What is a Suitable Education?
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Better Ways Change Needed

Mix it up: friends of different ages

We are so used to school, and to children mixing with 30 or so children of the same year group. The difference for home educated children is that they are likely to mix with children of all ages and often adults as well

We have come to think of same age groupings as the norm, because that is what we do now. But the only reason we ever had these age groupings is because in the mid-1800s, before we knew much about human development, learning, and the brain, educators decided that would be the most efficient way of transmitting the knowledge we wanted children to have. It is not the way humans have been for most of history and it very much reflects the industrial model of education. As with so many other aspects of schools, the newer understanding of our cognitive processes is prompting people to challenge these accepted ‘norms’.

The good of mixed age classrooms

Mixed age classrooms, when they are implemented as a positive educational choice can be very beneficial.

The Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) lists the following benefits of multi-age classrooms:

  • Children are viewed as unique individuals. The teacher focuses on teaching each child according to his or her own strengths, unlike in same-grade classrooms that often expect all children to be at the same place at the same time with no regard for ability.
  • Children are not labelled according to their ability. For example, children in same-grade classrooms may be labelled “below grade level” or “low.” These children may stop trying, while those labelled as “above grade level” or “high” may not feel challenged.
  • Children learn at their own rate, with no fear of retention. In same-grade classrooms, children are retained if they do not master content by the end of the year. In mixed-age classrooms, children have more time to master content, and this removes their fear of being retained in school.
  • Children develop a sense of family with their classmates. They become a “family of learners” who support and care for each other.
  • Older children can serve as mentors and to take leadership roles.
  • Children are more likely to cooperate than compete. The spirit of cooperation and caring makes it possible for children to help each other as individuals, not see each other as competitors.
  • Older children model more sophisticated approaches to problem solving, and younger children can accomplish tasks they could not do without the assistance of older children. This dynamic increases the older child’s level of independence and competence.
  • Children are invited to take charge of their learning, by making choices at centres and with project work. This sense of “ownership” and self-direction is the foundation for lifelong learning.
  • Children can spend several years with the same teacher. This allows the teacher to develop a deeper understanding of a child’s strengths and needs, and they are therefore in a better position to support the child’s learning.
  • Children have several years to develop, and can see themselves as progressive, successful learners.

Greater co-operation and other social benefits

Mixed-age classrooms do not negatively affect student achievement, and students in these classrooms have significantly more positive attitudes toward school, themselves, and others (Stone, 1998; Veenman, 1996). Research suggests that the effect of mixed-age grouping on cognition is likely to derive from the cognitive conflict arising from children’s interaction with peers of different levels of cognitive maturity.

Researchers have found a definite benefit of reduction of conflict between mixed ages, and an increase in support and co-operation. The discipline problems of single age classrooms can be minimised. Colin Richards, emeritus professor at the University of Cumbria said that in small groups of 20 to 24 children there is evidence that mixed-age classes have a positive social advantage.

A 2003 Ofsted report ‘Bullying: effective action in secondary schools’ suggested schools explore ways to break down ‘age-group stratification’, for example ‘through ‘buddy’ systems, mixed-age tutor groups, and out-of-school clubs run by older pupils for younger ones’.

Not always effective within our current school system

However, other factors present in today’s schools can nullify these benefits. The social advantages of mixed age groupings are not found in large groups of 30 or so.

Importantly, within conventional schools where mixed age groupings are often implemented for economic necessity, there is a real risk that children feel that they are a failure for being in the ‘lower ability’ group.

Mixing up the generations

There are positive effects of mixing different generations, as well as just children of within a few years of each other. In our age segregated society this doesn’t happen much outside of the family, this mixing tends to have to happen within constructed ‘intergenerational projects’, which have been shown to have a number of benefits. Babies and toddler’s day cares have been held in old people’s nursing homes, students have shared a house with older people and there have been projects such as the Intergenerational Orchestra in New Jersey. Several schools in England have, over the last 15 years, run intergenerational projects where older people came into the schools. Dr Greg Mannion, a senior lecturer at the University of Stirling, has found that there is a wealth of benefits as a result of intergenerational projects. “Whether it be a recycling project, a biking or hiking group, or computer learning, all of these intergenerational school-linked projects show improved outcomes for the development of pupils, adults and the community at large.”

Children in school of course interact with adult teachers and leaders of groups, relationships which can be important, but these are not equal relationships in any way, the adult is a person in a position of responsibility. Home educated children often have friendships with people of very different ages, on an equal footing. 


Read more

Why Does Age Determine the How, What, and With Whom of Learning? (Education Reimagined, 13 June 2018)

Mix It Up: Mixed-Age Play Is Good for Kids Peter Gray (Tocaboca magazine)

The Special Value of Children’s Age-Mixed Play (Peter Gray, PhD)

Where age is just another number (TES, 27 Dec 2007)

Schools start intergenerational projects (Age UK,10 May 2017)

Combining day-care for children and elderly people benefits all generations (The Conversation, 4 Jan 2017)

Mixed-Age Groups in Early Childhood Education. (ERIC Digest)

Mixed-Age Grouping: What Does the Research Say, and How Can Parents Use This Information? (KidSource May 1998)

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