Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


John Goodlad proposes 'non-graded' schools

This year, John Goodlad released ‘The Nongraded Elementary School’. This pioneering book provoked waves of debate through out education circles as Goodlad’s critiques challenged the very foundation of the education system and helped provoke new dialogue about alternative structures.

In ‘The Nongraded Elementary School’, Goodlad identified key flaws in the graded education system and proposes an alternative system of organization to counter these flaws. Goodlad suggests in his book that the graded system classifies, measures and promotes children according to a grading structure that does not take into consideration learners’ individuality or uniqueness (Sirotnik, 1999). After the book’s release, nongraded schools began surfacing through out the States and Canada and more researchers began exploring the viability of current and alternative structures of education. Over his career, John Goodlad has authored, co-authored and edited over 30 books. Among them are the now classic A Place Called School (1984), Educational Renewal (1994) and In Praise of Education (1997).

In the Non Graded Elementary School, Goodlad argued that the rigid graded education system is not designed to accommodate the realities of child development, including children’s abilities to develop skills at different rates to different levels. (Goodlad, 1963) Goodlad suggests that one limiting assumption embedded in the graded school structure is that children’s achievement patterns in different areas of study are going to be the same. However, in reality, most children progress quickly in certain subject areas while struggling in others. As Goodlad’s research demonstrates, it is very common to have a child in grade two have literacy skills of a grade three but math skills of a grade two. With a graded structure that assumes that a child will progress through each area of study at the same pace, a child’s is given no freedom to develop at the pace that is optimal for his/her needs. 

A second assumption in a graded system is that all students will learn the necessary skills within a year and then be ready to progress to the next predetermined level. In graded systems, students are all placed on an identical learning cycle with no room for diversity of learning patterns. (Kidd, 1973) Goodlad recognizes that under the graded system, the only options teachers have to adjust for students’ different learning capacities and rates are to either promote or hold back a student. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that both early promotion and nonpromotion of a student are not strategies conducive for learning and development (Goodlad, 1963).  

In response to the flaws of a graded system, in ‘ Non-Graded Elementary School’ Goodlad suggested a nongraded system of organization that facilitates “continual pupil progress” and ensures that each student moves forward as quickly and smoothly as necessary. The nongraded structure assumes that a child’s development is irregular and is not unified and that their capacities and pace of learning in different areas will vary from person to person. Students are given the flexibility to move at a pace that fosters optimal and continuous learning instead of being promoted once a year. The implications for teachers and educators is that they can now introduce creative teaching practices that are in line with the pupils’ realities.

Two elements of Goodlad’s nongraded system include a longitudinal concept of curriculum and planned flexibility in grouping. Firstly, curriculum is centered on continual and sequential learning, with behavior and content running vertically through the curriculum (Goodlad, 1963). Longitudinal learning emphasizes that all skills learned are in fact base components of more complex skills to be learned in the future (Goodlad, 1963). Secondly, grouping is organized around achievement groups, interest groups, work-study groups or a combination of the three with some groupings being heterogeneous in skills (social sciences) and other groups being homogeneous in skill levels (reading). In nongraded classes, it is common to have students of different ages participating in one lesson depending on where their skills levels. Teachers are therefore freed from teaching predetermined graded content within specific time intervals and can instead adjust their lessons to ensure that students grasp concepts, skills and content over their entire educational journey.

Record keeping and evaluation of students at nongraded schools are elements that have been debated since the release of Goodlad’s book. The challenge lies in reporting a child’s progress in the broader context of his/her own development. Some nongraded schools give progress reports to parents that assess the levels of accomplishment attained by a student. (Hilson, 1969) These records must be suited to capture how each child is individually moving along in their development.

In evaluating nongraded systems, educators have noted certain specific disadvantages to the system. The implications of teaching to the different levels of development among the students means that teachers require more preparation time and also more knowledge about child development and integrated curriculum (Pavan, 1992). Teachers in nongraded schools do not have the luxury of clearly laid on textbooks and curriculum and instead are constantly adjusting their lessons and often using a myriad of more expensive supplementary books. Reinventing their curriculum and strategies for each set of new learners often cause teachers to burnout much faster than teachers in graded schools (Pavan, 1992).

Goodlad warned in his writings that schools will confront certain challenges when implementing a nongraded system of organization. He cautioned us that schools should not implement this system if they are afraid of ripples of opposition and confusion from internally or from parents and the community. While nongrading is only a system of organization, its adoption will challenge many elements of a school, including processes, language, concepts and philosophies. Goodlad also points out that many educators are operationally oriented, and will need to first grasp the conceptual idea of nongraded systems before worrying about the day-to-day implications of the system (Kidd, 1973). The nongraded system is reliant on teamwork from the teachers and is therefore should not be implemented in only one classroom of a school. Typically, the system requires three years of operation and the faculty’s engagement and support for success.

Today, nongraded education, also called mixed-age grouping, heterogeneous grouping and open education, remains an alternative structure for many schools in the States and Canada. Many of the experimental programs launched after Goodlad’s book in the 60s and 70s ended up failing due to inadequate understanding, lack of administrative and community support and ineffective implementation (Gaustad, 1992). However, research about the potential and effectiveness of nongraded schools has continued since Goodlad’s initial research, with tests continuing to demonstrate that nongraded students perform as well or better than graded students on achievement tests and that nongraded schools are better for students’ mental health and school attitudes (Pavan, 1992). With more emphasis today on the individual learner and increased student diversity within classrooms, the nongraded system may increasingly be viewed as an acceptable alternative to graded structures. 

Since the publication of The Nongraded School, Goodlad has continued to pursue his studies, and became a leader in education renewal and reform. By 1984 he published A Place Called School, one of the largest on-scene investigation of American classrooms. After this study, Goodlad concluded that a complete redesign of the schools including curriculum, teaching quality, relations and instructional methods must be undertaken (Tell, 1999). This book later won the Outstanding Book of the Year Award from the American Educational Research Association and the Distinguished Book of the Year Award from Kappa Delta Pi. In one of his more recent books, In Praise of Education (1997), Goodlad argues that education is a right in a democratic society and that education is integral to developing democratic character. Goodlad’s theories and ideas have left a strong impact on the educational profession, and his proposals will continue to challenge the current educational systems.  


Gaustad, Joan. (1992). Nongraded Primary Education. ERIC Digest, Number 74.

Goodlad, John I. (1963). The Nongraded Elementary School. New York. Harcourt, Brace & World Inc.

Hillson, Dr. Maurie. (1969). Twenty Hillson Letters - The Nongraded Elementary School. Canada. Science Research Associates.

Kidd, Ronald & Charles C. Whal. (1973). Speaking on Nongrading.United States of America. McGrawth Books Co.

Pavan, Barbara Nelson. (1992, October). The Benefits of Nongraded Schools. Educational  Leadership. Volume 50, Number 2.

Sirotnik, Kenneth A. & Roger Soder. (1999). The Beat of a Different Drummer. New York. Peter Lang Publishing.

Tell, Carol. (1999). Renewing the Profession of Teaching: A Conversation with John Goodlad. Educational Leadership. Volume 56, Number 8.

Prepared by Amy Diniz (OISE/UT), 2002

Citation: Author (2002). Title. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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