We Need Many “Grammars of Schooling” (Part 4)

In a recent conversation with an educational entrepreneur* about the power inherent in the organization of the age-graded school and its “grammar of schooling,” I was asked if I wanted to disrupt the “grammar of schooling.” I said I did not. I wanted–and he put it in words I wished I had used–many “grammars of schooling.”

What did I mean? There is not just one way to organize a school. Age-graded is simply a choice that policymakers made many decades ago. It is the “one best system” that has characterized U.S. schools since the late-19th century. There are other ways to organize schools.

One room schoolhouses  where children of mixed ages learn content and skills under the tutelage of a teacher. Ungraded schools where groups of mixed-age students learn at different paces the prescribed content or a curriculum jointly constructed by teachers and students. Cyber schools where students learn at home or at different sites are another way of organizing a school. And there are combinations of all of these. Each of these ways of operating schools contains a “grammar of schooling,” that is, a theory of learning and teaching, implicit and explicit rules to follow, and a organizational framework that shapes the social and individual behavior of both children and teachers.

Historically, then, many ways of organizing schools have existed. Thus, multiple “grammars of schooling” were in play. Not now.

But my critique of age-graded schools is not a preface for a call to eliminate all such organizations. I do not wish to see age-graded schools replaced wholesale either by fiat or choice. For many students and their parents, that “grammar of schooling” is just fine. High-achieving age-graded schools in cities, suburbs, exurbs, and rural communities where both children and parents are satisfied should continue. Or KIPP schools and similar ventures that attract children and youth to their classrooms have parents who want the familiar “grammar of schooling” to continue since it has worked with their daughters and sons. Until parents become dissatisfied with the schooling their children  receive, these age-graded organizations will remain the places that the majority of U.S. parents want.

What I seek is more experimentation in organizing schools, more choice for alternative arrangements, more “grammars of schooling.” Donors willing to invest in different ways of putting a school together and local districts that seek different ways for children to learn and teachers to teach. Parents and teachers joining hands to create schools that depart from the familiar model. Private schools that have public versions like Waldorf and Montessori add to the mix of different ways to run schools. That is what I support: far more alternatives to traditional age-graded organizations than exist now.

There were instances of such experimentation in organizing U.S. schools in earlier periods. In a post I wrote years ago, I described a part of that history. To make my point of having many “grammars of schooling,” I reprint it here.

I was stunned when I walked into the classroom of Carmen Wilkinson at Jamestown Elementary School in 1975 (all names are actual people and places). In my first year as Arlington (VA) school superintendent, I had already seen over 300 elementary classrooms. This was the only one I had seen that had mixed ages (grades 1 through 4) and learning stations in which 50 students spent most of the day working independently and moving freely about the room; they worked in small groups and individually while Wilkinson–a 27-year veteran of teaching–moved about the room asking and answering question, giving advice, and listening to students. Called “The Palace” by parents, children, and staff, the class used two adjacent rooms. Wilkinson teamed with another teacher and, at the time, two student teachers. She orchestrated scores of tasks in a quiet, low-key fashion.

In the rest of the school, there were 17 self-contained classrooms of which only one was similar to The Palace. Wilkinson’s informal classroom was unusual at Jamestown and rare in the 500 other elementary classrooms in the Arlington public schools.

Of course, the original ungraded school and classroom pre-dated Wilkinson by well over a century.  The one-room schoolhouse in mid-19th century rural America had a lone teacher instructing  children and youth ages 6 to 14 in all subjects in the district curriculum while at the same time insuring that there were enough books, writing supplies, heat, water, and outdoor toilets for everyone.

As efficiency-driven superintendents in the 20th century consolidated scattered one-room schoolhouses into centrally-located age-graded schools, they have nearly disappeared. But the ideas of multi-age groupings and children learning at different paces persisted in different attempts to break the lock-step age-graded schools where teachers in self-contained classrooms delivered chunks of content to be learned within a school year and students were either promoted or retained in grade.

Too often we forget, that there were late-19th critics of age-graded schools. They saw these structures as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates and causing  dropouts from elementary 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 not 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 and that every student had to learn that content and skills by the end of the school year or be retained for another year. These regularities became the “grammar of schooling” and persisted decade after decade.

Beginning in the 1930s and stretching through the 1960s, progressive reformers launched non-graded schools and multi-age, team-taught 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–and this is when The Palace came into existence.

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, multi-grade classrooms and non-graded schools found little traction among superintendents, principals, and parents (see REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH-1992).

There were (and are) exceptions, however. As part of a state reform, Kentucky ungraded all of its primary grades in the 1990s. But this reform and other ungrading plans in elementary schools across the nation soon gave way to test-driven accountability. 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 others scattered across the nation.

Why so few? Why is so hard to disrupt the age-graded structures that shape how children learn and teachers teach? In a previous post I mentioned the potent social beliefs among parents and educators about what a “real” school is. I also pointed out that state mandated standards, college entrance requirements, and federal and state laws that mandate testing in 3rd to 8th grade are all married to the age-graded structure.

Most of all, like the air we breathe, the age-graded school with its  “grammar of schooling” is taken for granted. It is everywhere and has been around for forever. But it is made by human hands. As Carmen Wilkinson knew and her like-minded innovators decades before her and since, the age-graded school structure was invented to solve a problem a century and a half ago. It can be re-invented to solve new problems.

No, I do not seek to disrupt the one “grammar of schooling” that dominates U.S. schools. I seek many “grammars of schooling.”


