I dropped out of school when I was 16. I was a smart kid and I always got good grades. School bored me, though, and so did the people there. I was ready to grow up and move on to something that challenged me and satisfied my curiosity.
When I told my parents I wanted to withdraw, they were horrified. They weren’t concerned that I was throwing away my life or career prospects. Instead, they were worried that I wouldn’t be properly socialized if I left school.
Properly socialized? In those classrooms, with those people? I wasn’t interested in chatting with my peers, nor did I learn anything from talking with them.
I don’t think I’m the only person who had this experience, and yet we expect young people to learn social skills from these rigid, monotonous environments. In what universe is an artificially uniform environment the best way to socialize a young person?
What it Means to Socialize
Same-age socializing is supposed to make it easier for kids to learn from each other by encouraging imitation. The idea is that because they’re developmentally similar, they’ll have an easier time mimicking their peers, thus helping them learn how to get along in the world.
Imitation has its place in our developmental lives, of course. By watching the behavior of adults around them, children learn how to eat, wash, talk and think. The problem is that putting children in groups of people their own age just makes the groups default to the lowest common denominator of human behavior, often involving bullying, neediness or other forms of immaturity. In other words, a typical 16 year old is not going to learn much from being around peers of their own age.
There’s a shocking lack of evidence that socializing with others of the same age generates any kind of real benefits. Educators have known for decades that cognitive development is enhanced when kids interact with different age groups in the classroom, even when those groups are years apart.
The video below is an adapted talk by Ken Robinson, an outspoken proponent of educational reform. In it he discusses some of the many failings of the modern system, including the fact that we send young people through school in batches grouped by age, as if the most important thing about them is their “date of manufacture.”
Students Don’t Benefit from Same-Age Classes, but Schools Do
School is supposed to prepare us for the real world by teaching us the skills and knowledge we need to thrive. This clearly isn’t working, as we’ve discussed before in our articles about how school infantilizes teens and encourages a toxic, achievement-oriented mindset.
Same-age classrooms are yet another realization of this failure. In the real world, we meet people of different ages every day, converse with them, and hopefully learn something from those interactions. Nowhere in an adult’s life are interactions regulated by age, and the reason is pretty simple: age isn’t that important.
One of the reasons schools insist on maintaining age-based groupings is because it helps them control students. The more conformity that’s in the classroom, the more young people are pressured into subverting their individuality. The message children receive is that they just need to copy the actions of the “good students” to pass the class.
And remember, “good” in this case simply means obedient – not innovative or thoughtful or any feature that would benefit a person in the real world.
As educator Frederick Burk wrote in 1912, the age-based classroom concept actually has a lot in common with how military officers marshall a company of soldiers. It’s designed to promote obedience and conformity, not provide the best environment for learning or socialization.
What a 12 Year Old Taught Me
Knowledge travels from those who know to those who want to know. Older people tend to have had a greater variety of experiences and are usually seen as being more knowledgeable. But that doesn’t mean that younger people can always learn something from their elders, nor does it mean you can’t learn anything from younger people.
Well into adulthood, I suffered a severe leg injury that left me temporarily unable to walk. When I finally went to physical therapy I couldn’t even move my leg, let alone put weight on it. Recovery was slow and arduous. It took a severe toll on my mental, emotional, and physical health, so much so that years later I still encounter remnants of that trauma.
One day I ran into a kid in the physical therapy office. He was about 12 years old, hobbled on a weak leg just like mine, and had to rely on his mom to open doors and steady his gait. We immediately bonded over our similar injuries.
The kid explained this was his third leg injury – his kneecap tended to slide out of place. This recent incident happened while going for a walk in a National Park. His parents had to carry him down a long trail, then he had to endure a bumpy multi-hour ride back to town, wincing and screaming as his kneecap bulged out the side of his leg.
A few weeks later I was carefully making my way out of physical therapy, angry and frustrated with my lack of progress. It was one of those days when I was ready to throw my crutches into a ditch and give up. I used to hike, bike, run, and lift weights. Now a trip to the grocery store required heroic levels of effort.
This kid walked up just as I was knee-deep in self-pity. He obviously recognized the state I was in. He stopped and gave me a speech about how injuries work, about how the biggest obstacle is usually mental, not physical. He then promised me that I would get better, just not that day.
He didn’t say anything revolutionary, but the way he delivered the information, with me knowing this wasn’t his first major injury, affected me deeply. I was three times his age but he still had plenty to teach me.
Imagine if some random adult was given a text about recovering from severe injuries. Would that lesson have affected me as profoundly just because it came from an older person? I doubt it.
A Better Solution
What would learning look like if we let go of artificial class structures and taught based on evidence and real-world effectiveness?
First, a good learning environment wouldn’t bother dividing young people by age. There are both practical and social lessons to be learned from mixed-age class groups, and schools could take advantage of that. This would provide real and meaningful social interaction with students of all ages.
Next, instead of choosing an adult to be the teacher based on arbitrary academic qualifications and making them the sole source of information, a better learning environment would utilize people who teach from experience. Imagine that: mentors you could actually respect because they had been out in the world and accomplished things.
You can start doing this right now, even if you spend your days in a same-age classroom. Actively seek people of different ages to learn from. Ask them questions, share your mutual curiosity, and enjoy the benefits of their experience. Doing this will automatically expose you to a variety of different ideas and perspectives.
On a more practical level, you can also find people who are good at something you’re interested in and learn directly from them. A 14 year old who lives and breathes circus arts might be the best juggling teacher you could ever hope for.
Above all, don’t let the fact that we’re accustomed to age-based education shape the way you think about learning. People throughout history have naturally passed knowledge from the experienced to the inexperienced. It has nothing to do with age and everything to do with curiosity.
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