Education Opinions Part 2: "Big" Changes

For those of you who haven't already seen Education Opinions Part 1, I recently discussed "small" changes I would make in education (school start times, recess, and lunches). Today I want to talk about "big" changes I would make in education (if I were in a position of incredible power!)--age-based grades, online learning, and authority hierarchy in school. 

Age-Based Grade Levels
I took two electives recently at Redmond Junior High. Everyone asked what grade I was in. It would go something like this:
"Adora, what grade are you in?"
"Ninth grade."
They look incredulously at my apparently seventh-grade style of dress (i.e., sweaters and shirts vs. tank tops and jackets) and say, "You're in ninth grade?"
"Yeah," I nod quickly, and explain, "I skipped a grade."

[Actually, it's feasible that I skipped two grades, since twelve-year-olds are often put in seventh grade (depending on when your birthday is) but usually I say I just skipped one, since I'm now thirteen.]

One's grade in school decides what you'll learn and the level at which you'll learn it. It decides when you'll graduate from high school and even the friends you'll make (most of your friends are probably in your grade or close to it). My question is why your age, not your aptitude, should determine your grade. I am at a loss as to the benefits of putting a group of people of approximately the same age--but of varying aptitudes--into one room where they will all learn the same thing. The quicker students will sit bored while the teacher re-explains a concept they already know from their voracious reading, while the slower students will be confused and left out by the rapid pace at which everyone else seems to be progressing.

My parents homeschooled my sister and me for many years. Why? Because the local school insisted that I, being three, should go to preschool, and my sister, being five, should go to kindergarten. The problem? You learn your alphabet in preschool, and I was already reading chapter books. At the same time, however, I was not so far along with math and science. In other words, I was not "advanced" in everything. Yet many gifted and talented programs try to put students into all-around advanced classes.

Wouldn't it make more sense to be able to take some kind of test (oral, written, multiple choice, or informal discussion with a counselor) to determine what level you would be? Maybe then I could have taken a test which would have allowed me to learn at second grade reading and history level, and kindergarten or first grade math and science.

To me, this approach makes far more sense than sorting students into grades based on when your birthday is. Would you ever tell a son or daughter, little brother or sister, "You weren't born before September 1st, so I'm not going to help you learn your alphabet"? Yet that is what our school system does every year.

Placement tests to sort students into levels would put students with a larger knowledge base into higher grades, but a large knowledge base doesn't necessarily mean a love of learning. I'd propose that honors/gifted status would then be determined by a student's desire to learn and exhibition of independent learning traits (i.e., reading a lot outside of school, tracking current events, etc.). For instance, if you're a ten-year-old who's been advanced to seventh-grade level mathematics, you'd be placed in the honors math class. The material covered would be the same as the seventh-grade level math (because honors classes would no longer have to serve only as a means of providing harder material--you'd be placed in a higher grade if you had that large knowledge base), but there would be more discussion, extracurricular activity, etc.

I personally think that there is no obvious benefit to having an age-based grade system. (Can anyone think of obvious pros?) But there are many obvious, compelling reasons why not to have one.

Perhaps I should add that age-based grades don't necessarily have to be wiped out completely (as in, you could still say, "I'm a seventh grader," "I'm a ninth grader," etc.), but that they would be mainly symbolic and would not decide the level of classes you should take.

Authority Hierarchy in School
I definitely think that students need to get involved in decision-making on a deeper level, beyond simply being on an associated student government or student council. At the TEDx conference I organized last year, TEDxRedmond, several speakers (all of whom were under 18), spoke movingly on their opinions about education and certain ways their schools had supported and/or failed them.

In many countries, schools are preparing students to participate in a democratic environment; yet schools themselves tend to be extremely autocratic, with all high-level decisions being made by adults. Let students have a voice--use online technology to have students give constructive feedback to their teachers and school administrators. Implement student suggestions. Put students on school district boards. Allow students to help form curriculum and get their ideas on which assignments work best for them. Hold regular meetings where students are invited to speak to their school officials.

