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Should schools stop grouping pupils by age, and instead by ability?

That's what the Telefonplan school in Stockholm does ( but would it work across the board?

Holly Seddon admin
Holly Seddon
Editor-in-chief of
Kent, UK

7 experts and 4 parents have answered

expert answer
Stephanie Turner expert
Stephanie Turner English & French teacher US

I would really like to see this approach studied. The current method of education is based on the factory assembly line: move the greatest number of students through the system in lockstep, to "educate" the greatest number most efficiently. (See this great animated explanation from RSA: Students who don't fit in like interchangeable parts get siphoned off into programs like special ed and gifted & talented. But we should now have the resources, with interactive computer learning, to customize education more.

I was one of the parts that didn't fit: I was always sent one grade ahead for math, and one or two grades ahead for reading. This meant I missed out on experiences with my peer group (lunch, putting on a play). I was then skipped from fifth grade in a small K-8 school to seventh grade in a huge 7-12 jr/sr high school. What a shock! I survived to graduate early, at 16, but if I had had other students to accompany me on that journey, I think I would have emerged more emotionally mature.

I am a teacher, so I know that customizing education will be challenging, but I think we can do it with peer groups. The teacher tells the high-performing groups to start a task on their own as a group, while she instructs the lower-performing groups. Then, when the low groups are securely working on their own, she comes to the high group to check and correct their work. Frequent evaluations serve as mile markers that students check off at their own pace. Once each student checks off all the required benchmarks in all the required subjects, he or she is free to go! Leaving the teacher more time to spend with the ones who need more attention.

4 Reply ( 1 ) Share:
Experience 1 year ago
Anthony Flower
Anthony Flower Father of three & web developer Christchurch, GB

One of the reasons I choose to home educate my children sort of fits this question. For the first 10 years of my education I was top of my class and frankly bored, everything came very easy to me. The problem was how the next few years went. By the time I reached a level where exams meant something I was far too complacent, I was used to breezing through everything without putting any effort in. When my education suddenly became difficult I wasn't prepared and made some really big, life changing, mistakes. At home, now, with my children we don't study by age we study by ability and my daughter (the one old enough for us to see a difference) is thriving on it. She loves learning, she loves books and she is well beyond her school age equivalents.

3 Reply ( 1 ) Share:
Experience 1 year ago
expert answer

The secondary school I currently work in has recently put the students into 2 'Phases' phase 3 and 4. Within phase 3 our year 7's & 8's are grouped by ability rather than age. From personal experience this has had very mixed results. On the one hand the more able year 7's are able to make better progress and mature at a much quicker rate, however our less able year 8's do not like being put in classes with year 7's and this leads to some displays ofinappropriatebehaviour which the younger students start to imitate over time.

I am sure that over time the positives for the more able students will outweigh some of the issues currently being seen at our school.

However I agree with Stephanie (Turner) and believe that students should be with their peers and then grouped by ability within the class. The more able students can then be used as specialists and further embed their own knowledge by explaining what they have learnt to the less able students. Part of our Humanitiescurriculumcalls for the students to become the teachers by learning about different topics in their groups and then delivering that topic to the whole group, they are encouraged to create the lesson as well as any resources they want the otherstudentsto use. So far the response has been amazing and the majority of students have worked really well together to plan and deliver their topic. The feedback from the students of themselves and each other is sometimes quite brutal in their honesty of both their own abilities and their peers.

3 Reply Share:
Experience 1 year ago
expert answer
Jane Chin, Ph.D. expert
Jane Chin, Ph.D. Eats Tiger Mothers for Lunch Los Angeles, US
Parenting skills expert

At first glance, grouping pupils by age makes no sense: our workplace isn't grouped by age, for example. Shouldn't school be a place where "naturalistic setting" is offered for pupils to learn? Yet I think this approach works optimally once the children reach a certain point in their learning, for example, after kindergarten. Up through kindergarten, children may be better served to be grouped by age due to emerging skills for learning situations. Nursery school children may be at a different learning skill level than kindergarten children. A 3 year old child may have a different attention span and learning skill level than a 5 year old child. Even if a 3 year old child is at a reading or math skill level of a 5 year old child, there are other "non-academic" skills that 3 year olds benefit from learning within their age group, including emerging cooperative play skills. Once the child completes kindergarten, it makes sense to have banded age learning groups, such as 6-7-8 year olds based primarily on aptitude/level. This way, younger children have older peer role models to learn from and "learn how to ask for help/mentoring", and older children learn skills to teach and mentor (critical life skills both learners and mentors!) This type of "age-banded" grouping addresses non-academic skills development that I consider equally important in a child's ability to thrive in the world, besides academics, and does artificially patch the "too many children per teacher" issue. I think having fewer children per teacher reduces the need to consider age grouping, because the teacher has a greater likelihood to tailor and customize the content level to each child.... if the teacher is a good (competent) teacher.

