Here’s The Problem With Age-Based Segregation in Schools

Here’s The Problem With Age-Based Segregation in Schools

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.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.


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Taking Responsibility For Your Life, One Apple Box at a Time

Taking Responsibility For Your Life, One Apple Box at a Time

Do you have a right to be happy? A right to be satisfied at your job? A right to friendship? 

Stop and really think about it for a moment. Think about what it takes to get those things in your life. Are you entitled to them simply because you exist?

Your first instinct is probably to say yes, of course you have a right to happiness and friendship. On some level you might be right, but I’m here to make the opposite case.

You’re not entitled to happiness, friendship, or anything like that. Furthermore, if you genuinely think you are, you have the same mindset as a kid in the toy store who stamps their feet until mom buys them everything they want.

Wrestling with Responsibility

Young children aren’t responsible for anything. They don’t have to work, do dishes, or buy snow tires. If they need something, then theoretically their parents provide it. This happens with such regularity that some children throw a fit when they don’t get what they want. They expect their desires to be automatically met, almost as if they have a right to that bag of candy from the store.

As we mature, we learn that fulfilling our wants and needs isn’t as simple as waiting for someone else to take care of them. If we want something, we have to put in the effort and exchange something for it, such as time or money. Meals don’t just magically appear on our table; they have to be purchased and prepared. Growing up is the slow process of realizing we have to shoulder these burdens ourselves.

This makes perfect sense to most adults, especially when it comes to tangible things like finding a home. We don’t expect to live rent-free in the apartment of our choosing.

Strangely, though, this doesn’t translate to some other concepts, like happiness or friendship which we mentioned above. There are many things people think they are owed even though they refuse to put in the effort to obtain them.

Health is a good example of this. We all know that eating fast food and candy bars every day is a bad idea. When we gain a bunch of weight, though, we want to say it’s genetics or society or some kind of stealth calories companies hide in our meals.

We think we’re entitled to a thin and healthy body, but it’s being denied to us by forces outside of our control. The reality is we simply need to accept responsibility for our situation and eat a salad once in a while.

Teaching Obedience instead of Responsibility

The modern educational system is guilty of perpetuating this concept of entitlement. Instead of teaching young adults to take action and be responsible, they encourage us to be passive and wait for life to be delivered on a plate.

One of the biggest benefits of getting a degree, we’re told, is that it proves to the world how responsible we are. Anyone who turns in their homework on time, does every assignment from the syllabus, and aces all of their tests must be responsible, right?

Following a list of instructions doesn’t prove responsibility, though. It really just proves obedience, which you could argue is the opposite of responsibility.

Think about it this way: if you train a dog to sit on command, who is responsible for the trick? The dog is the one that actually carries out the action, but it’s you who made the choices and put in the effort to teach it. The dog wouldn’t have done all of this itself.

In the case of universities, you pay mountains of money to get a list of chores handed to you at the beginning of each semester. If you complete those chores, you prove you can follow instructions. The university trained you to do a trick and you get a degree as a reward.

When you graduate you retain that same mindset: “I got a job, now society has to bend over backwards to make me happy.” Life doesn’t owe you that, though, and you shouldn’t sit and wait for it to deliver. It’s your responsibility to actively ensure your own happiness, not everyone else’s.

After graduation, you suddenly have to write your own chores list. The university didn’t prepare you for that, and neither did being a kid. Now’s the time to get rid of that childish mindset and take control of your own life.

Taking Responsibility Changed My Life

For most of our young lives we’re shuffled from group activity to group activity. Playdates as toddlers, birthday parties with neighborhood kids, 13 or more years sitting in classrooms with our peers. That has value when we’re still figuring out how life works, but what about when we’re older and more capable? Should we still expect friendships to drop in our lap?

I certainly did. After graduation I moved out on my own, far from the town I grew up in. Months passed and I had yet to make any new friends. Something was clearly wrong, and I knew it had nothing to do with me. The people here were obviously flawed.

In the past, friendships always sort of happened. I was in a class with a few decent people, we hung out a few times, and that’s it, BFFs. But how was I supposed to connect with people when we aren’t trapped in a room together day after day?