*I was speaking with Joel Rose, co-founder and CEO of New Classrooms, a nonprofit that offers a personalized learning platform for middle and high school math students called Teach to One. Over the past three years after writing about one of the math programs his team had brought to ASCEND Charter School in Oakland (see here), he and I would have free-ranging conversations about school reform and its contradictions, particularly with the spread of Teach-to-One programs.


Filed under how teachers teach, leadership, Reforming schools, school reform policies

5 responses to “We Need Many “Grammars of Schooling” (Part 4)

  1. I have, for awhile, been part of organizing adult education in more or less the way you describe. From a small try-out proposed by teachers, it grew into a large group of subject specialists running upper secondary and secondary education for a large amount of students, I think we had a bit more than 800 at one time. And it worked out fine. But then adults are often very motivated and compared to children rely on private networks for their social lives.
    For adults, with busy weeks, work or families, the model was perfect. Admission time was flexible, a pace to suit personal needs and you could take on exams when suited.
    The teacher group consisted of as many different subject teachers as possible and adapted to the amount of students in each subject. And every student started out with an individual planning session in the subjects or areas to study. This mostly consisted of an interview and/or a test so that eventual gaps of knowledge could be pinned down and a personal plan to fill goals could be made.
    Opposite of what you might think the teaching and learning was very much teacher lead and controlled, with close monitoring of achievements and students gradually filling some kind of portfolio. And as the teachers put it, you have to know curriculum inside out, plan for the result, with every course and part of curriculum cut up in smaller chunks and then decide how best to learn and train each of those and also what student results should look like in a concrete way to get a passing grade or move on to next part. Good examples of this are immigrant students in natural science subjects from certain countries that had all the theory but no laboratory training, or foreign language learners with quite some proficiency in reading and understanding but no training whatsoever to communicate.
    Students could, for a while, be placed in a group with currently the same goals and level in that particular subject. Examinations could be tests or university style group-seminars to show what you learned. For language learners there were a few fixed times for sessions, daytime or evenings, to choose between to allow oral training with peers on the same level.
    For me, as an administrator, there were quite a few challenges though.
    The first was finding and getting access and arrangements of a suitable space, with adjoining small group rooms, ordinary classrooms and a lager area equipped with computers and tables for one person or more for individual studies and collaboration – and a good library close by. The optimal place was when we occupied a former house for upper secondary training of electricians, with a large workshop area and surrounding classrooms of different sizes.
    The second was to staff the whole thing. In the end the part of a teachers work depended on an equation of amount of students, how large the content of the course (in Sweden set in credit hrs per course, which made it easier) and finally the amount of money attached to each student voacher per course, which is how schools were paid at the time – all to be able to see when resources had run out and hunt for more voluntary staff or stop student admissions. This last proved to be more than difficult when I tried to get the school economist’s head around to give me figures of staff cost without any overhead included … which is not how economists think or are trained to think. We had, in the end, a self-calculating excel file where each member of teacher staff had a line for each course and number of registered students. It gave the possibility of some flexibility, and any changes were shared with the teachers…

    • And I should add that we did make some trials with online teaching, but ruled it out as results were so bad. Students dropped out and the personal face to face contact with the teacher proved to be much more important than you would assume.

    • larrycuban

      Many thanks for your description, Sara, of the adult ed program you ran in Sweden. It does, indeed, have a different “grammar” yet the teaching, as you point out was fairly traditional. Wonder why?

      • One thing about adult education is that you often deal with people that a) are eager to get on with their life and do not have too much money and time to spend and b) often totally blew it in school, so they simply don’t know how to “do school” .. Like what do I need, how do I go about it, how do I study, what is important and what is not? Of course you would find one or two very capable, but usually not. Instead they are very much in need of a teacher’s scaffolding and dividing up content in small steps. And help them plan the journey. They also carry with them some really bad experiences of failing, so it makes it even more important to give the experience of success. If you receive 1:st grade kids you have a period of learning routines and blending in with the environment, but they at least come with positive expectations, ready to take it all in and go with whatever flow you provide, but to start again as a grown up is actually quite brave. Very often after a long period of just thinking about it and worrying.
        I don’t know if that answered your question.

  2. Chester Draws

    Over time, however, these experiments in non-graded schooling and classrooms withered and disappeared.

    And yet proponents never give a reason. It just seems to happen.

    multi-grade classrooms and non-graded schools found little traction among superintendents, principals, and parents.

    How can you talk about why they fail and leave out the two groups actually in the classroom — students and teachers?

    Such classrooms are set up with a committed staff and students who buy in. But the staff wear out, because trying to keep track of who is doing what with everyone at different places is diabolical. Only the very best teachers can do it to start with, and they can’t keep it up.

    I love teaching. I would hate to have to teach in a multi-grade class because it would do my head in. And because my subject is hierarchical, you do actually have to teach it in a sensible order.

    Meanwhile students don’t necessarily prefer unstructured learning. Sure they do initially, because it’s exciting and new. But putting the onus on a fourteen year old boy to ensure that he is organised enough to get through the necessary progressions in each of the learning areas is hopeless. My lot can barely remember to bring their calculators.

    Even though researchers found sufficient evidence that these innovations were just as successful as traditional age-graded schools

    But not more successful, and that’s key. If they were more successful, we would have reason to keep on trying.

    Given the multiple attempts to make this sort of thing work. And the inability to do so anywhere in the world for any length of time, the obvious conclusion would be to stop trying.

    Yet education is one of those areas where repeated failure apparently is a spur to just try harder. This time it’ll work, surely!

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