Breaking Free of the Factory

In my last post, I wrote about how detrimental standardized curriculum is to a child’s developmental process, forcing them to grow in areas they may not be ready to grow.  The dream of customized curriculum lends itself nicely to the dream of a school without grade levels.

I have seen an enormous population of students move from grade level to grade level because they are the right age to do so, and not because they have mastered the learning for the year.  Kids get older each year, and each year they get moved to the next grade level, this is the way the current system works.  We move students through school as if it were a factory.  Except in very extreme cases, students get moved into the next grade level whether they are prepared for it or not.  As a result, we have 5th graders who can’t read, write, or perform basic arithmetic.  Why do we do this to students?  It isn’t that the student is incapable of learning the material, I would argue that the majority of these students are very capable.  They are capable enough to come up with coping mechanisms to get by until they day when they can make the choice to drop out of school.  The real root of the problem, is that these students weren’t given the opportunity to grow and develop at their own speed.  We forced them along until they no longer had anything solid to scaffold new learning upon.   I wonder if we had given those kids the opportunity to be developmentally ready for the learning, if we would face the same problems?

I dream of a school environment where there are no grade levels.  A school where students move on in their learning when they are developmentally ready and not just because they have reached a certain age.  Children don’t lose their teeth or learn to walk at exactly the same time, why would we expect them to learn to read, write, or solve math problems at the same time?  We need to transform this educational model into one without grade levels, one that moves students on to the next skill set only when they have mastered the previous skill set.  Students are allowed to grow and learn at a pace that is natural for that unique individual.  A school without grade levels would provide children with a more authentic real-world experience.  When is the last time that you worked with people who were all exactly the same age as you are?  In the workplace we rarely get to work with only our age group.  Without grade levels, several ages may be working on the same skill set, learning how to work and collaborate with various age groups.

Multi-age grouping of students allows us to teach to the child rather than the grade.  We are able to take into account the different rates that children develop academically, socially, and emotionally.  We can customize our curriculum to fit the unique needs of our students.  Our goal, then,  is on the learning and not on moving students through a curriculum so that at the end of the book we can send them to the next grade level.  Our students deserve to learn at their own pace and ability.  Our students deserve an opportunity to succeed. Let’s rethink sending students on because they are the right age, and start sending them on because they are ready.


  1. In my state of Victoria, students cannot be asked to repeat a year without the parents’ permission. Even if all the evidence points to a student who really needs to master certain basics before progressing.

    However, I have recently read about one school in my state, who has a Principal who was headhunted from New Zealand. He has reorganised the school into streams by ability and not age and therefore students are receiving education really specific to their needs. Students are really excelling. I know ‘streaming’ was a dirty word in education for a while, but this seems to make a lot of sense to me.

  2. I think there are many in the education world that agree with your dream…it has been mine for decades. I am a public school superintendent that would love to initiate this kind of change, but unfortuntately the public school climate is not ready for this. I trust with the move to 21st century tools and skills we will begin to look more like real learning centers than assessment factories. Keep up your dream and continue to push for what seems to be common sense to become a reality.
    There have been experimental schools in the past that have been successful with this model…Wilson School from Mankato State in Minnesota is one example (it is gone now). Until we can break the control of non educators making all of the decisions for educators. If that is ever done then we will have a chance to change for the better.

    1. It is such a shame that even at the superintendent level, our hands are so tied to this kind of change. I think we have to keep our voices loud on these matters. If we could convince our communities of the benefits of changing education in these ways, eventually the policy makers will have to take note.

  3. I agree with this 100%. I think many of us in education feel that this is the answer to many of the problems that we face. I just wonder when someone (and I don’t know who that will be) will take the reigns and make it happen! Many involved in our PLN have fantastic thoughts and ideas, but it gets frustrating when all we can do is share our thoughts and ideas with each other (preaching to the choir) and we don’t ever make real change happen. We can all make small differences in our schools, but we need to get louder with our voices and make the powers that be sit up and listen.

    1. I agree about keeping our voices loud. Superintendents from The Texas Association of School Administrators have developed a document called Creating a New Vison for Public Education in Texas. I am sure that you can receive a copy for free or it may be downloadable. Even though we understand that change is time consuming it is what is necessary for common sense to come to the foreground of education. The more people that read this document will provide for greater capacity for learning about the needed change. We want to free our hands from being tied and to provide what kids really need. The public needs to understand the need and the message if we are going to be successful.

  4. I think that is true but when we expect more from kids the more we get from them and we lower our expectations towards them they will give lower results.

    1. I don’t think it is necessary to lower expectations of students. I think giving students responsibility of their own learning and pace allows for intrinsic motivation to be the best they can be.

      1. You are right on target. High expecations and indivdiualized instruction/progress can be accomplished at the same time. It takes a different understandning of the role of the teacher and the ability of be flexible and understand change, but it is the way to approach student learning.

  5. Thought provoking post and great discussion. (I haven’t been reading all my blogs the past week, and look what I missed!)

    I agree, Kelly, that giving students greater responsibility for their own learning is the key. But I think the model of school, ideal is at is, won’t come easily. It will require visionary and courageous people to change the system that the public has come to accept as the norm.

    Thanks for the post!

  6. Wow great post! I love your dream!

    I too believe in this dream. Does it have to happen in a building called a “school” from 7-3? I think once you have the technical capability of customizing learning for each child, then it should happen 24/7 and everywhere. Imagine if you had all day to teach good lessons rather than a defined block of time each day. Once everyone is learning at their own pace, you don’t need to teach them in the equivalent of “factory shifts”.

  7. I totally agree!!! In fact, my whole education blog is dedicated to this ideal! It was inspired by my favorite book-Totto-chan. You should really read it! Such a school actually existed in Japan!


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