Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Peter Gray - Why We Should Stop Segregating Children by Age: Part I--The Value of Play in the Zone of Proximal Development

A good article from Peter Gray on why segregating our children by age is bad for their education. I grew up in this system, but some of my clients have their kids in Montessori Schools (the only integral education approach I am aware of) where there are at least three age groups in each classroom, and their kids thrive in that atmosphere. It allows older children to mentor younger children, which is one of Gray's points in the article.

Why We Should Stop Segregating Children by Age: Part I--The Value of Play in the Zone of Proximal Development

One of the oddest, and in my view most harmful, aspects our treatment of children today is our penchant for segregating them into separate groups by age. We do that not only in schools, but increasingly in out-of-school settings as well. In doing so, we deprive children of a valuable component of their natural means of self-education.

The age-segregated mode of schooling became dominant at about the same time in history when the assembly-line approach to manufacturing became dominant. The implicit analogy is pretty obvious. The graded school system treats children as if they are items on an assembly line, moving from stop to stop (grade to grade) along a conveyor belt, all at the same speed. At each stop a factory worker (teacher) adds some new component (unit of knowledge) to the product. At the end of the line, the factory spits out complete, new, adult human beings, all built to the specifications of the manufacturers (the professional educators).

Of course everyone who has ever had or known a child, including everyone who works in our age-graded schools, knows that this assembly-line view of child development is completely false. Children are not passive products, to which we can add components. Children are not incomplete adults that need to be built bit by bit in some ordered sequence. Children are complete human beings in their own right, who constantly demand to control their own lives and who, despite what we put them through, insist on learning what they want to learn and practicing the skills they want to practice. We can't stop them. We would all be much better off if we went with them on this rather than fought them.

In previous postings I have described settings where children educate themselves, without adult direction or prodding. In particular, I have discussed self-education as it once occurred in hunter-gatherer bands (August 2, 2008, posting) and as it occurs today in schools designed for self-education, particularly the Sudbury Valley School (August 13, 2008, and September 3, 2008, postings). A prominent feature of such settings is that children regularly interact with others across the whole spectrum of ages. Anthropologists have claimed that free age mixing is the key to the self-education of hunter-gatherer children; and Daniel Greenberg has long claimed that free age mixing is the key to self-education at the Sudbury Valley School, which he helped to found [1].

Several years ago, Jay Feldman (who then was a graduate student working with me) and I conducted some studies of age-mixed interactions at the Sudbury Valley School, aimed at (a) determining how much age mixing occurred at the school, (b) identifying the contexts in which age-mixing occurred, and (c) identifying ways by which age mixing seemed to contribute to students' self-education.

Go read the whole article.


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