rather than burden the older students with extra work, these tutoring opportunities actually help them learn and review important concepts, underscoring Seneca’s famous statement, “Docendo discimus” (Men learn as they teach).

The lack of character and academic advancement in today’s schools are continually bemoaned by parents, teachers, and the general public. Since a multi-age classroom promotes these traits, might a return to such a system help to restore these qualities in the next generation?

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