Posted by: crudbasher | June 7, 2011

Implications of Not Grouping School By Age

(cc) patires71

As usual, today’s #edchat on Twitter sparked a bunch of interesting thinking! The topic was what are the implications of grouping students by ability, not by age. Also as usual, I had more thoughts than can easily be expressed via Twitter so here goes.


The biggest reason schools are organized by age is because of the factory model. A factory is all about resource management. You have to be able to predict accurately that X amount of labor, materials and money will produce Y amount of product.  As school systems plan their budget they do this knowing that they will have a certain amount of students in each grade. Therefore because everyone takes the same classes , they know how many teachers they will need, how much classroom space, etc… If you allow students to group by ability, then you can’t predict any of the resources you will need.

I think this inability to budget is the biggest obstacle to changing the current system. This leads to a rather startling piece of logic: If you can’t change the current system to fit this new need, then you need a different system. I’m sure this won’t be welcome by the vast education-industrial leviathan. 🙂

Conclusion: The current system would have to be changed beyond recognition to support this.

One size does not fit all 

Geez I just blogged about this! I have begun to realize that if you have a problem that is very, very complex, you might not find just one answer. One of my favorite quotes is from H. L. Mencken:

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. 

We are dealing with children who are each unique. The problem is, every attempt at systemic education reform can only deal with a hypothetical “average” child. Can we group them by something else besides age? Sure, we already are in college.

In college classes students aren’t grouped by age or ability, they are grouped by desire to learn. That’s critical here. At younger ages we might actually want to group students by age because they really don’t have many desires to learn. Well let me rephrase that. They don’t know what they want to learn yet. Children LOVE to learn. They just don’t like the way schools force them to do it. Let’s face it, you might love steak,  but I bet that would change if you were forced to eat it every night. (Although I am willing to participate in that experiment heh heh)

So maybe the current age-grouped school system would end at grade 8? A standard curriculum + electives should provide a decent foundation to build on. From then on, they can determine their own path.

Conclusion: Some age grouping isn’t a bad thing up to a certain age.

Group based on what factors? 

Grouping by age is done because it makes budgeting easier, but grouping by ability might not work either. There is a big difference in maturity between 9th graders and 12th graders. Personality is very important too. Who makes these groupings? I think the only answer would be the students themselves. They already group up with video games and social media. I’m sure they can find learning groups too. This would actually be much easier if you could choose from online students as well. You might have a gifted child in your class who can’t work with anyone else but that’s only a pool of 30 or so. What if you had a pool of 30,000 from around the world? That would work.

Conclusion: Grouping has to take into account multiple factors and have a large pool to choose from. 


As a teacher, it takes a lot of time to plan a lesson for a class of student. It is easier because you can assume they all are the same age and maturity (mostly). Now take a group that is not based on age. Even choosing a textbook becomes a mess. Each student will read at a different level.

This means that there would have to be a very large repository of learning materials that can be accessed by students. Teachers could not possible create all the content, nor even control access to it anymore. Sharing is the name of the game.

Conclusion: A system like this would require a sharing of educational resources on a vastly larger scale than exists now. 


There is a similar problem here as with materials. Assessment would have to be made that are accessible to a variety of ages. I think a lot of the actual content could be reused, but the wording and presentation would have to be revised for different ages. It’s also likely that other ways of assessment like portfolios will really come into their own.

Conclusion:  Assessment will have to be much more flexible and tailored to each student.


People learn at different speeds and in different ways. Some student will take longer than others and it’s important that we let them. They should move on when they are ready, not when it’s time. This more than anything will help students regain the feeling that learning is fun and worthwhile, not a chore.

Conclusion: Learning is like a fine wine, it should be enjoyed slowly

I think that the system I describe above is not only desirable it is inevitable. The stormfront of change now blowing through education will see to that. It might not be right for every student, but it will become a valid option for many. Throughout history there have been organizations that have seemed all powerful and would last forever, however history has shown us repeatedly the following:

The only constant in life is change.

I’m sure I forgot a few things but #edchat is like that! So many amazing people sharing amazing ideas!

Please add anything I missed in the comments!


  1. Someone once told me to stop trying to change the system, but create a system that competes with the current system and works more efficiently.

    Along with education being revised based on wording, material, speed and age, the temperament of the child should also be considered.

    • Yeah I think I have said something like that too. I do think a parallel system will emerge that will take more and more marketshare from public schooling.

      Also, taking temperament into consideration seems very wise.

      Thanks for contributing!!

      • Guess I am a little behind the times here. I just visited a school that does not group by age 6 yrs to 9yr olds. Any other schools out there. I am head of a small private school and would love to start exploring the idea. Thanks.

  2. We did have some conversation this morning about multi-age classrooms, more along the lines of one-room school houses. Imagine what kind of groupings you could do with that. Instead of isolating subjects, students could be learning together many “subjects” simultaneously, teaching each other, learning empathy and compassion… I really believe that this model (which was pretty successful before the factory model was implemented), is at least one solution to the current problem.

    • Hey Michelle,

      It is interesting that our current factory model is only a little over 100 years old. The old way of doing things evolved over many hundred of years so there must have been a reason for doing it that way right?

      Great observation and thanks for contributing!

  3. this sounds exactly like Earthschooling, Michelle. The working model is being used today.. successfully.

    • Earthschooling… Never heard of it but I’m going to Google right now! Thanks!

  4. It amazes me that we still use this system. Kids don’t all lose their teeth at the same time on the same day. We allow this process to happen naturally and never think a thing of it. No parent would dream of bringing their child to the dentist and demanding their teeth be ripped out because they are the right age. And yet. it seems to be the way we approach just as complex problems like reading and math. You are 5 so now you read. Kids develop at different rates. That is okay. No grouping by age at Anastasis Academy, looking forward to a COMMUNITY of learners.

    • I love all these schools experimenting with different concepts! With twitter and PLNs these sort of success stories will get around and maybe, just maybe will begin to change things. We will see!

      I am so thrilled to see you on here again Kelly! I hope you are well!

  5. I’m sorry I missed edchat this morning (last night). For once I was actually asleep at 4am our time! I have very strong views on this so I would have liked to hear the discussion. In my own teaching unit (years 5-7) we group kids according to a range of flexible criteria. Right at the moment they are grouped according to who is in the school production. Last term they were grouped so that one class who were going to NZ for two weeks could have some intensive work on that experience. At other times we group them according to learning styles, character strengths, etc. Age is never a factor for us.

    The problem is that when they leave us they are immediately placed back into year level groupings. Why? Because it suits the teachers and the designated curriculum. With the introduction of Australia’s National Curriculum which is based on grade levels, I fear this problem is going to get worse.

    • Hey Anne thanks for commenting! I am sure it must be frustrating to see the joy of learning that those students must feel snuffed out when they move back to the factory system. I didn’t realize that Australia is going to a national curriculum system. That might not be a good idea…

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