Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Let Them Mix It Up

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Chapter 9 - Free Age Mixing: A Key Ingredient for Children's Capacity for Self-Education

"The free mingling of children who differ broadly in age is a key element to children's abilities to educate themselves successfully, on their own initiatives."

When we think of schools today, in fact usually when we think of activities or groups of children, we think of kids gathering with peers that are the same or close to the same age. According to Peter Gray, this segregation by age is a recent cultural phenomenon. In the past, kids interacted with siblings or available neighborhood kids; even in schools they were often taught or at least spent time with wider age spans. Today, in non-Western, non-schooled societies, age-mixing is common. As compulsory schooling expanded, kids were grouped more and more by age. Today children spend more time both in and out of school in settings with children the same age or within 1-2 years of their age. Kids have fewer places were they can freely mix with others of various ages.

And yet we know that kids learn by observing and interacting with others both older and younger than they are. This age mixing is beneficial to both younger and older kids.

For younger kids, they can participate in activities that would be too complex, difficult, or even dangerous for them to do on their own or with kids their own age. They learn from listening to the conversations of older kids and observing how they do things. They can operate more in their zone of proximal development--those activities that a child cannot do alone or with others of like ability but can do with someone more skilled. Often educators talk about adults helping kids achieve in the zone of proximal development, scaffolding (guiding/encouraging/reminding) their work. But these may work better in play situations with older children than with adults. "In age-mixed play, where abilities differ considerably, scaffolding occurs continuously and naturally, often unconsciously."

Younger children may engage in more literacy and numeracy play in mixed age groupings. They hear conversations of older kids and build vocabularies. They see the activities of older kids and incorporate that into their own behavior in self-determined ways. They build observation skills, skills that may not be fostered in traditional school situations. Younger kids also receive emotional support from older kids and develop meaningful relationships through their interactions.

While the value for younger kids are more obvious, free age mixing is beneficial to the older kids, too. They can practice leading others and learn how to function in a relationship. As they teach or talk about concepts with younger kids, they develop deeper understanding. Younger kids naturally engage in more creative activities and draw older kids into these types of experiences through their use of imaginations, pretend play, and materials to create. Older kids gain care and nurturing skills they will need as parents, caregivers, or leaders.

mixed ages in blocks (Brick by Brick)

All ages benefit from a freer exchange of ideas when ages mix. Younger kids may feel more free to ask questions or challenge ideas as they talk with older kids than when they talk with adults. Older kids may feel less threatened when their ideas are challenged and look for ways to clarify their thinking (than when ideas are challenged by adults). Also, free age mixing allows people of like abilities to interact. If a child is ahead or behind his age mates, he can find equal partners (regardless of age) in a mixed age environment.

I found this chapter very interesting. I think we naturally think of kids being in same age groupings today. But I've been in groups that include teenagers as "assistants" in the classroom and I've seen the mixing of these kids with preschoolers. And occasionally I've been in situations that have had wider age spans. I agree that younger kids will push themselves to keep up with the older ones. And the older ones take a nurturing interest in younger kids. This chapter has definitely given me some food for thought regarding how education could be enhanced or different with more mixing of ages. And I think that the final point - finding someone of similar ability regardless of age - is an important way we could offer some differentiation (without all the other things that tend to come with that word). I have more thinking to do as a result of this chapter. And that's good!

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