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An education reform

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

RockyandbullwinkleYou, 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.

Industrial education

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.


  1. The problem lies in the industrial nature of education.

    As long as education is paid for by taxes, the legislators will want to see that the taxpayer gets his money’s worth. The industrial model is how the legislators impose some sort of control over that. The irony is that the very controls that they impose will tend to ensure that the taxpayers do not get their money’s worth.

    In short, everything we have learned about human development and educational psychology shows us that each student learns at differing rates in differing fields.

    However, if Johnny is a tad slower than his cohort in math, so you put him with a different group, Johnny’s parents are likely to see that as an insult, and to take offense.

    There are too many competing interests with fingers in the pie. It won’t be easy to change the system.

    • Neil Rickert: However, if Johnny is a tad slower than his cohort in math, so you put him with a different group, Johnny’s parents are likely to see that as an insult, and to take offense.

      There are too many competing interests with fingers in the pie.It won’t be easy to change the system.

      That would only matter if there was a cohort. But if there are no cohorts, then Johnny’s parents won’t even notice. But I do think the vested interests (mostly governments, as you say, and administrators) would make this very hard to achieve. Perhaps we need a state or system to adopt it and prove it out first…

  2. As a parent of one kid who was so alienated from school we took him out at age 15 (but went on to graduate from a technical college with distinction) and another who gritted his teeth and finished high school somehow-anyhow (and went on to graduate summa cum laude from a challenging Arts programme, and is now finishing a Masters), all I can say is: hear, hear!

  3. Paul Paul

    Your timing is perfect, my 10-year-old daughter is starting her first day at her new school in less than an hour. We pulled her out of a public cohort-based school system for all the reasons you describe above.

    Unfortunately it’s one of those supremely reasonable things that is so contrary to what all of the decision-makers have invested their entire lives in that change is unlikely.

    • We’ve started homeschooling for largely the same reason: The classes were geared towards median students in all subjects. Even the gifted program was one-size-fits-all (and minimal).

      Children are not widgets.

  4. fvngvs fvngvs

    Heh. I didn’t really start learning until University where, as you say, students get a great deal more control over the subjects they take. Once there, I really had a chance of avoiding the non-interesting.
    I abhor the cohort system.

    But what, may I ask, pushed this particular hot-button?

    • Just a thought I have had for years – I needed to say something, so I said this.

  5. An excellent post John and I’m totally in agreement with you on this; there is one small criticism that I would make however. The Deschooling authors that I read, and I read an incredible number, did specifically attack cohort schooling with very similar arguments to yours.

    • I didn’t see these criticisms, as all I read when I was in my 20s was Illich himself. But no good idea is really new.

  6. Martijn Martijn

    Although I agree with the idea – primary education was hell for me because I was too smart for the system – I foresee the problem that it will almost impossible to split subjects this way, because in practice everything is interwoven. Physics and math are almost Siamese twins, but the writer of a physics textbook also has to know what vocabulary he can use. And to stay closer to this blog: it helps an aspiring biologist tremendously to have at least some knowledge of the history and philosophy of science. But that knowledge needs a solid basis in general knowledge of history and philosophy.

  7. bob koepp bob koepp

    In addition to doing away with the rigid age-cohort, perhaps we ought also to consider developmental issues in framing curricula. For example, in their early teen years, a lot of kids are going to be less interested in, and less benefited by, traditional academic topics. But it would be a great time to engage in the (decidedly non-academic) learning of social skills and re-acquainting themselves the with basic body mechanics.

    • Martijn Martijn

      Also something I have considered. I think a lot of teenagers are turned away from literature by being forced to read books that they may technically understand, but of which their not yet quite developed frontal cortex cannot grasp the real meaning. But then again: if you don’t force those books on people when the school system is still allowed to force it on them, they may never read them.

      Another developmental issue is probably easier to solve: school times. It’s a form of cruel and unusual punishment to force teenagers out of bed at 6:30 am. In fact I think I read somewhere there already have been experiments that have provem that starting high school later had significant beneficial effects.

      • jackd jackd

        Martijn, it’s worse than you think in some places. My 14-year-old meets the school bus at 6:25am. The alarm is going off just after five o’clock and as bad as it is on the kid, it’s murder on my wife.

  8. Jim Thomerson Jim Thomerson

    Are you familiar with the idea of different temperaments? I’ve done a little reading on this and took the test. Turns out I have the temperament that most scientists have, which is shared by about 10% of the population. So, if I am teaching a General Eduction class, biology for music majors, I probably teach it as I would like it to be taught, and not how any of the students would like it to be taught.