Online Learning
Every school district should have an online learning framework, so that "blended learning" (partially online, partially in-person) can be an option for students. Students could read more of the fact-based lesson material online, so that when they came to class in-person, time could be used on higher-order thinking skills like experiments, projects, and the like. A lot of excellent learning takes place when students are face-to-face with each other and a teacher, yet there are situations where students may not always be able to make it to class. Should students not be able to continue doing any of their work simply because of a school flu epidemic, school staff on strike, snow days, or absences? 

Other obvious benefits of incorporating online learning:
- Teachers could post assignments, students could submit responses, and teachers could grade them, all online, without worrying about endless stacks of paper.
- Students could keep up with what was going on in class and see instant grade updates.
- Teachers could post multiple-choice tests, which can be easily computer-graded, online, and save themselves from the tedious work of checking multiple choice answers.
- Students could review materials from past lessons before a test.
- Teachers could easily post links and resources online for students to view.
- Parents could keep updated on what was happening in class.
- By using tools like Elluminate, Skype, GoToMeeting, chat, Google Voice, etc., teachers could easily stay in touch with students (particularly when students had questions).

As a student at an online public high school, I see my teachers using many of these tools. Many of my teachers have Google Voice as well as embeddable chat tools, so we can quickly get in contact.

Of course, like the "small" changes, all the "big" changes will cost money. Where will that come from?

Among other places, maybe by cutting some of the money that goes into competitive sports (could we make certain sports co-ed, for example?) They provide excellent opportunities for young people to exercise and learn, but do we really need so much expensive transportation for competitions, coaches, and sports gear? (Not to mention new research showing the dangers of certain sports, like football.) Besides, if you read my earlier "small" changes post, you'll notice I mentioned bringing back recess and making PE a daily fifteen-minute class throughout every school year, making exercise routine and not necessarily competitive.

Finally, students should take international studies classes, since it's often shocking how little Americans know about other countries. (Can you name all the provinces of Canada? Mexico's president? Capital of Denmark?)

I know this post is quite long, and because of the extreme municipal-level management of schools, many of these changes are seemingly impossible. I'm hoping that we can work toward a better school system in the coming days and years.


  1. Adora, I loved your suggestions (as a young teacher) but in fact I do see a point in age-based class system. Or even two, for that matter. One is - people would not only be able to "skip" grades, but if the placement tests were valid - would have to "fall behind" a few grades. This is a problem of creating a chaotic and diencouraging enviroment and has to be analyzed. The other one is simple - the "obvious pro" here is the fact you can excel in something, see that your peers have different talents - "Oh, Peter is not so good at Maths, but he paints so skillfully!" or "Maybe I shouldn't feel bad I don't like Chemistry, some kids are better at other stuff" etc. Maybe I'll think up more examples on that "big change" because it's the only one I am really of two minds about.

    Take care,
    Agnieszka (AKA Mizuu)

  2. Hi Agnieszka,
    Thanks for the comment. You bring up a very good point--the placement tests might become extremely stressful for students worried about their ability or lack thereof. I know I would be worried about having to repeat a grade of math. :) (Not really, but I do sympathize with kids in that situation).

    What I think would eliminate stress from the placement tests would be this: your age might guarantee you a spot in your "regular-level" classes. So if you are nine-ten years old, with adequate but average abilities in all subjects, you can simply remain in the "fourth-grade" classes.

    Only if you demonstrate an extreme lack of understanding in the subject would your counselor recommend that you repeat the grade. Furthermore, there might be certain times throughout the beginning of the year where, if you felt that your class was too easy or too challenging, you could move to a higher or lower level class.


  3. I like your thoughts - however, one pro to the age-based system is that you're in a class with people of the same maturity level as you. Otherwise I could see 15 year olds in class with 11 year olds, which might be a big problem in terms of the learning environment. And I could see some self-esteem issues cropping up...

