One day, the mother of one of my fourth-grade students came in to meet with me about her son. She reported that Noah, who I knew to be extremely bright, was bored with math. Although my school district's textbooks included problem-solving activities and stories, and I augmented the curriculum with various exercises that required students to apply creativity and higher-order thinking skills, the assignments, she told me, were still too easy for him.
Fortunately, I was able to hand Noah a middle school math book and invite him to knock himself out. This shy, soft-spoken ten-year-old, working independently and handing assignments in to me, went through it with remarkable ease. I was relieved he didn't ask for a high school textbook; I hadn't done well in math at that level, and I would have had to shrug my shoulders if he needed me to go over differential equations with him or even if he used sine or cosine in a sentence.
Nor was grade-level math a challenge for another student, Jenny, a sweet but assertive girl whose ambition was to become president of the United States. However, she made no complaints -- except when she had something to say about some perceived inconsistency or fallacy in the textbook's problem-solving stories. And, of course, I had a handful of other students whose superior academic abilities in math and other subjects I was sometimes hard pressed to accommodate.
Then there were the equal number of children -- boys, for the most part -- who struggled to read, labored at writing, were easily confused by simple mathematical concepts, could not concentrate on tasks for more than a few minutes, and would in some cases fail to finish a task unless I happened to be looming over them while I visually surveyed the class.
In sum, I had easily a five- to ten-year spread in terms of academic ability among my students, yet because they had been born within a year or so of one another, they were all assigned to the same fourth-grade classroom.
It is absurd to expect teachers to accommodate such a dramatic disparity in ability. And it is tragic that the intellects of high-performing students are understimulated while the needs of less gifted ones are not better addressed. Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) programs on the one hand and resource teachers on the other help alleviate the problem, but I still had difficulty meeting the needs of students at the far ends of the spectrum without neglecting those who were performing at or near grade level.
The most sensible solutions are radical, but, like most aggressively different proposals, they also are logical: Group children according to their academic abilities instead of their age, or at least organize classrooms so that students have more opportunities to learn from one another. Two of the teaching approaches Edutopia advocates, project-based learning and cooperative learning, are natural fixes for this problem.
Multiage-classroom organization is admittedly difficult to implement, because the tradition-bound inertia and bureaucratic complexity of many public schools does not easily provide for such flexibility. That said, I am interested in hearing about schools in which it has been adopted -- and about how well it works. (This idea seems particularly well suited to a charter school, and I'd be surprised if none had adopted it.) Please respond if you know of any such program.
Also, do you agree that children should be taught by ability, not by age? And do you have other solutions for teaching in classrooms in which some children should be reading picture books while others should be devouring novels, or in which one student is stuck on multiplying two double-digit numbers, while another is ready to tackle trigonometry? Please share your opinion.