The problem of levels and age

Shaun has occasionally posted about the difficulties of educating her profoundly gifted daughter. One of the reasons she homeschools is because she just couldn’t get a school system based primarily around age to work for her daughter, particularly when she needed to be accelerated more than 2 grades in some subjects (which seemed  to be the limit the school would consider). Now Tigger is not really in the same league as Violet but she is pretty bright and if I had pushed I probably could have got her into the gifted program with our board. But homeschooling works much better. And one reason is because we can just work at the level that seems right without really worrying about levels. Since she doesn’t even really like textbooks, this is even easier because levels just never come up.

But Tigger is also a really social child. She loves being with other kids. And she loves learning from other people. So I like to sign her up for things that get organized on topics that interest her. Back in May/June she did a science class. It was loosely based on the Grade 9 curriculum and advertised as for 12-15 year olds. I knew the mom that organized it and talked to her about it. She wasn’t sure what the teacher would think but thought Tigger was probably at that level (from previous interaction) and said that if everyone who signed up was at the top end of the age range maybe not but we’d see who else was interested. In the end it was pretty hard to get the minimum number together and there was an 11 year old also interested and Tigger did it. She was fine. I had to find alternative readings a couple of times or go through the reading with her but she grasped the concepts well and did great in this lab based class.

At the end of that class the teacher had said that there was another class he planned to offer in the fall if the kids were interested — cell biology with lots of microscope work (Grade 9 level again). Even though Tigger and this other kid were younger than his usual target age range he made a point of saying to me and the other mom that they were both easily capable of doing that class and he’d welcome them. So this fall, I contacted him and then took it upon myself to organize some people.

Of course it is easier to get enough kids in September than in May 🙂 So I had more than enough and did it on a first-come first-served kind of basis. I sent an e-mail to those that were in and the teacher (so he could take over) and listed what I knew about the participants at the end. Some I didn’t know ages and those I did seemed to be several 12 year olds and Tigger. One 14 year old boy then told his mom that he didn’t want to do a class for 10 – 12 year olds. AAACK!

I dealt with it all but I felt personally really awful. Here I am trying to get an activity at a good level for Tigger and because she is younger it gives the impression to others that the class isn’t really Grade 9 level as advertised. The teacher by then had more information about some of the kids and we confirmed with this kid’s mom that there were older kids in the group and that the level was right for him and that he wasn’t going to dumb it down for younger kids. He’s back in. Thank goodness.

But I ended up feeling like you can’t win. The age to level culture runs so deep that even homeschooled kids (and this kid is unschooled so I don’t think he does a lot of workbooks with levels printed on them either) immediately think that younger kids must be doing lower level work. Or maybe that it would be “normal” for a class to have kids all about the same age rather than having kids from 11 to 16 (as this class will). I’m sure he didn’t mean anything bad by it but it does seem to be an indication of how deep those assumptions go.

Which gets me back to my complaint that we, as a society, need a better understanding of statistics and probability. Because the variation in ability (all kinds of abilities) around the mean is significant for most things. Somehow we have a society that thinks “average” is where everyone should be and that both “below average” and “above average” are somehow “abnormal” in a way that needs to be corrected or reined in or something. This starts to happen from when we are measuring our babies’ progress in terms of “developmental milestones”. I have even met moms who misunderstand those growth charts thinking that if their kids in the 15th (or 85th) percentile there is a problem with their growth. Somewhere along the line we’ve lost the distinction between characteristics of a population and characteristics of an individual  member of that population. And it causes real problems.

My kid is well within the normal range of ability for a kid her age. But she’s 11 and capable of Grade 9 science. Her understanding of history and history of art is way beyond what anyone would expect of an 11 year old. But she still plays imaginative games with Playmobil toys and dolls and other “normal” 11 year old stuff. That’s probably normal too. Somehow we need to be able to recognize all of our normal kids, in all their variation, and help them learn. I would hope that classes with kids ranging in age from 11 to 16 were actually more common.


8 thoughts on “The problem of levels and age

  1. What she said.

    I think the grade/age/level thing goes right along with the mistaken notion that kids in Grade X need to know X. It’s all a symptom of the artificial graded system.


  2. You’re absolutely right about the age/level thing, and I see it come up over and over again even in strictly homeschool activities. For me the result has been that we don’t do group academic activities, only sports, art or purely social ones.

    My dad, a retired teacher, asked me again yesterday, as he does once a year, when I’m going to “put those boys in public school,” because hanging out with other children in their own “grade level” is supposed to be magically good for them, never mind that they have good friends of various ages and are academically all over the map with respect to “grade level.”

    I told him I’d do it as soon as the local elementary can accommodate my older son’s study of algebra and computer-game programming based on algebraic expressions. The silence that followed was mighty sweet.

    (And no, I don’t think that makes my boy a wunderkind. He’s just had the opportunity to explore those subjects because we’re not limited by age/grade assumptions.)


  3. What baffles me is that this age/level business is expected until Grade 12 and then it’s all completely out the window. Why after but not before? What happens?

    We don’t have access to any sort of academic courses, so it hasn’t been a problem. But we often hear comments on the subjects we’re studying for history, or books for literature (and this year one of them is going to be Orwell’s Animal Farm), because I think what Lizabeth said is right — around here, a particular book or subject is studies in a particular grade, not before and not after. Ever. Gah.


  4. Ironically this has been an issue in our current co-op, so that the group established a firm age policy before we joined. The primary reason was that 11+ kids felt strongly about being in classes with kids their age.

    I have some sympathy with these kids, having seen some of the developmental changes that happen between 9 and 12.

    Still, a science class is a science class — it’s not a full 6-hour school day. The age of your classmates should not be a huge factor a few hours a week, as long as the content and pace of the class is right for you.

    V. is in a writing class that was supposed to have ages 9-14, but it ended up being large enough to be split into two groups based on age. I wasn’t happy — I wouldn’t normally pay for a 9-11 level class for V. in her strongest areas — but most other parents thought it was ideal! One said, “Well, V. can just write a few more paragraphs or something.” So we’ll see . . .


  5. i think my sons now feel any group activity is primarily social — because, after all, they can learn *any* time, and because their regular life includes children and adults of all ages. so when they are in some organized “class”-type activity, they strongly want to be with boys their own age. it’s not that they are intolerant of other age groups; they simply recognize that they much less frequently get to hang with just guys their own age, and this is their chance.

    since they come from a background of learning in a mixed-age environment, i’m not happy about this, but given the flip-flop that happened when we started homeschooling, i’ve come to understand it.


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