Why Does Age Determine the How, What, and With Whom of Learning?

Insights   13 June 2018
By Ulcca Joshi Hansen, Education Reimagined

Education Reimagined partnered with 180 Studio and ATTN: to create a video series exploring the “Why” of traditional education. The series digs into why we narrowly group children by age, promote memorization over deeper learning, use grade levels as indicators of “moving up,” and confine learning to four-walled classrooms. Complementing each video, our Vice President, Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen, provides the research and history around the “why” of America’s education traditions and invites all of us to explore the possibility of something new.

Human beings aren’t designed to exist or learn in single-age communities. Unlike many other species, we are not born into litters. From our families and neighborhood-based playgroups all the way through our working lives, we are always surrounded by people of different ages. Learning with and from others of different ages is part of our wiring. And, for the majority of us, school is the only place where we were restricted to a world of peers who were our exact same age.

The only reason schools and education policy are designed around age-banded grade levels is historical legacy. In the mid-1800s, before we knew much about human development, learning, and the brain, European thinkers committed to developing an efficiency-based “science” of education.

Among other things, they assumed separating children by age would be the most efficient way in which to transmit “age-appropriate” bodies of knowledge. The system they built has perpetuated itself despite growing evidence that age alone tells us very little about what any given child can do or the support they need to develop more fully.

There have always been thinkers and practitioners who pushed against this trend. Dr. Maria Montessori was one of the first people to codify the practice of mixing children across ages and to lay out the science and reasons for doing so. She asserted that it provides younger children models to emulate; opportunities to play within their zones of proximal development; and additional sources of care and emotional support.


Any individual child might seem “more” mature in certain areas and “less” mature in others. But, this is only if we subscribe to the idea that there is such a thing as “normal” for each and every age.

Ulcca Joshi Hansen
Associate Director of National Outreach and Community Building

Age mixing allows older children to develop their capacities to nurture and learn; expand their understanding through teaching; and foster creativity. Dr. Montessori’s contemporaries—Jiddu Krishnamrti (Krishnamurti schools) and Kurt Hahn (Expeditionary Learning schools and United World College)—also realized the advantages of having mixed age groupings. Even today, one-room schools, microschools, and schools in their first year as start-ups find success implementing multi-age groupings.

This is anything but off-the-wall thinking—developmental and cognitive science back up their choice. If you line up a dozen five-year-olds, or a dozen 12-year-olds, each of them is going to be different in terms of their abilities across a range of areas: reading, writing, mathematical reasoning, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, social skills, verbal communication, interests and passions.

Any individual child might seem “more” mature in certain areas and “less” mature in others. But, this is only if we subscribe to the idea that there is such a thing as “normal” for each and every age—an assumption that has repeatedly and indisputably been shown to be impossible.

Who a child is at any given age, including the strengths and challenges she brings to the table, reflects a complex mix of biological maturity, personality, family, community, and life experiences. Given this appropriate and predictable variability, it should follow that classrooms reflect the same complexity.

Research has shown that learners from multi-age classrooms have both a better attitude toward school and a better self-concept because:

1. Multi-age classrooms normalize differences.

Imagine being a second-grader who is told she is “supposed” to be at a certain academic or social level because of her age. If she doesn’t meet the standard, she will likely feel deficient. And, if she exceeds the standard, she may feel “abnormal.”

Being surrounded by learners of different ages and levels of development across a range of skills and abilities sends the message that she (and every other learner) falls somewhere on a continuum that is neither “better” nor “worse.”

Both mentally and in practice, she can access content or skills at a level appropriate to her without the inherent judgments made in age-cohorted classrooms. In this setting, you begin to see kids appreciate classmates who might not be as strong as them in one area and might actually be stronger than them in another. This leads learners to seek out peer supports that can help them learn.

2. Multi-age classrooms seed learning over time.

The tendency to learn by observing those who are older, including those who are just a few years older, is a huge part of how children naturally educate themselves. It is how they build not only knowledge and skills but also motivation.

Five-year-olds who see older children reading books, playing ball games, and climbing trees want to do these things, too. They then begin integrating these activities into their own play.

In multi-age environments, kids who may not yet be engaging in a given learning activity are exposed to those ideas and concepts or are able to see why foundational skills they might be learning become relevant in other ways over time. This sets the stage for active learning down the line.

3. Learners advance and deepen their own learning as they take on different roles.

One of the best ways to learn something well is to teach it to someone else, and peer teaching is a natural part of any environment where there are mixed ages. Teaching helps learners understand what they know even better than before because they need to analyze and rearrange their store of knowledge before they can pass it on to another child.

The beauty is that every child has at least one area of strength in which he can be a teacher to another child. And, being in the role of teacher sometimes makes it more natural and acceptable to learn from another learner. In both cases, there are valuable skills and dispositions developed.

Conceptually, the shift to multi-age classrooms does not seem much of a stretch from the growing emphasis on socio-emotional learning we see today. However, the reality is that almost all the systems and structures that exist around education—especially in the public education sector—reflect and rely upon the age-based separation of learners.

From academic standards and testing batteries to school rankings and teacher training, there is a host of things we would need to shift to actualize learning environments that organize learners in ways that reflect the science of human development and learning. Many promising models (view the links below) currently reside in the private and independent sectors. The challenge is to redesign systems, structures and supports that will make multi-aged cohorting and its benefits available to all young people.

From Research to Application: A Brief Highlight of My Role as a Parent

The limitations and discomfort of age-based cohorting were evident to me at a young age (even if I didn’t know the exact cause of my discomfort). I was a highly verbal, well-behaved, and obedient child, which meant I was a “good” learner by traditional standards. But, socially, I felt less mature. I certainly didn’t understand how to navigate the dynamics of my peers. As a result, I was the kid who was bullied and isolated. And, because my world at school limited me to the kids who shared my birth year, there was nowhere to go.

I eventually found my escape through community theater, where I got to work with a constellation of human beings. There were 50-year-olds who found my precociousness charming; teens a bit older who were beginning to find interest in the political and social issues I felt drawn to; and some younger kids who I enjoyed nurturing.

This sent me on a lifelong adventure of seeking out learning opportunities where entire communities were involved. And, it’s the same experience I’ve looked to provide my two sons.

My boys have always attended schools with mixed-age classrooms. They started at a Montessori preschool and they are now enrolled at a K-12 public Expeditionary Learning environment where learners within the one building are separated into three age-bands: “lower” elementary school, middle school, and “upper” high school. This structure allows them to interact with peers of all ages within their expanded cohorts and places an intentional focus on creating a sense of community across ages and grades.


In this environment, I see middle school boys elbow each other with muttered reminders to “watch it” when they cross paths with “little people” in the halls.

Ulcca Joshi Hansen
Associate Director of National Outreach and Community Building

Classrooms span what traditional schools would think of as multiple grades; older learners are considered mentors and learning partners for learners in lower grades; and “family groups” allow kindergarteners and high school learners to come together around projects and activities.

In this environment, I see middle school boys elbow each other with muttered reminders to “watch it” when they cross paths with “little people” in the halls. And, it’s an environment where I see first graders beam when they get a fist bump from a high school learner in their family group.

Through my sons, I’ve witnessed firsthand the benefits that research tells us comes from allowing children to grow academically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally from peers of multiple ages. Now, I want to witness it everywhere I see learning take place.

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