The Problem With Grade Levels
This morning, we’re starting our 2015-16 school year. In our homeschool this year, we have 8th, 6th, 4th, and 2nd graders (and a kindergartner). Phew! Just writing that makes me tired.
But let’s talk about grade levels.
When people ask my kids what grades they’re in, my homeschooled kids (mostly) know what to tell them… yes, they’re “socialized” enough to do that. And yet, to be honest, whatever answer they give doesn’t really tell anyone anything in regard to school work.
When a 7th grader is reading a college level text about world history, it doesn’t make him a college student. If a 2nd grader is struggling with reading, but by 5th grade has caught up to, or even surpassed, his peers, it doesn’t make him “behind” or “ahead” of anything except an arbitrary standard that applies when looking at data– not human beings.
Because the truth is, each child is a unique blend of skills.
Sure, “they” have a testable skill set we’ve now been culturally trained to look for, but that doesn’t mean that each child should, or does, sit there on the “average” line. Grade levels are helpful for educating children en masse, but not always helpful in educating each individual child according to his/her abilities.
Brains often develop like the world around us does– making almost no progress at all through winter, and then suddenly, bursting into growth all at once when it is spring.
It can look like they’re just not getting it, and then all of a sudden you begin to see sprouts– “buds” of growth. You see it in your toddler who suddenly starts repeating everything you ever say, whereas just a month prior, he had no interest in talking whatsoever. You see it in the child who suddenly “gets” potty training or bike riding or jumping off of the ground with both feet.
And yes, you see it in school-aged children, with reading and math.
In my (admittedly limited) experience, reading is actually a GREAT DEAL like potty training. You can push it through at first, which becomes torturous for both mom and child and is burdensome on mom because she has to keep it going… OR you can wait for readiness, and it will happen VERY quickly.
In his book, Better Late Than Early, Dr. Raymond Moore showed that it’s actually BETTER for development of curiosity and overall, long-term academic strength for children to WAIT on academics. When academic abilities develop in partnership with a child’s natural curiosity— to WANT to know what’s written on the paper, to WANT to understand how to figure baseball averages, to WANT to understand how magnets work– there is a natural “want to” that propels REAL (rather than forced) learning.
But (perhaps more importantly for me), when academics are pushed too early, there is a natural demotivation. Reading becomes toil rather than the unraveling of mysteries. Math becomes drillwork rather than the foundation for understanding the world around us. Science becomes “boring” and “homework” rather than the answer to our curiosity and pursuits.
This has been a central idea to the philosophy of our homeschool.
I watch our children for interest and curiosity, and then jump in, and they learn so much more quickly, and it sticks.
(Note: this is not the same as “unschooling,”)
I love this bit from Understood Betsy: (In this quote, Betsy, who was accustomed to a large town school, is interacting with her teacher at her first day at a small, country school.)
“After the lesson the teacher said, smiling, “Well, Betsy, you were right about arithmetic. I guess you’d better recite with Eliza for a while. She’s doing second-grade work. I shouldn’t be surprised if, after a good review with her, you’d be able to go on with the third-grade work.”
Elizabeth Ann fell back on the bench with her mouth open. She felt really dizzy. What crazy things the teacher said! She felt as though she was being pulled limb from limb.
“What’s the matter?” asked the teacher, seeing her bewildered face.
“Why—why,” said Elizabeth Ann, “I don’t know what I am at all. If I’m second-grade arithmetic and seventh-grade reading and third-grade spelling, what grade AM I?”
The teacher laughed at the turn of her phrase. “YOU aren’t any grade at all, no matter where you are in school. You’re just yourself, aren’t you? What difference does it make what grade you’re in! And what’s the use of your reading little baby things too easy for you just because you don’t know your multiplication table?”
“Well, for goodness’ sakes!” ejaculated Elizabeth Ann, feeling very much as though somebody had stood her suddenly on her head.
“Why, what’s the matter?” asked the teacher again.
This time Elizabeth Ann didn’t answer, because she herself didn’t know what the matter was. But I do, and I’ll tell you. The matter was that never before had she known what she was doing in school. She had always thought she was there to pass from one grade to another, and she was ever so startled to get a glimpse of the fact that she was there to learn how to read and write and cipher and generally use her mind, so she could take care of herself when she came to be grown up. Of course, she didn’t really know that till she did come to be grown up, but she had her first dim notion of it in that moment, and it made her feel the way you do when you’re learning to skate and somebody pulls away the chair you’ve been leaning on and says, “Now, go it alone!”
So, in a large-classroom setting, while your child is in a season of “winter,” frozen solid before her brain begins letting, say, the concept of long division settle down into her brain and take root there, the rest of the class is moving on to something else, and she’s getting further and further behind. All the while, her brain is working as it’s meant to… stopping, sorting things out, and trying to cling to ideas without moving on to new ones before understanding the old ones.
In our home, the way that same scenario looks is this: we tackle long division. We park there as long as necessary for the child to really “get” it… then we move on to the next logical step/math function. We can hurry along if she retains it easily, and we can also pause and let it ruminate longer if it takes longer.
The pace we travel at is her own, rather than the fastest, slowest, or most “average” student in the class.
Our children are neither put in a position of feeling like they can zone out and still breeze through school (I’m guilty as charged on that one), nor of feeling like they will never catch up and are the dumbest person in the room. Instead, they get to progress at the pace that their skills and abilities allow.
The problem with grade levels is that they’re not really made for the child… they’re made for schools to be able to classify and assess students, but children don’t always progress in that systematic way. Nor do they all progress simultaneously, in every subject, at the same rate as their peers.
Children progress, like the rest of us, in huge leaps in some areas (in areas where God has uniquely gifted them in ability and interest), at a slower pace in others (where God has not particularly gifted them), and, perhaps, every now and then, exactly on average in some areas.
Knowing the grade level can help us, sometimes, to know in general what’s expected of our students by the surrounding world, but they don’t really tell us what *our* child should be doing this year. For that, I consider:
- the child’s strengths and weaknesses
- the way God has built this particular child… what is his/her likely path?
- what opportunities, curriculum, and resources are available to us this year?
- what Doug and I are noticing in this particular child (good? bad? ugly?– what needs correction?)
- what direction the Holy Spirit is leading us in, in regard to this particular child or season
- if there are any known deficiencies that we need to shore up
Though it’s the first question most people ask our children, the truth is, grade levels aren’t particularly relevant for us as homeschoolers, or useful for me as a homeschooling mother.
What about you? How do you assess grade levels in your home school? Do you work according to a particular scope and sequence, or pace things according to your child, or…???
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