Flipped Classrooms Could Bring Age-Based Grouping to an End

Although flipped classroom ideas have been percolating in the education media for two years, Jeff Livingston, a senior vice president at McGraw-Hill, makes a new, interesting leap by suggesting that this kind of personalized approach to education could some day lead to the abolition of age-grouping in schools. Livingston explains that with learning growing increasingly individualized, schools could abandon the practice of sorting students into grades based on age in an attempt to put everyone with more or less equal ability into one learning environment, and instead sort directly by competence instead.

Gigaom.com reported that during his remarks delivered at a virtual roundtable with reporters last week, Livingston said that with new technology comes a need to redefine one of most basic tenets in education: what does it mean to say that a child is in a certain grade? He predicts that within the next half decade, schools are going to start experimenting with a different way to answer that question — and the focus on the child’s actual age will diminish substantially.

Nixing age-sorting isn’t a new idea. It has been a guiding principle of many reformist education movements including Montessori. Any education philosophy that spouses that learning is best done when students move at their own pace gets around to ditching age-based placement sooner or later.

The difference today is that technology has put the ability to teach individually to each students within reach, both practically and fiscally, for many more schools and teachers. One of the companies providing these kinds of tools is the Khan Academy, which offers materials that can easily be used to personalize learning experiences.

In a conversation with me after the event, he pointed to the online Western Governors University (a McGraw-Hill partner) as a model for learning based on competency, not the number of hours a student spends in a classroom. He also highlighted the growth in students taking online courses as well as college courses on campus to offset the limitations of their local schools. As more self-motivated students start cutting their own path -– increasingly with the help of digital platforms –- educators will have little choice but to figure out how to accommodate them, Livingston said.

In college, the idea of being in a particular grade has already been blurred. While students still might term themselves freshmen or sophomores, the nomenclature doesn’t predict — or often, even correspond to — how far along students are in their academic progression. Livingston believes that high school would also benefit by allowing a similar kind of grouping.

Livingston said the high school diploma will also increasingly be challenged to prove its value against other kinds of certificates that are “organized around what you can do, more than what you know.”