  4. Allison11:13 AM

    Your last point reminded me of the high school that I currently go to. While it is like the average school as far as going into school everyday and sitting at a desk in front of a teacher, my school has added an online learning twist to it. We use laptops in school, our teachers post assignments and resources online, etc. I feel like I do learn better that way since I have access to more than a textbook, whatever notes, and a teacher lecturing at me.

  5. Thanks Adora for offering these thoughts! As you know, I reposted your thoughts at a coop blog where many educators (and parents like myself) blog about learning and how should education and the school system change to support learning:

    I am happy to see feedback coming in from some of the teachers blogging at or reading the coop blog. I hope you'll find some of the thoughts valuable!

    With great respect for the curious mind in all kids!


  6. Although I agree with the just of it, there are some things I question.

    Such as the example with football. Although it seems that language seems to be your area of focus, mine would be more science aligned, and others may aim to obtain a more fine arts education or a more motor education. I don’t know if cutting down on these other areas of funding to benefit the academic subjects that we seem to value more would be fair to these other students.

    And on the international studies classes, I can see where you’re coming from, but as a Canadian, I know that many of us cannot name all of our provinces either. And then I must wonder, is it really that important? For the people to whom it is relevant, they will realize these places over time. For people who never need to know them, is it really important that they know them for the sake of knowing them?

  7. Anonymous9:56 AM

    moodle can be used for Online Learning.

  8. Anonymous3:13 PM

    When you talk about the cons of age-based grade levels, I think you are touching on something very important: meeting the needs of individual students. By grouping students according to ability and not by age, educators can help students meet their needs in the best way possible. The school system as we recognize it today began during the Industrial Revolution and is based upon a factory model in which the collective group of students is deemed to be more important than the individual needs of students. However, you should be aware of the fact that the contemporary education system is moving towards making sure each individual student has his/her needs met through the creation of individualized programming for each student. As an educator is Western Canada, I see first hand how students who are struggling or excelling in a particular area are given assignments based upon their ability and not upon their age.

  9. Anonymous6:49 PM

    Hi Adora,

    I have known of you for about a year now, and I have always been wondering how you can read so much. I know that some people just adore reading and that helps, but I'm wondering because I love reading but my energy level never seems allow me to read. I always seem to either have too much energy and can't focus, or I am too tired. I was wondering if you had any advice for this. Does this ever happen to you, and if so, how do you deal with it?

    I realized when watching you in The World's Cleverest Child and Me on Youtube that you were wiggling your feet a bit while you read. Is this how you sometimes deal with having too much energy? I do the same thing, however, it doesn't do much for me.

    I am sorry for the long comment. No worries if you can't help.

  10. Anonymous6:50 PM

    Although I certainly understand where your frustration is coming from, there are flaws in this argument. The US educational system, as it stands, is based on a "Renaissance" system of education. You learn your maths, your science, your geography, your history, your grammar, your art. It's all equally important until arriving at high school, where students finally have some say in what they’d like to take, because they have some idea about where they are going. (This is a bit different in Europe, and the UK.)
    There have been numerous child prodigies at math, chess, music, you name it; however these prodigies are fairly straightforward and indisputable. While reading at such a young age is commendable, and writing lots of stories is a great way to spend your young years, one cannot compare someone very clever with reading to a boy who knows calculus at the age of seven—indeed, it is unlikely there’s even prodigy status. Why? Because reading words and comprehension is only a small amount of what the study of literature is. (I doubt you were reading Milton at five and catching the themes and the syntax and the meter, for example. This would be a prodigy.) Depending on the high school you attend, and the caliber of your college, you’re expected to read a text and make incredibly complex connections about it, using your knowledge of literary theory and history. A seven or eight year old—even a thirteen year old—simply won’t be at the same caliber, because they haven’t drudged through all this historical/theoretical material before arriving at, say, Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (If you major in Literature you will read this at least thirteen times.)
    This, of course, might be different in high school—however, I’d go so far to argue that there’s no point to fighting for “more advanced” classes in middle school/high school, as it really only gets “deep” into literature if you take AP English—and even this is child’s play compared to a reputable college.
    It’s quite understandable why age, in most cases, determines placement. Being great at one thing doesn’t mean being great at another, and there simply aren’t enough teachers to custom tailor classes. The educational system is poor enough already. “Advanced” honours classes really aren’t the advanced you are talking about—in these, we’re talking about maybe expanding more on a topic, or learning more terms—you’re talking about skipping a good four levels, I imagine.

