Whenever I’m in a discussion about what changes are most needed in our educational system, I always end up going back to one particular, much-needed change:
Eliminate grade levels based on students’ biological age.
Turning five before September 1 does not ensure that a student is ready for kindergarten any more than saying students can’t enter kindergarten until they are 37 inches tall or until they weigh at least 40 pounds.
Age is irrelevant.
I was reminded of this recently while skiing at Mt. Hood Meadows near Portland, Oregon.
Or maybe I should say, “while attempting to ski…”
I loved to ski when I was younger but I hadn’t made time to try it in quite a while, about 18 years. When the opportunity came up, I was really excited to try it again, but also more than a little nervous.
Decked out in my brand new red ski pants, I rented skis and boots and headed straight for the bunny hill.
And there I stood for a while, just watching – seeing what others were doing and how they were doing it.
The only other adults on the bunny hill were parents helping their children. I tried to listen in on the advice they were giving so I could take advantage of it myself.
Once I was convinced I was at least able to start and to stop (even if that meant simply laying down in the snow), a friend encouraged me to venture over to the smallest ski lift.
From the vantage point of that chair gliding through the air above the ski run, I was struck by the incredible variations of size and ability levels of the skiers below.
There were so many kids! Some were working their way down the hill tentatively; others were zipping down with obvious experience and confidence. Likewise, there were adults who, like me, were just learning and who were going as slowly as their skis would allow, and there were adults who practically flew down the hill, most likely on their way back to the lodge from the more advanced runs father up the mountain.
One little girl, who looked to be about two years old and dressed in a pink and yellow polka-dot snowsuit, was working her way back and forth down the hill with a little help from a nearby adult.
Later, that same tiny girl would pass me as I tried to work my way down that same hill.
I had the thought: What if we had the expectation that skiing skills should progress with age the way our system assumes we progress with skills in reading and math?
What if kids had to stay on the bunny hill until they were eight years old, then were allowed on the easiest green runs for another couple of years before moving on again to the more difficult runs?
We’d have a lot of kids who thought skiing was slow and boring, and they wouldn’t want to do it.
On the flip side, many of my friends who are close to my age ski some of the most difficult terrain, including an area of canyons where there are double black diamond runs one experienced skier friend calls “a bit steep” but that I prefer to call “a vertical cliff of sheer terror.”
What if I was required to try to keep up with these friends just because I was the same age as them? At best I’d end up sliding down the run on my backside. More likely I’d end up being air lifted off the mountain with multiple broken bones.
Age is irrelevant.
We know that kids (and adults) learn best when we start at their current level of skill and then we challenge them and support them to try something just a little bit harder. They grow, whether the skill being learned is long division, reading comprehension or parallel skiing.
Let’s quit forcing students to stay on the bunny hill when they’re ready for more, and let’s quit pushing others off steep runs for which we know they are not ready.