Replace graded classrooms with 'family' groupings

By , Education editor of The Christian Science Monitor

No teacher (without help) should have to cope with 20, 30, 40, or even a "mere" 10 beginning readers at the same time. Yet many schools around the world form complete classes of five- and six-year-olds and expect one teacher to teach all the children at once not only how to read, but how to write, do simple arithmetic, get along with a crowd of children, learn study skills, follow directions, and so on and on.

An enormous mistake was made when school districts became large enough to close down the scattered one-room schools and to replace them with the single graded school. No, the mistake was not closing these schools and providing a more efficient and better-equipped school setting -- the mistake was the grading.

And what is wonderful is that it's a mistake which can be undone immediately and at no cost whatsoever to anyone. Even if you are in the middle of a school year, it can be undone now.

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Redivide your classes. Eliminate something called the first grade, second grade, and third grade. For example, if you have 30 children per class, then give each teacher 10 first graders, 10 second graders, and 10 third graders.

When you do this, you'll create a "family" of children with a possible age span from 5 to 10. But age isn't the most important factor; it's the fact that now only one- third of the children in each classroom will be beginning readers, and that two-thirds will already have learned a great many basic skills and be able to assist the adult teacher as assistant teachers.

Admittedly, this arrangement of children requires different skills from those teachers who previously have tried to treat all their pupils the same. But as any seasoned teacher well knows, even though the children arrive at school about the same age, each is at a different learning level. And what better teachers have tried to do is to meet each pupil's special needs.

But with a "family" grouping, there won't be just one person in the room who has learned basic literacy skills, there will be many teachers, all of whom will be able to help the more immature. There will not only be children who have more mature basic skills, but who are more mature in age, and hence, experience, and so can provide a balance in all academic areas.

In other words, the adult teacher won't have to do all the teaching.

Of course, in classes concerned particularly with physical development, grading is essential. All the reason in the world to have dodge ball for a class full of first graders and another dodge-ball class for second graders.

I have visited schools in England and the United States where "family" grouping has replaced grading, and have yet to talk with a teacher or principal in such a school who would go back to the old way.

But if you're skeptical of this new approach to classroom assignments, then place half of the children in "family" groups; leave half in graded classes, and determine as best you can with whatever measuring devices you trust whether it's the teachers who work in a "family" or the teachers who work in a graded classroom who are the more effective .

Next week: Out of the "family" and into what?

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