    What is interesting to one temperament is boredom to another, and so on. I’d be interested in dividing classes by temperament and teaching each temperament group in an appropriate manner.

  9. JGB JGB

    I prefer to think of it as ageism. I’ve had a fair amount of luck in being able to get my children into programs that were good fits. This necessitated some out of age matches. That said deschooling has some awfully fatal flaws. Namely I’ve only ever found a relatively small amount of students who would be truly successful with such free reign.

  10. anthrosciguy anthrosciguy

    An interesting tidbit is that two of the woman who made great changes in how and what people thought about human evolution — Adrienne Zihlman and Nancy Tanner — both went to one-room grade schools in Illinois, where cohort based education doesn’t happen, simply because it can’t. Coincidence? Sure, probably, but an interesting one.

  11. Jake Jake

    I once had a professor explain to me that the public school system in America is a propaganda warehouse, where are you taught to sit down, be quiet, and get along with the kid sitting next to you… Not sure the latter is even the case.

  12. Jim Thomerson Jim Thomerson

    A colleague very knowledgable about education remarked that there were no new ideas, just the same old ideas being recycled over a fifteen to twenty year period. I once supervised a student teacher in one of those open classroom schools popular a few cycles back. It was a chaotic madhouse.

  13. Jeb Jeb

    “However, if Johnny is a tad slower than his cohort in math, so you put him with a different group, Johnny’s parents are likely to see that as an insult, and to take offense.”

    “But if there are no cohorts, then Johnny’s parents won’t even notice. ”

    You would face a challenging transition dealing with angry hoards of professional middle class parents. But that is simple one many headed shouty beast that needs to be confronted.

    Having watched the antics of this highly vocal group and the behaviour of the angel/ geniuses they mistakenly claim they are raising, from a distance in the school-yard for years and hearing the daily issues my partner who is an educational administrator faces in these matters, change is long over-due, along with a reality check for many parents.

    • Jeb Jeb

      An end to the every -onward administrative creep of J.T.T. F.B (just tick the fucking box) culture in education would be nice.

  14. Gerry Gerry

    On the one hand I agree and submit that, if you live in most US states, it’s quite possible to start a charter school which gets public school money but allows this kind of departure. Our kids spent most of their K-12 years in one, and older kids working with younger ones worked extremely well.
    On the other hand, if this is the whole of your idea of school reform, I think risk being subject to your opening criticism that “Each reform consists solely of some superficial and singular change….. This change may not be quite superficial, but it leaves intact many assumptions about education that need to be challenged. My sense is that you have no problem with “standards”, for example, a set of things in which each student needs to learn and demonstrate competence via test, eventually. I strongly disagree. There also seems to be is an acceptance of traditional subjects. These are artificial contrivances; life is not divided into subjects. Education needs to proceed in accordance with each student’s particular interests and abilities, not some set of knowledge outsiders consider important. Until you address that, you haven’t reformed anything.

  15. John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

    If by “standards” you mean the sort of thing No Child Left Educated applies, then yes, I have some real problems. Those sorts of standards are artificial and largely administrative, and as we have seen there is considerable pressure for cheating. I had in mind, however, something more like “what a competent person should know if they are to be said to know this subject”. Every field of endeavor has standards of this kind. Some are relatively simple: if you understand calculus that is relatively east to determine. You don’t know biology unless you know how Mendelian assortment works. You do not know philosophy unless you have read and understood some Locke, and so on. These sorts of standards should be set by the experts and professionals in each field.

    A deeper and harder question is what subjects we should teach, and how they should be delineated. I think that at the secondary level, for example, Science should be one subject, and it should include sub-topics of chemistry, physics, and biology (but not math[s]*), and one should be admitted to a science degree only when full competency has been reached, no matter the subsequent specialisation. This is open to debate, but it is independent of the question of cohort based education, and can be addressed separately. Not so much one thing at a time, as one issue per post and reform.

    * I’m Australian. The generic term is “maths”. Americans get it wrong. Like Aluminium.

  16. seedie seedie

    Completely dropping the cross-subject cohort (i.e. class) concept seems a great idea. We now have available technology to ease the timetable consequences of this and to do it frequently enough that only well matched single-subject cohorts have time to form.

    Once this becomes the norm it becomes patently clear that a parent complaining that their child (despite a slower learning rate) should be taught with others of their age is in effect trying to assert a right that will delay and impair the education of the other children in the age group.

    Our current failure to address this means that often it is the faster learners who become demotivated and find antisocial outlets for their developing abilities.

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