What Are some Questions Related to the Grouping of Students in a School
by T. F. Hanley, Former Director of Professional Development, NB Department of Education
When I was teaching Grade 10 Algebra, I had a student I will call HK. HK was assigned to my class because he was 15 years old and in Grade 10. Those were the only criteria considered. However, HK was a very bright student, at least in mathematics. Within the first month of our year-long course I recognized that HK was very bored with the content that I was required to teach. He aced every test without seeming to require much effort. So, I quietly approached the Principal to see if we could move HK to a Grade 11 math course where he might be more challenged. But, it seems, the school was scheduled in such a way that it met Provincial requirements, and such a transfer was not possible.
So, HK suffered through my basic Algebra course where I used him to help students who were having problems and allowed him to pull out and read whatever reading material was of interest to him. I suspect this was not the only Grade 10 course that HK found boring. What a waste of this young man’s time!
The story of HK is only one example of how, traditionally, our schools have been organized around the concept of a teacher teaching a set curriculum to a group of students. And, for the most part, the students have been organized by their age.
So, at the Elementary School level, we have a teacher who teaches the Grade One curriculum to a group of six year olds and another teacher who teaches the Grade Two curriculum to a group of seven year olds, etc. There may be some variation with specialist teachers in art, music and physical education but these subjects too are taught to students organized by age.
At the Middle School level, teachers begin to specialize by subject area but the students are still organized by their age. So, we may have a Middle School Math and Science teacher who teaches Grade Six Math and Science to a class of 11-12 year old students, Grade Seven Math and Science to a class of 12-13 year olds and Grade Eight Math and Science to students who are 13-14 years of age.
At the High School Level, there is some variation in this pattern as students in Grade 10 may now select a Grade 11 course, etc. but overall the pattern holds true. Teachers teach students who are chronologically about the same age.
But any teacher at any grade level (particularly evident at the Primary level among 5, 6 and 7 year olds) will tell you that, even though they are the same age, there is great variation in the students’ readiness to learn a particular concept or skill.
So why do we keep organizing students based on their age?
Are there other ways to group students? Is there anything wrong with a 5 year old math wiz learning math with the 7 year olds if she is capable? Conversely, is there anything wrong with a 7 year old struggling with math being grouped with 5 and 6 year olds? I would suggest that we should be grouping students based on their readiness to learn in a particular area of the curriculum and there are already schools who have implemented this strategy.
And why do the students always have to organized into groups of 25-30 students? Why can’t there be bigger groups and smaller groups at different times of the day for different purposes? Perhaps a small group that is struggling with basic reading while a larger group is focused on reading for understanding.
Please do not interpret this as grouping students by their general ability to learn. We have made that mistake in the past. (Remember Level 1 students, Level 2 students, Level 3 students and Special Education classes?) No – this is grouping students by their readiness to learn a particular concept or skill in a particular area of the curriculum. And it means grouping and re-grouping as the day and the week proceed because the school would be organized around learning.