Unpacking the Learning


Grade Levels old

In my book Learning Unleashed, I lay the foundation for why we need out of the box thinking along with radical changes for our schooling systems in this country. In addition to my observations, I provided adult and student voices to help shed light on what might be an opportunity for real innovation. I referred to the ideas as courageous because they shake the core of our complacent status quo with regard to educating our young people.

I described a few practices that I named the ten uncommandments. I did this because they are not written in stone and not substantially supported by research or results. However, the solutions I offer are rooted in sound child and adolescent psychology, proven results, and common sense.

I will provide the entire list as a reference as we proceed in this series.

The Ten Uncommandments (from chapters 11-12 in Learning Unleashed Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools)

  1. Grade Levels
  2. Bell Schedules
  3. Length of school day and school year
  4. Class sizes
  5. School Buildings
  6. Assessments
  7. Grading
  8. Restrictive and limited academic curriculum
  9. Teacher-centered instruction
  10. Teacher tenure and unions

I begin this blog series with the first uncommandment, grade levels.

I’ll cut right to the chase, we don’t need grade levels in school. In fact, they are detrimental and counter productive to real learning. You can read the details in my book, but for the sake of time, here is the condensed version.

For the most part, children who turn five are sent to Kindergarten; six year olds are first graders; seven year olds are second graders, and so on throughout the K-12 system. If they “adequately” learn the information, they get to move on to the next grade level; if not they either repeat the entire year, or they move on with interventions. This is acceptable practice and no one typically questions it – no one except bright and insightful teachers, administrators and parents who understand that the developmental progression for each child varies.

Setting an arbitrary end date by way of completing a grade level is ludicrous and flies in the face of everything educators learn in undergraduate psychology courses and have come to understand more clearly from brain research. We know that children learn at different rates and may require less or more time depending upon their needs.

Sir Ken Robinson titled his talk, “How Schools Kill Creativity,” and although his particular focus was the lack of time and place for the arts and avenues to foster creativity in our schools, he also provided a very compelling history of why this is the case. He explains that we continue to use the factory model to educate children by “batches”.[i]

In his TED talk, and subsequent book, “Out of Our Minds,” he wittingly says that “students move through the system in age groups as if the most important thing the children have in common is their date of manufacture.”[ii]

This seems like a no-brainer, yet we ignore it and refuse to make any kind of change in the grade level schemata except to create combo-classes which address numbers and staffing more than educationally sound practice. So, we continually have interventions which we must provide that are costly, time consuming, and demoralizing for the student who needs to receive it. Why is this so? Who really benefits from grade levels?

The educational institution itself benefits in that it makes record keeping and tracking easier. Grade levels are easy to monitor and control. Within the confines of a grade level, standards, curriculum, textbooks, and accounting all provide ease of navigation to all those involved with a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Except, teachers will tell you that the greatest challenge they have is meeting the needs of all the students in their classroom, because they are all at different levels in their learning – some needing more time and different resources than others. What a novel concept; learning is different for different people.

Children also learn quite a lot when they are among varying age groups. Older students can learn from younger ones and the opposite is also true. Check out more ideas on how we might rethink grade leveling in schools as you read my book, Learning Unleashed – Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools. It’s time to put into practice what solid research and common sense tell us about how one learns.

[i]. Ken Robinson, “How Schools Kill Creativity,” Computer Users in Education, 2007, Monterey Technology Conference.

[ii]. Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, (West Sussex: Capstone Publishing, 2011), 57.


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