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On non-cohort based education

I’m going to rant for a bit; it’s Sunday here, so my Inner Preacher gets to play.

Everyone is decrying the state of education, and how students know less and are unable to think, excel and so forth. Teachers, governments, and culture are all to blame, etc. It seems to me that nobody is really attending to the two main reasons: one, we teach to curriculum standards, and two, cohort based education.

The former is fairly obvious, and I’ve ranted about it before: if we teach to standards, then we teach the test, not the subject. I won’t belabor that right now. Instead, allow me to make a Modest Proposal, which doesn’t involve eating Irish babies.

Since the late nineteenth century, state sponsored education in the west has arrayed students according to their ages, since that is administratively simpler and allows for a kind of sausage making factory style education, all the rage in the latter part of the industrial revolution. This means that each age range has to master a series of topics to a set “level” before moving on to the next level. If you have a particularly clever student, you can “advance” them, so they will be beaten up by their contemporaries for being different. Likewise, if they are not at all clever, you can “hold them back”, with similar results.

But apart from the convenience to administrators, why do this? What educational rationale is there for forcing age cohorts to all study the same material at the same level of sophistication? Everybody, and I mean everybody, recalls being either too challenged or bored in one class or another. But if you are “advanced” or “held back”, you are brought into public view as a kind of nonconformist, and everyone knows that one thing children, as herd animals, hate is difference, both being it and seeing it. So this means that you’d rather be bored or confused than learn and be out of the group.

So education is not about learning, but about processing students. How might we revise this? The obvious solution to me is, simply abolish the cohort system. Teach every student at the level they find agreeable, no matter whether they attain the “same” (arbitrary) level in all subjects or not. If you are at “level 4” English and “level 8” mathematics, so what? And if everyone is taught this way, and one does not feel isolated in virtue of doing subjects differently, nobody will be bullied or excluded on that account (but, kids, being kids, on others).

The faux egalitarianism of modern education has this direct impact on education itself: it fails. We should allow students to find their own levels. If it means that at age 16, a student still has half their subjects to complete to Y12, but has completed the rest, then they can work half time, or go to college/university, as the tertiary institutions will also have to adapt to this (and already, to some extent, do: nobody cares if you are doing a first year or third year subject simultaneously).

The impact on schools would in fact be minimal. Teachers would teach each subject after, say, year 4, independently (and if you had a child at age 6 who was able to read at year 9 level, so what? Let them), and they would have the kids distributed over a curve according to age. It might in fact make education more efficient and a little cheaper.

And if that didn’t work, eat the buggers.

Late note: Having just re-read Swift’s rational proposal, I realise I must also make a disclaimer. I do not stand to benefit from this directly, as my children are all fully grown and as educated as I can make them, which is to say, not at all.


  1. Brian Brian

    John, would there be a problem with kids fitting in? I don’t mean because they stand out and will be bashed, more that a young kid might not be at the psychological or emotional stage even if that kid is an academic wizz. I imagine a 6 year old not fitting in amongst 15 year olds of year 9.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Well, there would be no year 9. There would just be kids of various ages doing that particular class. Then they’d all move on to their next class, which might, for that 6 year old, be full of 6 year olds.

      Kids would assort based on how they socially engaged, and probably spend their social time with their peers.

  2. KMA KMA

    We should allow students to find their own levels.

    Where would that leave kids who hate school and don’t study unless they have to? Plenty of those around. A little bit of scheduled whip isn’t entirely bad, is it?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      My proposal doesn’t imply that education could become noncompulsory, and each student would still need to get to whatever year level in each subject is mandated (i.e., 10 or 12).

      I also don’t think that this will solve the problem of children who don’t want to study.

      • KMA KMA

        No, staying in school wouldn’t be noncompulsory, but the relaxing of time constraints would encourage slacking in a population of (let’s be honest) natural slackers. There are potential problem with that.

        Like all modern apes, human kids would rather do something fun than chores. Studying is a chore except for the rare, truly motivated, and playing WoW is more fun than homework (or at least that’s what my teenage son tells me).

        Sorry to sound like an authoritarian parent (I’m not), but IMO you’re being unrealistic about childrens’ work ethics.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          Well I think that parents need to be the ones motivating work (and teachers motivating learning), and my experience of the present system is that it discourages both.

      • KMA KMA

        Time pressure discourages hard work? Sorry, I disagree.

        Darned straight about parental motivation though. When my dad explained natural selection while I was helping out in the garden at age 8 (“daddy, why do rose bushes have thorns?”), that created my interest in science.

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        No, the system discourages teachers and parents.

      • KMA KMA

        Perhaps we’re talking past each other. English isn’t my first language (shit happens).