  11. Anonymous6:51 PM

    With regards to the contradiction of math placement and other placements, it’s very simple: reading books at a young age won’t test you out of a class. While your writing is advanced for the age of thirteen, it wouldn’t be taken seriously in an MFA program application, or even an undergraduate program beginning class; labeling oneself a prodigy, therefore, seems a bit bizarre. However, a twelve year old boy who can solve a liner algebra equation, or play a very complicated Mendelssohn sonata, or beat a Grand Master at chess has something tangible. (Similarly, if a thirteen year old published something with the genuine lyricism of Virginia Woolf, or the technical attention of Keats, we’d have something, and well, at that point why should one even go to school?)
    There have been examples of bright individuals graduating from college at age eleven, twelve—it’s possible, but unusual, and they typically are just bright—not particularly talented at anything.
    Unfortunately, gifted reader swill have to do what gifted readers have always done (indeed, there were quite a few of us reading Jane Austen in the second grade—you’ll find them in college), and that is read, read, read, and accept childhood.
    I will add, however, that in most non-international relations/political science majors, there’s simply no reason why one should know the president of Mexico or the capital of Denmark. It’s just not relevant to the common person—and truly, it doesn’t make someone ignorant. As someone who fluently speaks four languages, and can read a dead one, I’m the first person to admit that there’s really no need for compulsory language courses in America. Why? This isn’t Europe—we don’t sneeze in Germany and end up in Italy. Most people have to travel a good thousand miles before hitting Spanish. Our efforts are better spent on improving other subjects.
    Now this novel is completed. It is three AM where I live—I simply have no time to check for errors. You may find them for me.

  12. Rocobley9:08 AM

    The problem with streaming by ability, aside from obvious ones of undermining some student's self esteem is that it eliminates the possibilities of collaborative learning *between* students of different ability. I understand, speaking to teachers I know, that studies show consistently that if you place less able students with ones of high ability, the former will improve due to the presence of the latter. Indeed, this is a key argument for placing kids with learning difficulties in mainstream education rather than segregating them out in "special schools". I'd go further and suggest that such collaborative learning creates possibilities of getting the most able students actively aiding their less able classmates - which among other things would help instil values of generosity and community spirit into the next generation.

  13. Adora, you are definitely on to some great ideas in these two posts. I would say that the biggest challenge to education reform today is that most people who went to a "normal" K-12 school have trouble imagining education any other way. Like you, I also had a mixture of public education and homeschooling. I have found that when discussing changes or flaws with public schooling most people are immediately defensive. Keep up your optimistic spirit. More and more people are realizing that change does need to happen.

  14. Anonymous4:18 PM

    Hi Adora,

    I have known of you for about a year now, and I have always been wondering how you can read so much. I know that some people just adore reading and that helps, but I'm wondering because I love reading but my energy level never seems allow me to read. I always seem to either have too much energy and can't focus, or I am too tired. I was wondering if you had any advice for this. Does this ever happen to you, and if so, how do you deal with it?

    I realized when watching you in The World's Cleverest Child and Me on Youtube that you were wiggling your feet a bit while you read. Is this how you sometimes deal with having too much energy? I do the same thing, however, it doesn't do much for me.

    I am sorry for the long comment. No worries if you can't help.

