The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro


"Theories and goals of education don't matter a whit if you don't consider your students to be human beings."... ...Lou Ann Walker....

Commentary of the Day - August 12, 2006: One-Room Schoolhouse - Redux.  Guest commentary by Jane Goodwin.

Not everybody is ready for formal schooling at the same time.

I've often wondered why our society is so set on grouping everyone according to their age.  Any one classroom at any given time will contain a group of students who are approximately the same age.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with academic readiness or ability.

There are four-year-olds who are reading Harry Potter, and fourteen-year-olds who still can't manage it.  Yet, this doesn't necessarily mean they never will.  It may just mean, not yet.  Not yet is not a crime, nor is it a disability.  It just means, not yet.  Am I good at programming a VCR?  Not yet.

A kindergarten classroom with twenty-three students contains twenty-three diverse and individual little people.  Some of them can already read and write, do some arithmetic, and draw pictures of people complete with noses and ears and  hairstyles and jewelry.  Some of them don't know one color from another and don't recognize any of the letters of the alphabet and can't count to three; and, if they can figure out how to hold the crayon, their 'person' will probably not have any features other than a stick body and a mouth.  Not only can't they spell their last name, some of them don't even know their last name, or their address, or their phone number.  Some five-year-olds get off the bus carrying a briefcase and a cell phone, and some don't even own socks.  We stick them in a room together because they are all five years old and we expect them to function at the same level.

We continue this absurd mindset throughout their school years.

At one time pioneer children initially were grouped according to age, and then allowed to advance (or retreat) as they learned.  It wasn't all that unusual for a seventeen-year-old to be in the third grade (except for harvest season) nor was it a freakish thing for an eight-year-old to be reciting with the fifteen-year-olds.  Teachers were allowed to place students where they belonged according to their skills and learning, and their age was inconsequential.  Twelve-year-olds went to Harvard.

And I say, if a student is ready, why shouldn't he or she go to Harvard at age twelve, if he or she wants to go to Harvard at age twelve.

I also say, if a student is not ready, why should that student advance forward with those students who are ready?  Wouldn't those who still don't 'get it' hold those who do, back?  They sure do.

Now, some parents go berserk over the very idea that their innocent little nine-year-old might be sitting next to a fourteen-year-old boy in fourth grade.  But if all students were held to a consistent pattern of behavior, why would that be a problem?  Of course, if the students and "those" parents were running the school, it would be hellacious, but why do we allow that, either?

If any student of any age, in any classroom under any circumstances, chooses to misbehave and put another student in jeopardy or even merely disrupt and annoy, that student should be set to rights immediately, and no excuses should be accepted, and no exceptions should be made.

Everybody behaves properly, everyone advances at his/her own pace, everyone is allowed to move forward or step back, no stigmas, no big deal, because school is all about learning, right?

In a dream world.

And why this big deal about age grouping?

In the community college setting, I have a student population that is anywhere from age 18 to age 80.  The mix works beautifully.  We have experience, and naiveté, maturity and youth, all in the same room discussing and learning the same things, and each age has gifts to give each other.  It's good for a teen to hear the voice of experience from someone other than a parent or a teacher, and it's good for an older person to hear the voice of youth and idealism from someone other than his or her own child or co-worker.  When there's a really old person in there, it's even better.  Yes, older than me, even.  There are a few still alive, you know.

I personally believe that the community college is one of the best ideas ever hatched by educators.  A large university is an awesome and wonderful place, but it isn't for everybody.  In a community college, students of any age can find success.  Our classes are small, and diverse beyond your imagination.  My university professors never knew my name or recognized me on the street, but I know every one of my community college students by name, and they know me.  No TA teaches my students; I teach my students.  I grade their essays and tests and quizzes myself, and I know how each of them is doing at any given time in the semester.  My students are not numbers, seated in numbered rows for attendance purposes; my students have names, and can sit anywhere in the room they darn well please, except in my chair.  After a couple of weeks, I can sweep the room with a glance and know who's there and who isn't.

I believe that if we re-organized our schools according to the pattern established by a community college, our students would be better served.  I believe a lot of the behavior problems would disappear (and those that didn't, would be expelled and never allowed on the premises again) and I think the younger students would benefit from having older students to look up to and listen to, and I think the older students would benefit from knowing they are setting examples for the younger students.

When did it happen, that our society has segregated each other according to age?  There is very little intermingling of ages now; everybody hangs out with their own age group, more or less.

My proposal is not a new idea; it's old.  And, I think it's a shame we ever got away from it.

© 2006 Jane Goodwin
Jane Goodwin taught middle school in Indiana for 26 years, and now teaches writing courses at a community college.

The IP comments:  Jane's essay probably has many readers shaking their heads.  We live in a world that has changed enormously since the days of the one-room schoolhouse, and most of us would regard the suggestion that we return to the modern equivalent of the one-room schoolhouse as fanciful.  However, Jane's observations about the problems with graded schools at the K-12 level are essentially correct and not really new. 

The one-room schoolhouse worked well when relatively few school children received more than an eighth grade education, and the number of children attending school was small.  Graded schools were introduced primarily as an efficiency measure to meet the need to educate large numbers of children as immigration swelled the population and industrialization created a demand for workers with more skills than an agrarian society required.  They were in essence a factory model for public education; and, were developed to meet the needs of the "average" child.  But as Jane points out, the "average" child is something of a myth and this was not lost on educators who were forced to deal with the large numbers of students who were being "held back" in the early graded schools.  But, as long as graded schools worked reasonably well for the majority of children there was little incentive to abandon the model.  The one-room schoolhouse model, now called the ungraded school, doesn't take into account the age-correlated differences in physical and emotional maturity among school-aged children that lead to discipline problems when students of widely different ages are in the same class; and, few have been successful.  Unfortunately, other approaches to working with students whose academic maturity differs considerably from "average" also have their problems.  Nevertheless, this is an issue that is important, and one that should not be ignored.


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© 2006 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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