…or can skipping or failing a grade be a very good thing?
Let me tell you the tale of four students.
The first, Danny, had decided to better himself and become more flexible in the job market, given the prevalent economic uncertainty. So he went to the website of the Open University and looked for a course package that would appeal to him.
After due consideration, he decided on a subject, whereupon he proceeded with his enrolment. The course involved a number of challenging assignments, all accompanied by due dates, and length and formatting requirements. Danny was not fazed. Full of enthusiasm, he started on the course work. He industriously complied with all the required readings, studied the assignment requirements, and set to work. Long before the deadline he finished the first homework assignment and sent it away.
It was less than a week later that he received word back: he had failed his first assignment. Failed miserably. However, the kind lecturer gave many tips as to how to improve the work for resubmission.
Disappointed, but not down, Danny set to work again. He carefully followed the lecturer’s suggestions and, with hope in his heart, resubmitted. The result, though slightly better, was still disappointment – Danny hadn’t passed, even on his second attempt.
Danny was thoroughly disheartened. After honest and deep contemplation, he decided that he had overreached and that he needed to bite the bullet and quit. Perhaps he should have another look at the courses and take on something more realistic and in keeping with his current abilities…
Shaun and Emily
The family of little Shaun and Emily moved to a new district. The 7 and 9-year-old embarked on theadventure of a new school. They were kindly received, then tested on their abilities, and placed in a classroom with their peers.
It was not long before both children became unhappy and unruly. Shaun could not care less whether he did his homework or not. Emily did not have any homework, because she finished everything in school time. She saidschool was boring.
Meetings between the teachers and parents followed. It was agreed that Shaun struggled and required some remedial help. Emily needed no help at all; perhaps she could be given some extra work, expanding her challenges in that manner. The teachers would do their best, but with the large number of students in their care, it would be difficult.
At the end of the year, Shaun was promoted to the next grade, even though his progress reports showed failure after failure. Emily was promoted as well, with straight A’s all over her list. Both children looked forward to the summer holidays and nagged their parents for a different school come the new year.
The new school year commenced, and the children joined their peers. Shaun was looking at another year of discouragement and remedial treatment. Emily’s motivation was also at a low and she decided to do just what was necessary to get by…
When peers aren’t the main concern, then ability can be
Peers were not a concern for Danny so when he noticed his course was above his ability; he could simply quit it. He could adjust and find something more suitable.
Shaun and Emily were locked in a system from which there was no escape. Shaun was forced to endure the ignominy of failure after failure; Emily was exposed to what she called “kindergarten material” which she considered humiliatingly unchallenging. However, as the Principal pointed out, it was important to keep the children in their peer groups. It would not do to place them with those older or younger than they, as this would stunt their emotional development.
Now meet Caleb (not his real name). He was brought to this little Christian school. Dad and Mum said that Caleb was a problem student in his current school and did not perform well at all. In fact, the larger part of the day he was forced to reside outside the classroom. On his report card the teacher had written about his reading skills that Caleb needed to guess more! Caleb did not want to guess, he wanted to read! This nine-year-old was by now on the level of a six-year-old student, even though there was nothing wrong with his cerebral capabilities. He did not like school anymore. “And then to think how he started so full of enthusiasm,” Mum remarked.
The long and short of it was that the Principal and the parents agreed that Caleb would start according to ability with the little ones, moving between different groups fluidly to tap into his present abilities. Being more mature, he would succeed at a faster pace and consequently move through the ranks ever more closely to his peers, all the while tasting academic success. Caleb finished high school within a year of his peers and went on to do a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science at university. As an adult he wrote on Facebook how that little Christian school and its teaching approach had been the saving of him in terms of developing his abilities.
Caleb was not forced to sit in class with his peers and be confronted with repeat failure. He was not singled out for remedial (often sensed as humiliating) lessons. He was successful in class and was able to join his peers outside class when playing games (during PE lessons he did join his peers, by the way, and outshone most of them).
Why have we made this the priority?
In Matthew 23:4 the Lord Jesus accuses the Pharisees of putting heavy and grievous burdens on the people with rules and regulations that they themselves wouldn’t bear.
This text had me wondering if, educationalists – with the best of intentions – have placed burdens upon children that they would not place upon themselves! (We can think also of the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12.) An adult who enters on a course of study will do so within his capabilities. Should there be an error of judgment, the course will be discontinued and, perhaps, a more suitable one entertained.
School children, as a rule, are not given that choice in the traditional system. We’ve deemed it as the first priority that they mingle with peers, even when they are to concentrate on cerebral pursuits. And we’ve done so, knowing that intellectually mismatched children who are being set the same challenges can be a hindrance to each other in class time! The discouraged girls might skulk away, or a frustrated boy resort to bravado, while the capable students are irritated by unwanted distractions. The net result is a teacher with a classroom harboring behavioral challenges. When considering the eagerness of the little five-year-olds upon entering “the big school,” it is a shame upon the education system to erode this eagerness by providing systemic failure on the one hand and systemic boredom on the other.
Success is achieved by enabling children to punch according to their weight, not above their weight, or below their weight. A good school will strive to place just the right expectation (burden) upon each child’s shoulders, in keeping with capability and maturity, regardless of age.
I would submit that many schools, including several Christian schools, unwittingly create educationally disenchanted children with the misguided concept of peer group education, and procuring motivation-eroded people.
“One may miss the mark by aiming too high as too low.” -Thomas Fuller (English clergyman, 1608-1661)
Dr. Herm Zandman has been both a schoolteacher and truck driver, writing on both, including his book “Blood, Sweat, and Gears.” A version of this article first appeared in the July 25, 2020 issue of Una Sancta.
Questions for discussion
Dr. Zandman raises the issue of age-based grades and how among adults we based schooling on ability, rather than age. It’s a topic seldom discussed, so to foster that discussion here are a few questions intended for a group setting.
- Peers, and fitting in, are the reason most kids don’t want to skip or be held back a grade. But this grouping-by-year exists only in school and disappears soon afterward. So are there ways that we can diminish the importance of this artificial grouping? Would skipping a grade be less of a big deal if we did it more often? How could we foster a school environment in which a student, held back a grade, isn’t worried about what his friends will say?
- In our churches, homeschooling is often viewed as an abandonment of the local covenantal school (which needs as many supporters as it can get). But homeschooling seems to better be able to accommodate children based on their abilities, rather than age. So for the sake of the students who don’t fit into age-based grades, do we need to re-evaluate our attitude towards homeschooling? After all, do our schools exist for the children, or are we now having to send our children for the school’s sake?
- Parents are ultimately in charge of their child’s education so what are ways that parents can add to the weight their child bears, should that be needed? Is it a matter of extra-curriculars like music lessons and art classes, or a part-time job, or even starting their own “side hustle”? What other options are possible?
- What are the historic roots of the grade-by-grade schooling that we do? In times past children in one-room schoolhouses might be taught via their “readers.” They would move on to the next level – the next reader – when they were done the previous one. But now age-based grades are the near-universal approach, also in our Christian schools. Seeing as this approach can’t be found in the Bible, might it be worth a reassessment? Are there other possibilities? Is what happened with Caleb, as Dr. Zandman described it, an option that exists in our schools?