Saturday, June 20, 2009

mixed or undergraded classrooms.

The following is from Mike Rose's blog post of Jun 11, 2009:
The idea of “mixed age” or “undergraded” primary classrooms gained some national popularity in the late 1950s and sixties, then faded; it is once again being discussed as part of school reform. The pleasant, productive chaos of Rooms 13 and 14 at Franklin Elementary belied the boldness of Anne and Abby’s experiment, for what they were doing challenged one of the most widespread practices in elementary education: setting cognitive and linguistic benchmarks for children’s development.

“Children just don’t learn to read or write or count or compute at the same time,” Abby said in exasperation. “There’s all kinds of normal variation. Some kids don’t really start reading until the second grade, and they go on to become fluent readers.” Yet the anxiety that can be generated when a child doesn’t hit one of these arbitrary benchmarks—especially among some affluent parents who attach great significance to such measures—is considerable and can lead to a range of remedial interventions, some more harmful than helpful.
Through this year, students at Clear Spring School have been in classroom groupings of 1st and 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 5th and 6th, 7th and 8th, etc. This next year, we are changing to a Montessori grouping of three grade levels in each class. This nearly completely removes the pressures that result from having only a brief window for growth, allowing children to grow outwardly in response to inner development rather than as set by standards and external expectations. In many classrooms, if a child's development does not conform to specific norms, he or she may be viewed as lacking in intelligence or lazy and accept other's assessments of him or herself as such, when it is really the system that is at fault. I have told the story of Procrustes before.


  1. As a child of the 60s educational system, which included things like, NEW MATH, and dozens of other experiments, which seemed to have negative consequences over the long term in education--as later reported, I did find one thing I feel that worked and made sense. From grade 1 to 6 we were placed within groups in reading, then in math in later grades, within the classroom of the grade we were in.

    What this did was allow students of varying skills to be grouped together according to their skills, be brought together to be taught at their own speed and skills, with individual attention as needed. This even allowed a teacher to place a student in two groups at once, such as happened to me in reading once. The rest of the classroom concentrated on preassigned tasks, such as preparing their work, while waiting for their group to be called.

    In 7th. and 8th. grade, the Junior High School I went to divided students in each grade by category based heavily on national standardized tests and previous classroom performance, so you again had students whose aptitude and skills were close to the same from class to class. Although the intelligence levels were not as obvious as students might have imagined, I was in 7-6 or class grade 7, group 6, the highest group. You would think there would have developed cliques and elitist attitudes among students, but that never materialized and students learned together at a much more homogeneous pace.

    I fell, if you will to 8-2 or second highest class in 8th. grade, with the only difference being, 8-1 was the only class which took Algebra 1. Yes, I think there were no more than 300 to 500 kids in the whole Junior High, so this was easier to do than in a school of a 1,000 or more students, but it seemed to work well. I have never understood why this went away, given that student's national test scores seemed to start to go downhill, once this learning concept was abandoned.

    Thanks for the chance to reply.

  2. Anonymous10:33 AM

    Doug, I've really been enjoying your blog, ever since I saw your quote in the NYTimes.

    As a Montessori practitioner, I'm constantly amazed by the parallels in your philosophy of work and education and that of Maria Montessori. She was one of the first in the world of education to really understand the value of hand work as a means to true intellectual understanding--there's a whole chapter in her book "The Absorbent Mind" called "Intelligence and the Hand".

    And, as you alluded, she also pioneered the use of mixed age classrooms, which was based on thousands of hours of observation and the resulting understanding that children develop in stages over several years. The ability of a teacher and student to get to know each other over three years allows for such a deeper level of learning and growth.

    Thanks for such a wonderful blog, and looking forward to that book someday!

    All the best,
    Lena Wood
    Portland, OR

  3. Our current educational model was based on things that had nothing to do with education. First it began to emulate industry, and now it is being driven toward the Walmart model in which sales and performance are monitored continuously by computers.

    What Wyman describes with students stuck in named groupings seems so overtly rigid and impersonal. At Clear Spring things are much more fluid and driven as much by the interests of the child as by the monitoring of grade level and adherence to predetermined curriculum by teachers.

    Teaching is as much art as science, and perhaps someday we will get that through our thick heads.

    Lena, thank you for your comments. I will see if I can find Maria Montessori's book. It is one I should have read a long time ago.

    The interesting thing to me is that there are so many important educational theorists who are so effectively ignored in American education.