  3. AK AK

    AFAIK many modern sociologists (in the USA anyway) consider the socialization involved in the cohort-based public schools to be as important (maybe more so) than the technical education. NOT a position I agree with, but some sort of peer-group based socialization may be necessary, if perhaps divorcible from technical/intellectual education.

    IIRC Steven Pinker in a recent book referred to work (I don’t have time to chase it down) suggesting that the “missing” 50% of behavioral character (not attributable to genetics or parental influence) may actually be the result of (the details of) peer-group interactions. AFAIK there’s no good reason to suppose that childhood peer-group interactions didn’t independently evolve from the base state (in the common ancestor with Chimps, Bonobos, and Gorillas) along with language and other aspects of increased intelligence.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I think that children will sort themselves into cohorts on the playground. But there’s no reason for them to be sorted academically that way. Consider it like what happens in colleges and universities already, only at the lower levels. It’s likely that for the first few years there would be little difference in academic levels, a few outliers notwithstanding, and thereafter kids would seek out those who share the socialisation capacities.

  4. fusilier fusilier

    My Beloved and Darling Wife was in a “one-room” elementary school in rural Michigan through 8th grade (13 yoa in the US) in 1964.

    Your “modest proposal” was the norm, up until consolidation fever gripped school systems in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

    Further, she taught in a small inner city (Lutheran parochial) school school in the late ’70s and early ’80s where multiple ages in one classroom were typical.

    She’s been in special needs – mentally handicapped, emotionally handicapped, physically handicapped, gifted-and-talented, and adult learners – for a good 38 years, now. I am of course highly biased, but her results have been excellent.

    As you correctly point out, the problem is in administration, not in teaching and learning.


    James 2:24

  5. If you have a particularly clever student, you can “advance” them, so they will be beaten up by their contemporaries for being different.

    I jumped two grades/years at primary/elementary school and I’m happy to report nobody beat me up.

    On the other hand I gave up on the school system at the age of eleven and just sat it out till the 13th year.

  6. sbej sbej

    Would work well with dyslexia. I was always trapped at school as my basic arthmetic was so poor, it effected what English classes I was put in.

    My cohorts refered to me as sbej the backwards boy.

    I had an ace history teacher at uni who enabled me to take more advanced courses in first year to stop me from getting bored.

    It led to a horrific problem in fourth year though
    when my supervisor discovered that the points alocated for first year courses were much higher than those for 2 nd 3rd and 4th year course.

    It meant despite the fact I had put in more work I had far less points than the system required
    for my joint degree .

    No one had noticed when I was given the chance to do something more interesting and demanding in first year.

    I had the option of trying to cram in an unworkable number of course options to make up the points in fourth year or leaving with general rather than joint honours degree.

    Uni does not seem very geared up with regard to this sort of thing, certainly in my neck of the woods at least.

  7. ….then you ought to be favorably disposed to homeschooling (ignoring the fundy-isolationist contingent, of course).

    Your Modest Proposal sounds like an attempt to universalize the educational style of the 19th-century British upper class, where the family hired a private tutor who took the children through the standard subjects at whatever pace they (and he/she) could manage, then handed them off to Oxford.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I would not wish an Oxford education upon everyone, no…

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Thanks. The Preview option is not available from the install, so far as I can find.
      And I read Ivan Illich back on the 70s. Took a while to filter through my stubborn forebrain.

  8. Dornier Pfeil Dornier Pfeil

    Shame about wordpress. I’ll just peruse the source next time I want to try posting a link.

    I will have to look up Mr. Illich. I have not heard of him.

    Your brain is allowed to be stubborn all it wants. 🙂

  9. And I read Ivan Illich back on the 70s. Took a while to filter through my stubborn forebrain.

    Me too! Your rant has a lot in common with the writings of John Holt who was heavily influenced by Illich.

  10. Wilfred Wilfred

    Have you ever heard of montessori or the dalton plan?
    What you are proposing is not very radical.

  11. Josh Hayes Josh Hayes

    The K-8 school (roughly ages 5 to 13 or 14) my kids have attended all their school lives (one 10 yo, the other 13) had for years exactly what you propose, John – classrooms with multiple ages in them, typically a spread of perhaps three to five years. Older kids mentored younger ones, everyone worked at a level they could handle, and judging by subsequent success stories, it produced well-rounded, well-educated kids who thrived in high school and, later, college.

    Alas, this was too difficult for the school district to understand, and so with the mindless ferocity of a python, they’ve steadily squeezed the “different” out of the school. Now classrooms are only about two, or maybe three, years wide, and much of the instruction (in math, for instance) is tied to age, rather than ability/interest. Bloody shame.

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