Machines picking thick-rind tomatoes, a gun that won’t fire in the hands of someone who doesn’t own it, and schools where six year-olds work with eight year-olds, where 14 and 16 year-olds, regardless of grade, engage in academic lessons–all are instances where historic problems have been reframed in creative ways.
Take the tomato harvester. Mechanizing agricultural work reduces labor costs and produces larger profit margins. But there was a problem with machines picking tomatoes. Early versions of the harvester would crush too many of the tomatoes as they scooped up the entire plant, shook the tomatoes free of the stalk, and then piled them high in trucks.
Then a few scientists in California looked at the problem differently. Rather than a better machine, create a different tomato, one with thick rinds that could withstand the jostling and the weight of piled up fruit in a truck. Trial after trial finally produced the “vf-415” or “square tomato.” In 1961, about 1 percent of all tomatoes in California were picked by machines; seven years later, 95 percent was.
Then there is the “smart gun.” Because so many Americans own guns, accidents occur when children and youth unintentionally kill siblings and friends, commit suicide or use stolen weapons. For decades, blame for these lethal accidents has been on those who have improperly secured weapons in their homes. So attention has focused on home security devices that keep guns out of children’s and teenagers’ hands.
Now here is where reframing the problem occurs. Rather than focus entirely on gun owners using weapons safely and security devices as the National Rifle Association has done, some inventors using the latest technologies have looked at the gun itself. Using sensors, magnets, fingerprint recognition, and other bio-metric devices, “smart guns” have been developed where only the person owning the weapon can use it. If stolen, the gun will not shoot. If discovered in the back of closet by a five year-old, it cannot be discharged. Flipping the perspective from the gun owner to the gun itself can eventually–only a few have reached the market yet– curb avoidable mayhem.
And then there is the age-graded school.
The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, solved the problem of how to provide an efficient schooling to masses of children entering urban schools. Today, the age-graded school is everywhere. Most Americans have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma.
As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by age to school “grades”; it sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks, and, after an annual test would be promoted. The age-graded school worked well but, nonetheless, has caused serious problems past and present.
Late-19th and early 20th century critics of age-graded schools saw these structures as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates and causing dropouts from schools as students of different ages piled up in lower grades because they flunked.
The development of twice yearly promotions and ability groups smoothed out some of the inherent problems of age-graded schools. But left untouched the overall structure of the age-graded school that required teachers to cover the content and skills specific to a 3rd or 6th grade class where every student had to learn that content and skills by the end of the school year or be held back. The notion that children differ in how fast they learn knowledge and skills was foreign to the age-graded school. These regularities became the “grammar of schooling” and has persisted decade after decade.
Instead of endorsing drop-out programs, pulling students out of classes and remedial teaching, reformers reframed the problem as the age-graded school itself. They created ungraded schools.
Beginning in the 1930s and through the 1970s, reformers launched non-graded schools and multi-age classrooms time and again. Whole elementary and secondary schools used flexible scheduling where teams of teachers grouped and re-grouped students by performance in math, reading, and other subjects rather than what grade they in. Open classrooms flourished in the late-1960s and early 1970s.
Over time, however, these experiments in non-graded schooling and classrooms withered and disappeared. Even though researchers found sufficient evidence that these innovations were just as successful as traditional age-graded schools, non-graded schools found little traction among superintendents, principals, and parents (see REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH-1992).
There were (and are) exceptions, however. Still amid standards-based testing for the past three decades, ungraded public schools and classrooms soldier on. There is the Sycamore Elementary School in Claremont, Calif., a school that has done multiage grouping ever since it opened in 1890. There is the open classroom in San Geronimo (CA) in operation since 1971 and many, many others across the nation.
Why so few?
Dominant social beliefs of parents and educators about a “real” school, that is, one where children learn to read in 1st grade, receive report cards, and get promoted have politically narrowed reform options in transforming schools. For example, when a charter school applicant proposes a new school the chances of receiving official approval and parental acceptance increase if it is a familiar age-graded one, not one where most teachers team teach and groups of multi-age children (ages 5-8, 9-11) learn together ( see metz-real-schools).
Just as paying attention to the tomato rather than the machine and seeing the gun rather than the gun owner as the problem to be solved, the age-graded school has to be seen anew as the problem to be solved, not teacher unions, insufficient iPads, or policies that instill fear into teachers or tighten standards-based testing. Ungrading schools create different structures for students to learn at their different paces reducing dropouts while giving teachers time and flexibility to teach what has to be taught.