Image courtesy of Flickr--http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3213/3121817819_bced0e0fe5_m.jpg
In Australia, as in many other developed countries, we group our school students by their age despite knowing that all of them come to school with a varied readiness to learn (at least the way we currently teach) and progress at rates that vary greatly.
The child that begins school and cannot cope will quickly fall behind. The upper primary teachers will believe that the early childhood teachers should have spent more time with the children, but do not have the time in their classrooms to bring these children back up to the required level. The children themselves believe that they are "dumb" and the school system reinforces this perception. When the children are unable to understand and learn at the required rate they often become disruptive or withdraw. Teachers then perceive these students as a behavioural management challenge and the pattern of poor behaviour is perpetuated throughout the rest of their schooling.
Keeping a child back a grade is often discussed, but the negative effects on the child's self esteem most often results in graduation to the next grade, even though this is most likely to make learning even more difficult.
By the time these children reach high school the pattern is well entrenched and these children are condemned to a miserable learning experience that offers nothing at the end of formal schooling.
But what about those children who find schooling easy? They quickly acquire and integrate the required knowledge and skills , but then become bored and disinterested because the learning pace is not sufficient for them to maintain engagement. Often this boredom results in similar behaviours to those children who are unable to keep up with the learning journey presented to them.
So what's the answer to a formal school schooling system in crisis that does not meet the needs of many of its students? If the answer was simple then we would have found the solution already!! There are, however, some strong indicators in schools across the world--strategies that work and ensure that "no child is left behind".
Warrego, a small aboriginal settlement at the edge of the Tanami Desert, an elder approached a retired school teacher (who lived in the area) and asked if he could teach the aboriginal children to ride so that the community could once again run the cattle station they owned. Read the story to understand how this school turned around its attendance to become one the highest in the Northern Territory.
Unfortunately, this model relies on the absolute dedication of the teacher and his wife and in 2007 this school was closed because of the dwindling population. The notion of reward and authentic learning is also used with indigenous students in Djarragun College, a school near Cairns in Queensland.
In both of these schools indigenous students are encouraged to engage in their studies to be able to participate in authentic activities associated with their learning.
Some schools in the US have been experimenting with ability-based cohorts rather than age-based classes. Read the story to gain a better idea as to how this works. This model has much to offer, but as the article warns, it should replace the traditional system and not be imposed on top of the existing system. This article also suggests that it is the student-centered goal setting that encourages participation and improved attendance. These schools do not offer a radical change in pedagogy, merely a mastery approach to the curriculum.
Of equal promise are more student-centered pedagogical approaches that have authentic tasks and assessment integrated to the entire learning experience. The removal of age-based cohorts would work well with these approaches.