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MSPnet Blog: “Questioning assumptions #1: age-grading”

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posted August 12, 2014 – by Brian Drayton

A certain discouragement sets in after a few hours’ reading of educational history. There are so many recurrent themes, and so little learning from past experiments! Some acute scholars, not yet too jaded to seek for understanding, remind us that our assumptions — not just about schooling, but about the social values within which schools are embedded — will shape what education looks like. This happens as much by exclusion as inclusion.  That is, our assumptions both shape the values we chose, and the things we do not value or even forget to evaluate!

Sarason addressed power structures within schools.  Dewey unpacked the complex relationships between our ideas about knowledge and the enactment of democracy.  Many, such as Berliner (here) and Martin Haberman (here) have explored the impacts of poverty on learning and on teaching.

I am fascinated by the search for unquestioned assumptions, and I warn you this will be a recurring theme of this blog.

Larry Cuban in a recent post (here) gives us a two-fer.  He comments on (and links to) a fascinating article by Elizabeth Green in the NYTimes Magazine about math teaching in the US (“Why do Americans stink at math?”), and in the course of his reflections, raises up a basic assumption that Green does not mention at all.   Of course, Cuban is a student of pedagogical change or its absence, and so he would be interested in Green’s discussion of reasons for the persistence of unsatisfactory math teaching in the US.    (But do Americans stink at math?  If they do, what evidence is there for causes?  Thomas Loveless from the Brookings Institution has written a searching rebuttal to many of Green’s points here, and this is a topic to which we should return in future.)

More generally, though:  What prevents “us” from learning from decades of research on how teachers learn to change their teaching?  Is it merely a matter that people in different positions in the educational system (parents, principals, superintendents, teachers, Secretaries of Education, etc.) are living on different time scales, and therefore responding to different pressures (see Jay Lemke’s work on timescales in education,with different imperatives;  or Fred Hess’s studies of change in urban schools — check out Spinning Wheels: The politics of Urban School Reform for starters)?

As I say, Cuban, writing about “persistence in math teaching patterns,” moves to one of the most unquestioned of assumptions: age-graded schools.  He writes:

“The organization isolates and insulates teachers from one another, perpetuates teacher-centered pedagogy,  and prevents a large fraction of students from achieving academically. It is the sea in which teachers, students, principals, and parents swim yet few contemporary reformers have asked about the water in which they share daily. To switch metaphors, the age-graded school is a one-size-fits-all structure.”

I certainly have the opinion that teachers could do more to work with the diverse young learners in their care if they were able to see each one in a longer trajectory than a single year.  Having seen various versions of “looping,” in which a teacher may stay with a set of students for a couple of years (as in some public schools) or up to 8  (as in Waldorf schools), I have become convinced that age-graded schooling needs to be replaced. Cuban doesn’t bring much evidence to bear, but a different system can offer different pedagogical strategies.  Benefits?  Perhaps it might have its most valuable impact on factors such as learners’ sense of self-efficacy as learners  — or in more antique parlance, increased love of learning and reduced aversion to schooling.

What is your experience?