It took some time, but I eventually figured out that the problem really was me. I thought the way to make friends was to wait for it to happen. Friendship and happiness are just supposed to be there. When friends didn’t show up, I simply waited more.

When we feel like we’re entitled to or have a right to something, what we’re actually saying is we want someone else to do the work for us. By maintaining my thinking pattern of “other people will befriend me,” I was no different from the child waiting for his parents to put dinner on the table.

By the time I arrived at this conclusion, I had already made a few casual friends. (Or, more accurately, they made friends with me.)  But I realized they were completely wrong for me. They were friends of proximity and convenience, not of shared interests or compatibility. I took what was given to me and thought that was the best I could hope for.

One ordinary summer day, I did a full 180 on that passive attitude. I ditched my friends, every single one of them. I went from friendful to friendless in a matter of seconds, all by conscious choice.

And you know what? It felt great. I took control, I became responsible, I stopped waiting for other people to give me the things I needed. That act filled me with energy, confidence, and courage, and all it took was me making that single decision.

ABCs of Responsibility

We’re not entitled to have happiness, friendship, or a satisfying career, but we are entitled to pursue those things. There’s a world of difference between these mindsets, and it all comes down to responsibility.

Refusing responsibility is to embrace inertia. When you look at your life with an attitude of “I have a right to something,” you’re really saying you don’t want to put in the work to get that thing, you just want to have it, and you want someone else to get it for you.

At the other extreme we have an excess of responsibility. Just because you can influence something in your life doesn’t mean you’re required to. This would lead to a level of self-policing that makes a domineering parent seem mild by comparison.

If you overdo it with responsibility you risk shifting attention from yourself to the things you’re trying to be responsible for. After that it’s just a few quick steps to becoming a tyrant. I’ve fallen into this trap many times in my own life. It leads to anxiety, anger, and many other unsavory emotions.

There is a healthy balance somewhere between micromanaging our responsibilities and being completely apathetic. We all have to find that on our own, but it always starts with an honest examination of your life and a careful noting of the things you are actually capable of influencing.

Biting off Bits of Responsibility

My journey started with the rather large gesture of ditching unhealthy friends. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that everyone begin there, as it’s a bit of a wild leap. A better starting point would be the changes I made shortly afterwards.

I could talk about the usual stuff people do when they make a positive shift in their life. I bought less junk food, for example, which led to healthier eating patterns. But instead, I want to talk about something far less obvious: cleaning out my closet.

At the back of my home office was a small closet filled with eight identical apple boxes. Inside of those boxes were knicknacks from childhood, old clothes, miscellaneous memorabilia, you name it. I don’t know why I had been holding onto these things, but I knew I hated how full that closet was, and that I could take responsibility for that mess.

Cleaning out the closet isn’t a single action; it’s a series of tiny actions that fit into a larger whole. It starts by pulling out one box. I open that box and I pick through individual items inside. Do I need this 20-year-old toy? How about those empty Nintendo 64 game boxes or the purple shirt I literally never want to wear again?

Each item I examined was a small bite of responsibility. Those bites quickly added up to a full meal. I wasn’t a slave to that cluttered closet, just like I wasn’t a slave to other people’s desire to befriend me. Moving from passive entitlement to active responsibility is as easy as taking those steps. In fact, you can start right now.

Look at your surroundings, think about a conversation you had yesterday, examine your desk, check out the dust on top of your laptop. Is there anything you can do at this moment to improve these things? 

Of course there is. It’s easy to dust your PC or tidy your desk. It’s even easy to bring up an argument you had with your parents the other day and start a genuine conversation about it. You don’t have to drag every single apple box out of the closet right now and create another huge mess. Just take one, look at a few things inside, and make a decision. That’s progress, and it’s surprisingly energizing.

You are in charge of the things in your life; they are not in charge of you. Don’t just understand that passively: put it into action by taking that first step.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.


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Living Like a Hero in a World of Conformity

Living Like a Hero in a World of Conformity

Mythological stories from every culture are brimming with larger-than-life heroes: The hydra-slaying Hercules, the heroic Beowulf, the mighty Monkey King Sun Wukong, even the flawed Karna from ancient Hindu tales.

