Where school is concerned, age matters

In Tuesday’s edition of this newspaper, right here on this page, a columnist suggested that our country’s educational system is doing our youth a disservice by grouping them into classrooms according to age.

Siri Fiske, who is the founder and head of Mysa School in Bethesda, Md. — an alternative, pioneering school based on the rapidly growing “micro school” model — argues that segregating students according to their birth date makes little sense.

In part, she stated: “Imagine a company that keeps entry-level workers separate from more senior employees. One team consists exclusively of 22-year-old new hires, another of 45-year-old middle managers, and a third of 60-year-old senior vice presidents. No inter-team collaboration allowed.

“Such a setup would be a terrible business decision. Upper management would operate in a bubble with zero feedback. And younger employees would suffer from a lack of mentorship.

“No one would ever structure a company this way. Yet it’s exactly how we organize our schools.”

Well, there’s a reason for that.

While it’s true that students will progress and learn at different speeds and putting similar “intellects” together can be a positive, doing so for youngsters — and we are thinking about those through middle school — would be a mistake.

There are other factors to consider when determining how classrooms should be set up. The biggest one, of course, is the social structure.

Fiske quickly pointed out that age wasn’t used to dictate classroom setups in this country’s early days, adding that all students were taught by a teachers and, in many cases, the older students helped teach the younger ones. But we’re not still in the one-room schoolhouse era when very few students lived within walking or buggy ride distance.

As the country grew in population, educators began to realize the detriment to teachers split their time on the day’s lessons by having teenagers and 7-year-olds in the same classroom. Not only is that and efficient way to teach, but it is also potentially devastating as impressionable young children are mixed in with much-older students.

To compare the classroom setup of today with “the industrial revolution’s factory-like aesthetic” is a weak comparison, just as it is to claim classrooms should be created the same way as businesses are.

We will agree that students at the high-school level and beyond are adjusted and socially competent to learn together in classrooms. Those four years, and potentially eight years or more (with college), more than satisfactorily prepare those students with the “real world.”

Fiske, however, will have you believe differently.

“These (mixed-age) classroom setups also offer social advantages. Children in mixed-age classes are more likely to volunteer and less likely to exhibit aggressive behavior. A recent study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that students with mixed-grade friendships are less lonely.”

She also claims mixed-age classrooms make it easier to group students according to the skills they’ve mastered.

We disagree on both accounts.

Imagine your child being kept out of a class of peers simply because it takes Johnny or Jane a little longer to grasp the day’s lesson. Fiske is saying a group of intellectually advanced classrooms and a group of slower-learning classrooms should be the wave of the future. Sure, the advanced students will blossom, but the others will quickly feel like second class and carry that forward into adult life.

Where students are concerned, especially up until high school, age is not just a number. It is a perfectly common sense method of grouping children together for optimal academic and social learning.



“You can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse. When children feel better, the behave better.” (Pam Leo)