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Opinion 1 year ago
Abigail Raynor
Abigail Raynor Sheffield, GB

In the right environment and with the right teachers, I think pre-school age children can benefit from mixed age groupings. Yes, the skills being learned are different at different ages, but this is exactly why optimum learning can take place. Children learn a lot through imitation and for younger children, having older models around them can be hugely beneficial - giving them the opportunity to develop skills unrestricted by age. For the older children, it can help them develop a sensitivity to the needs of others as they make allowances for the younger ones. It can also instill a sense of autonomy and responsibility as they recognize their role as 'mentor' within the group. It does take a dedicated and skilled teacher though to ensure learning is taking place across the group, not just catering to the youngest, and also to answer parents' concerns regarding this non-traditional approach.

2 Reply ( 1 ) Share:
Experience 1 year ago
Tamsin Oxford writer
Tamsin Oxford Professional writer and editor Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, UK

It is for all these reasons we are sending our child to Montessori. She is with kids her own age, but her learning is based on her abilities, not her age. She drives her own learning and can leap ahead as she wishes. There is no judgement when you are slower or faster than the average, only support. The classes are mixed age groups and older children are inspired to help the younger ones, and the children are very focused. The classes are quiet, the kids work hard and they are driven to achieve and learn as much as possible. It works. I've never seen such well behaved children in my life.

2 Reply Share:
Experience 1 year ago
expert answer
Michelle Breum expert
Michelle Breum Reading Tutor, Consultant US

I don't know if it would work, but I'd like to see children taught by ability rather than age. I'm very interested in this topic and look forward to learning what others know on the subject.

Fewer children per teacher would be very helpful too!

I enjoyed the video Stephanie shared in her answer.

1 Reply Share:
Opinion 1 year ago
expert answer
Roberto Catanuto expert
Roberto Catanuto Teacher, Club Mentor CH
Education expert

I definitely support the option of grouping children not by age but by interests or skills instead. Since you already gave great answers, I'd simply add a medical based support for this view we share:

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Opinion 1 year ago
Iris Richardson
Iris Richardson Food photographer chef US

I would love to see this happening. Our schools are so outdated. I would also love to see them teaching my children's whole brain.

1 Reply Share:
Opinion 1 year ago
expert answer
Karen Pettrone-Keber expert
Karen Pettrone-Keber Literacy Coach/Special Educator Naples, US
Education expert

Allowing individuals to thrive in learning groups that both support and challenge them is important, not just in an educational institutional setting but in life!

I home-educated my two sons (now ages 25 and 20) and often they were discriminated against due to their age at the time of enrollment in particular schools. They were always too young...

It took a lot of patience and determination to break free of age-discrimination. With perseverance and dedication both boys took the early college entrance exams (SUNY system in NYS) and started college at ages 10 and 11 respectively. They both graduated with 4 year degrees before they were 18. Of course this is unique and not recommended for every family but many times learners are overlooked based on criteria such as age, and not individual ability. As just one example, my oldest son was asked to leave a pre-school program that only allowed three year olds (he was two at the time). When asked if he was slowing the group down in any manner the teacher responded that he was not-indeed he had all the social and intellectual skills needed for the group, but he had to be three to be enrolled. We move him to a Montessori program that allowed mixed, preschool ages. It was at this juncture I realized I would become a home-schooling, working mom.

Bottom line? Be the best advocate for your child at each step of their educational career! They will learn to advocate for themselves if they observe your determination to get them the very best programs available and it will allow them the advantage to cultivate the tools and skills that they will acquire along the way; something that will serve them as adults in the work-a-day world!

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Experience 12 months ago
expert answer
Suzanne Freyjadis expert
Suzanne Freyjadis Consultant, Education Technology Austin, US
Technology expert

I am going to be the lone dissenter here. I don't think this works the way one would hope, at least in the primary grades.

I think that the more important question is: How can primary school students learn at different rates in the same classroom?

Primary school at this time is mostly repetitive and there needs to be a structure in place that allows children to learn at different rates in the same classroom.

Placing children in groups based on ability is also saying to the lowest level group that there is no hope for them, which will end up being a self fulfilling prophecy .

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Experience 9 months ago

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