Before schools came along, there was no age segregation. Children were a natural part of the community. They would easily and freely interact with whoever — older kids, younger kids, and even adults. There was no formal distinction made between what a kid ought to be doing vis-a-vis other kids. One kid could be happily playing by herself, another could be helping his dad harvest the potatoes.
In older hunter-gatherer tribes, kids could be tasked with adult responsibilities like climbing trees for fruits or setting traps or even hunting wild animals — as long as they could show that they were up to the task. Age was not so much a factor as was ability and interest. A teenager may not be strong enough to bend a bow but may show an aptitude for plants and can assist the tribe herbalist in creating potions and medicines.
With mass schooling came the idea to group children together in batches, according to their age, and then expecting them to learn the same things at the same time. This was a novel idea and proved to be very efficient — much like mass production in factories. Children were yanked from the playgrounds, from the fields, and from whatever nook and cranny they were hiding in, and placed in neat little rows of desks listening to an adult delivering lectures on history, mathematics, science, and whatever else adults thought was important for the kids to learn.
Now, because of grades and the ranking system (discussed in part 1), the survival instinct to excel and be number 1 becomes more pronounced with batching. Kids were now being forcibly compared with others of their same age. “Hey, the neighbor’s boy can read already at age 7. You’re almost 8. Why can’t you read yet?”
So here people are labeled as “bright”or “dumb” and no matter how much we lecture on political correctness or tell people that kids have multiple intelligences and may develop in different degrees and speeds, the system itself makes us still use those two labels, even if only in our heads — because we are too polite or ashamed to say them out loud.
Even in play and sports, age segregation has a negative effect. Studies have shown that mixed-age play triggers the nurturing instincts of older children. At Sudbury Valley School, for example, where there is unrestricted age-mixing — a game of basketball could be played by a mixed group of teenagers and 8 year olds. The interesting thing one would notice is that the kids will naturally form opposing teams that would more or less have the same number of teenagers and 8 year olds. The teenagers would not group themselves together and say, hey, let’s pound those 8 year olds.
Even during the game, the teenagers would bump and shove against other teenagers but they would not be rough towards or even guard the 8 year olds — leaving the other 8 year olds on their team to deal with them. This allows the younger kids to learn and enjoy the game.
The same principle could hold true for any other endeavor. Kids like learning from older kids because they are, in general, contextually more in tune with them than adults. And older kids enjoy a sense of accomplishment when they are able to help younger kids.
This dynamic is lost in age-segregated schools. No matter how much we lecture on bullying, how to prevent bullying, and so on, the problem persists and gets even worse because we haven’t changed the system.
Dr. Peter Gray, in his book Free to Learn, says, “The age-segregated, competitive atmosphere of school…provides the ideal conditions for the generation of competitive coalitions, or cliques, which provide a foundation for bullying. Children who are not accepted into any of the prevailing cliques may be picked on mercilessly, and they have no way to escape.”
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.