  15. Anonymous4:23 PM

    Dear Adora,
    If only our politicians were thinking about education in this way!
    I really admire your clarity on a subject which only seems to emphasize the education system's inadaquacies, at least in all the debates I've heard. But people a whole lot smarter (and a couple thousand years older) than me have said that the only way to truth is through argument. When I read your post, I saw only one side of the issue. I thought I might bring to your attention a couple others, especially on the subject of age based grades, not to disagree with you, but to see your side more clearly for the contrast, I guess.I want to know what you'll think of them.
    My grandfather skipped a couple grades, not because of his intelligence (although he is a very bright man) but because of his height. (This was a long time ago.)It was felt that he would fit in better with kids his size. He did not have problems keeping up with the classwork, but he never let any of my aunts and uncles skip grades. He felt that the social aspects of school, which arguably depend far more on age than intellectual abilities, were too important.
    In my own experience, the friends- and enemies, not to mention diplomatic skills- I have gained in school are something unique. I could easily learn more outside of school if I so wished (and often I do), but the community there, however oppressive,dull, and stunting it may be at times, I couldn't have found elsewhere (because honestly, who would want to fin it elsewhere?). To classify kids based on thier intelligence or skill in a particular subject matter could detract from our sense of community as a whole, our understanding of others different from us and our ability to deal with them.In a country where schools are already unofficially segregated based on money, location, and even race, can we afford further stratification?
    In the end, how different is your idea from classifying kids on their height?

  16. Ray Anon6:29 PM

    Once again, I highly appreciate your thoughts. Have you listened to Ken Robinson's "Changing education paradigms" TED talk?

    In the improbable case that you have not, I am sure you will like it a lot, especially from 6:30 on :)

    Age-Based Grade Levels:
    I skipped the first grade myself, and yet the math classes in primary school did not challenge me enough. Now my teacher was so thoughtful to give me extra tasks when I had finished the normal ones, so I wasn't bored. You asked what benefits an age-based system could have, and I can spontaneously think of two possible ones.

    The first advantage of not separating me might have been that I still had the same teacher and the same classmates, ensuring a stable social group. The conviction how important that is varies greatly. Personally, I think it depends on how much self-confidence you were taught by your parents, so changing social groups and authority persons don't necessarily have to be a bad thing.

    Another advantage one might see is that people of the same age are comparable in physical characteristics. Throwing a small and weak child in the midst of older children can equal offering a defenseless prey to violent predators. But again, this is not a general rule. When it comes to bullying, any difference may be sufficient for discrimination: Freckles, thick glasses, a speech impediment... And when the bullies turn up in a group, it does not matter how tall or strong you are anyway.

    So all in all, I am very much in favor of relaxing the strict division in classes. This outdated practice is also miles away from the life at university. So if the system is not good enough for students, why is it good enough for pupils?

    Authority Hierarchy in School:
    I think we have to ask first which fundamental doctrine shapes the school system. Until I visited university, no one ever told me about "Philosophy of Science". I had to think and read and research everything for myself. In other words: I went to school every day and listened to what the teachers told us, and yet it was never considered important to explain me why I should believe anything of what they said! I was essentially raised to become a blind believer, supposed to follow preachers. And as long as this is the fundamental idea of the purpose and nature of a school, democracy has no place in it. Now, just to avoid any misunderstanding, my teachers were mostly great and encouraged us to ask questions. But we never learned to question the system itself. How then hope to understand or even change it?

    Online learning:
    Yeah, we were definitely born too early. I am sure that in twenty years the digital revolution will have profoundly changed the school and university system. This is just a matter of time in my opinion; as soon as the "digital natives" dominate the school system and make the decisions, they will surely make extensive use of these chances. I am very optimistic here!

    I wonder, do you sometimes fervently wish that you had been born in a future decade or century, where all the struggles and problems of the present have been overcome? If so, then remind yourself that you are not cursed with your "early birth", but blessed. Blessed with the privilege of taking these first steps into a new frontier :)


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