You, like me, are most likely sick to the back teeth of education reforms. Every few years along comes another proposal to “fix” the education system, which everyone who has ever had any contact with it knows is broken. Each reform consists solely of some superficial and singular change, which never works [insert Rocky and Bullwinkle theme here].
The problem lies in the industrial nature of education. When universal education was first bruited in the Industrial Revolution as an economic necessity, it was organised along industrial lines, out of necessity, as many have noted. Students were to be taken into the system at a given age, organised into cohorts like an assembly line (or the other metaphor in play, the military), treated the same and pupils would be left to succeed or fail as best they could.
Those who completed some arbitrary cutoff would go into the professions, those who finished the arbitrary final levels would go to university, and those who did not do either would provide a minimally educated workforce for the factories and retail industries. This was education production. Students were all alike and to be treated as competing for resources by achievement. The phrase “sausage making” was often used in connection with primary and secondary education systems in the west.
But contrast this with university education. Student choose many of the subjects they do, especially in the humanities, and often did them in a sequence that suited them. The industrial model never really worked in tertiary education (at least, not the kind that led to research; actual industrial tertiary education exhibited many of the same characteristics of the earlier education systems). Students were expected to be individuals, although the system remained competitive.
In the late 1960s, the “deschooling” movement became popular, following along after “new math” and “generative grammar” and a host of other reforms to teaching methods that never really worked out. But one thing was never challenged: the cohort arrangement. All 5 year olds were expected to learn letters. All 6 year olds spelling, and so forth. It didn’t help that often individual schools, states or cities had differing systems, but within each system, the cohort reigned supreme.
Why? It always seemed to me that the cohort arrangement was for the benefit of those who did the administration in education – the government bodies, the principals, the records keepers. Increasingly, since the notion of “multiple intelligences” was raised and discussed, we have become aware that people most assuredly do not develop in lockstep to some “normal” sequence. A student might be a brilliant reader and a lousy mathematician, or vice versa. A student may be well or ill socialised at the same ages as others. They might be able to deal with concrete or abstract concepts better or worse than others.
In short, everything we have learned about human development and educational psychology shows us that each student learns at differing rates in differing fields. And yet we insist, for convenience’ sake, that they do not. And it fails. Attempts to deal with this via self-directed learning have had only limited successes. A subject has whatever requirements it has, so if a student is to master or merely become competent in it, they have to do all the aspects of it and not merely those they can self-direct in. So I want to suggest a systemic solution: abolish the cohort arrangement for education at all levels. Instead, stream subjects and allow students to complete them when they are ready to, no matter what they have achieved in other subjects.
Suppose your pupil is fantastic at math but lousy at literature. Why penalise them for not being able to do Hemingway when they are capable of doing university level calculus? Why can’t they do English lit at year 10 level when doing math at year 14? What law of nature says they must do all subjects at year 10 when they are 16?
I encounter a common response when I make this argument: this would mean that a gifted student would be grouped with much older students and a delayed student with much younger students. Well, yes, if they are delayed or gifted equally across the board, but they are more likely to be unequally advanced, as are all other students! Delayed students won’t stick out, because they won’t be the exception. Likewise, advanced students. Moreover, they will not be obviously delayed because there is no shared cohort classroom in which they are so marked.
Moreover, kids will assort socially based on who they get on with, rather than their ages, which means they will tend to socialise with kids around their own level of social development. This can only be a good thing, as it will tend to break up the bullying that arises with unequal development in cohorts, and reduce the friction from unequal skill sets. It won’t usually matter if kids are spending time with younger or older, or both!, kids, because that is what other kids are doing in the playground anyway.
Once you abandon the industrial model for education, and recognise that administrators now hove these marvellous record keeping devices called “computers”, the rest is easy. And as for achieving graduation markers, you will still get your certificates once you have completed all the mandatory subjects at the right level. It won’t matter if you did your Year 11 English six years after your Year 11 Science, and have since done bachelor’s level Biology. You get your certificates when you do all of the required subjects.
But then, we might even start to think that is not required too. Why should you get a general certificate for completing “high school” if high school is a merely notional administrative unit? Why not graduate in math/science, or arts/humanities? In fact, why focus on graduation ceremonies at all? What’s wrong with “classes of year XX” ceremonies? It would also take the impossible pressure off kids who are being told their entire lives depends on how they do in this one year’s work, or those who are told they must decide at 14 what they intend to specialise in. Instead, the freedom to advance as you can will make it obvious what areas you are best at, naturally.
Abandon cohort based education now. It will be less stressful, more successful and I reckon cheaper, since each class will be taught at the same level for all who are in it.