April 6, 2012

What About “Grade Level?”

Even bigger than the myth of public schools having some kind of corner on the ideal scope and sequence is the fallacy that the concept of "grade level" has any objective merit. In reality, "grade levels" only exist in institutional schooling because grouping children according to age is most convenient for the adults. But that doesn't mean it's best for kids. In fact, in regards to learning, the reality (which each of us knows in our gut if we're honest with ourselves) is that there is a vast range of readiness and ability among any given group of same-aged kids at any "grade level." Thus, you'll see kids in "4th grade" who can comprehend and enjoy books at a much higher reading level, and others who still struggle with phonics. And you'll notice a wide range in terms of those kids' abilities to understand whatever math is being taught in the "4th grade" classroom as well; in fact, some of the "high" readers might be the ones who struggle most with math! It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with any child; it just means that each is an individual whose abilities and needed pace of learning differ from that of other children and across the various academic areas of study.

The system of institutional schooling has to deal with that in one way or another. Tragically, in most cases the sad truth is that the "powers that be" simply insist on standardization (i.e., all kids in a certain "grade level" are taught the same things...at the same time...in the same way...at the same rate). Of course, that doesn't mean the children are all engaged in the process (the ones who function at higher levels are bored out of their heads!) or are all learning (the ones who have slower natural rates of learning are being dragged along but still don't "get it"). But - beyond a few teachers who try to make allowances to some degree within the constraints of the system - that's just the way it is.

In contrast, though, with homeschooling we have the freedom to actually teach our children at each one's ability level and pace - without regard to what the system says is a certain "grade level." In practical terms, what that means is this: Even if you choose to go with a traditional (i.e., textbook-based) curriculum and use separate materials for each child, you do not need to - in fact, you should not - simply go with one "grade level" for every subject. If you do that, you're probably not truly meeting the child's needs, and that would be a shame considering that individualization is one of the main blessings of home learning

Thus, don't use the default "grade level" label based on your child's chronological age when choosing curriculum. Instead, evaluate where your child is in terms of what he knows and is able to do - many companies provide placement tests to help in that process - and start there. If that means he's six but using a "5th grade" math book (I met a child recently for whom that would likely be true!), meet his needs. And, if that means he's 10 and needs "2nd grade" reading, meet his needs. Start from where your child really is on Day 1 of your home learning program and be diligent about making regular progress...but go at your child's pace of learning, whatever that is.

In the end, your child will be just where she needs to be upon high school graduation. She won't have gone through the cookie-cutter, assembly line schooling offered by the institutions; instead, she'll have been given an individualized program of study that took her real needs into account in every facet of learning. As such, she'll be able to soar in her particular areas of giftedness while still being more than competent in other areas. She'll also be much more emotionally healthy than her institutionally-schooled peers...and will come out of her educational experience with a love for learning and a desire to continue learning throughout her life. And isn't that what education should really be about?

Photo Credit: priscillavorng


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