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McGraw-Hill exec: tech will make us rethink age-grouping in schools

Online platforms like Khan Academy are already starting to flip classrooms across the country so that students can learn at their own pace.  But some think it might not be too long before technology pushes schools to personalize education in even more structural ways, so that students are no longer grouped by age, but by competency.

Noting advances in educational technology –- from online platforms that deliver instruction to programs that analyze student learning data -– Jeff Livingston, senior vice president of College and Career Readiness at McGraw-Hill (s MHP), said Thursday he thinks that in the next five to six years, schools and educators are going to have to rethink age-grouping as the primary organizing principle for K-12 education, especially at the high-school level.

In a virtual roundtable with reporters, he said, “What does it mean to be a 9th grader or 10th grader beyond being a certain age? … It doesn’t make sense that all the 15-year-olds are in this grade and all the 16-year-olds are in that grade. It should be where your interests, your skills and your mastery of certain concepts takes you.”

Competency-based vs. seat-time-based learning

Mixed-age classrooms, not so unlike those from the days of the one-room schoolhouse, are already espoused by many Montessori and Quaker schools. In those environments, the thinking is that real learning is best accomplished when students are motivated to progress at their own pace and help each other.

But as technology helps teachers guide students through content at their own pace -– and effectively assess their mastery of skills and concepts -– multiage classrooms could become a reality in more traditional classrooms.

Some schools and teachers already seem to be trying the model using Khan Academy. And, led by higher education, Livingston only expects that trend to pick up.

In a conversation with me after the event, he pointed to the online Western Governors University (a McGraw-Hill partner) as a model for learning based on competency, not the number of hours a student spends in a classroom. He also highlighted the growth in students taking online courses as well as college courses on campus to offset the limitations of their local schools. As more self-motivated students start cutting their own path -– increasingly with the help of digital platforms –- educators will have little choice but to figure out how to accommodate them, Livingston said.

What does the high school diploma mean?

New models of learning based on competency will also contribute to new ways of thinking about certification and credentialing, he said. That debate is already brewing at the higher education level, as startups like Udacity and Coursera start to certify students’ skills online. But Livingston said the high school diploma will also increasingly be challenged to prove its value against other kinds of certificates that are “organized around what you can do, more than what you know.”

In the past couple of years, digital education has experienced such profound growth and investment that it’s not hard to imagine that its momentum will only continue to build and re-shape schools and classrooms.  But as important as building the technology to enable competency-based classrooms is building teacher support and education for new models. The technology is increasingly there, but the challenge is breaking through bureaucracy and overcoming entrenched ways of thinking about how education is structured and experienced.

15 Responses to “McGraw-Hill exec: tech will make us rethink age-grouping in schools”

  1. This articles raises some interesting questions, especially concerning student confidence. Although a move towards “competence” based learning will certainly increase some student’s sense of accomplishment, autonomy and confidence, it will also undoubtedly shake the confidence of students who are not progressing along with peers within their own age group. That is not to say that these students will not benefit from the extra time and attention that they need, but they may be hindered by feelings of inadequacy since they will see other students of the same age progressing at a much faster rate. Self-confidence is a large facet of the learning process and I would be interested to see how the move to a competency based learning system affects overall student confidence, especially amongst young learners.

  2. Bermadette

    What could be better than meeting the students where they are ready to learn? The hurdle is the logistics. This will need a change in internal infrastructure, professional training, and parent mindset.

  3. Multiage classrooms are very well becoming more of a reality these days and websites such as Khan or help students by allowing them to learn at their own pace with all of the videos provided on the websites.

  4. Until the feds allow states to assess students when they are ready to move on rather than at the end of the year, competency based learning will never move forward at the pace it should. It is a ridiculous hurdle that should be removed. Students should be allowed to be tested when they are ready to move on or at the level that best matches what they have learned.

  5. Unfortunately, state assessments mandated under ESEA discourage students from moving ahead when they are ready. The year-end assessments may actually represent the biggest hurdle to competency-based learning. It is a ridiculous impediment.

  6. Susan Rakow, Ph.D.

    Age-based grouping has never been appropriate, though in the days of one room schoolhouses, it was necessary. Progressive educators have known since the 1940’s that continuous progress schools and grouping children by what they’re ready to learn (within reasonable developmental bands) makes a lot more sense than grouping by chronological age. More schools are returning to achievement grouping within or across grade levels and classes in order to better meet students’ needs, from those who struggle to those who need to accelerate. The biggest impediment is the public! Community members consistently resist multi-age grouping because it wasn’t how it was when THEY went to school. Of course, they don’t say this about advancements in medicine. But in education, people want input that keeps schools tied to past practices, whether they are effective now or not.

    • You are absolutely correct.
      The need for a true 21st century education is something that few would argue agais, BUT few can agree with what that exactly looks like, sounds like, feels like…
      I get excited when I think of all of the possibilities but when schools start to do innovative things, too often parents push back. Parents complain about too much homework or work that is too hard. Parents seem less interested in what their child LEARNS and more concerned about school fitting into their “busy schedules” or meets their emotional needs. Too few teachers can identify parents who see the value of hard work – deep thinking – challenging tasks.

  7. I teach at a public school and we are already grouped by competency from time to time. We have students in basic, regular, and AP classes. Right now special needs students that are not at the competency level of their peers are intermixed in the classroom. I teach all levels of abilities in grades 9-12. I teach in a computer lab and I still meet the needs of my students whether they are a top scholar or autistic child. As a parent, I would not want my 9 year old gifted daughter to be in a classroom with 15-18 year old boys. We as parents and educators can’t only look at the competency levels of our children. Social and emotional growth, and gender issues are equally important factors to consider and why children are initially grouped by age in primary grades.

    • I hear you. Grouping by competency sounds like a good idea but needs to be handled very carefully. Physical, social and emotional development are all part of what goes on at school, and mixing people at different levels of maturity could prove distracting for boys and girls alike. There’s no doubt that its time for taking a serious look at how we do things, and there’s no reason that it should take forever to change, but it needs to be carefully thought through.

  8. Change will come from the outside in….i.e., education is a large beast that will be slow to change, so present the options directly to students and families, let them experience the benefits and they will drive change..

  9. Oh, this will work well for the boys. Be dumb and you’re surrounded by girls your age or younger who think you’re hawt. Be smart and you’re surrounded by older girls who think you’re a scrawny geek.