On Age Segregation

I had never thought of this before: that we, as educators, segregate learners based on their age and grade level. Grade 5 is when they are supposed to learn about weather. Grade 6 is when they are supposed to learn about contemporary Canada. This is so because the curriculum says it is so. Yet, upon discovering an article by Seymour Papert at today’s ITLL session, the way that learning, and in particular content knowledge, is segregated based on grade level seems counter to the student-centred approach that I identify with as an educator.

Papert argues that in the learning environment of the future, “[k]ids will work in communities of common interest on rich projects that will connect with powerful ideas.” To create this kind of environment, he continues, the first thing we have to do is “give up the idea of curriculum.” By curriculum he means the rigidity of having to teach to the grade level and its prescribed concepts and skills. Instead, he advocates a system where kids learn what they need and are put in positions where they can use the knowledge and skills they are being taught. In other words, project-based learning.

What Papert speaks of resonates with me, and actually validates, to a degree, what I have planned for this year. In the Spring I am planning a project for my learners in which they will build and then use their own cameras. The impetus for this project came from the curriculum: I thought I could nicely meld the Social Studies and Science and Art curricula for my grade levels (Grades 5/6) by learning about Confederation by way of photographs, the photographic process and the science of light. But I got confused in my planning. Light is a Grade 4 Science cluster. I teach Grades 5/6. I realized this mistake a few weeks ago and have been panicking since as I’ve already declared to parents and my learners that we will be doing this. What will the parents say when they realize I’m teaching a Grade 4 topic to their kids who are in Grades 5/6?

Well, I’m not too worried about this anymore. Who cares if light is a Grade 4 topic or a Grade 12 topic? By segregating learning like this we send a message to our students that learning is not a life-long endeavour, but based on your “grade level.” Project-based learning, on the other hand, is about engagement and practical and authentic uses for what we learn. It is enduring.