We look to fictional and real-world heroes as ideals to emulate in our own lives. They conquer their personal demons, stand tall in the face of adversity, and adhere to their personal ethics no matter what the world throws at them. We admire these traits, and as a society we think everyone should strive for them.

Today, few people see even a sliver of heroism in themselves. We look to heroes modern and ancient, fictional and real, and we wish we could have that life. When it becomes apparent that we aren’t as clever as Odysseus or as strong as Hercules, our first instinct might be to give up and stay in bed.

We want to feel heroic, but the only way to experience that might be to grab a video game and slay a virtual hydra.

The education system blocks people’s heroic impulses

It can be difficult to walk the path of heroism when there are institutions that actively discourage self-reflection. Sitting in a classroom every day for a dozen years before hiding in an office for a few dozen more is about the furthest thing from the heroic ideal I can imagine.

The modern educational system herds people into classrooms and systematically teaches them conformity and agreeableness. Follow the rules or be punished. Do not pursue your own interests and do not attempt to acquire self-knowledge. Just memorize names and dates so you can get an A on your homework.

Can you imagine Hercules in a classroom raising his hand for permission to use the restroom? Or Beowulf getting upset over a bad grade? The absurdity isn’t that Hercules would look ridiculous in a school uniform, it’s the idea that our educational system is even remotely capable of producing heroes at all.

How the education system blocks people's heroic impulses

How heroes can inspire us

Most ancient Greeks understood their stories of heroes and gods as symbolic tales. There were truths at the center of Theseus’s victory over the Minotaur, but those truths were about human nature, not about real events which literally happened.

The value of heroic tales is in the lessons they convey. We aren’t meant to look at heroes as figures whose greatness we can never approach. Rather, when we see their cleverness and perseverance, we should look within ourselves for similar qualities. This allows us to meet challenges in our lives with knowledge and purpose.

Internalization is key. This is where the real value of heroism lies: using them as inspiration for self-reflection, goal setting, and internal change.

My baby steps towards heroism

Heroism is built in pieces, not captured in dramatic moments. We tend to focus on the most impressive part of any hero’s journey, like when Hercules felled the hydra. But the more valuable part of that story was when Hercules rolled out of bed that morning and decided to start on his journey instead of watching the Olympics.

A few years ago I suffered a severe injury to my leg. It was enough to leave me bedridden for weeks, confined to crutches for months, and hobbling on unbalanced and atrophied muscles for years. I was an active hiker and weight lifter before the injury, yet now I could barely carry myself to the front door. 

Steps towards heroism

My injury presented both a long-term goal and a clear obstacle: I wanted to walk up those snowy mountains I could see outside of my window. I couldn’t just wait a year then scamper up the slopes, though. I had to get up and walk across the room first. Then walk to the grocery store. Then train my legs to carry me up stairs again.

Even as a bedridden invalid I was able to make an impact on my life. It was slow, filled with small setbacks, and not nearly as dramatic as a Greek myth, but the change was very real, very tangible, and it opened the way to far greater accomplishments later on.

Taking action

The first step any hero must take is to battle the demons within. They may not be as obvious as a busted leg or as dramatic as defeating a dragon, but that doesn’t mean the struggle is any less meaningful or real.

Starting the hero’s journey requires only the ability to self-reflect. That’s something you can do right this second. Examine your life to see what you want, to see what is holding you back. What negative patterns do you see in your life that prevent you from getting what you want? Maybe you tend towards destructive or self-defeating thoughts, the kind that keep you from taking chances on new ventures. Maybe it’s an issue with unhealthy eating, poor exercise habits, or inadequate sleep.

These demons may seem insignificant, but they have a tremendous impact on your life. You’ll see just how powerful they were as soon as you start slaying them.

Once you have conquered the inner demons you will then be able to bring your heroism to the outside world. It’s more difficult to affect positive change on your friends, family, and beyond, but now that you know how to deal with internal problems and have bettered yourself as a result, you can have a real impact on others. Just the inspiration of seeing someone strong in themselves is often enough to inspire change.

Heroism is built from within, not bestowed from without. Work on finding and conquering those inner demons and you’ll see just how powerful you can be.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.


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