School & classroom organizational structure (grammar)


This page identifies variables used to organize schools and classrooms, for your study and considerations on how they affect schooling.

They are presented within a historical perspective to consider how any organizational change may better meet the needs of learners, teachers, communities, and economics to achieve the desired outcomes of education efficiently.

To support the difficulty of how hard it is to change our historical grammar, review New Jersey's struggle to expand K-12 to preK-12 in Expanding access to preK and the legacy of Abbott v. Burke. in Kappan September 27, 2021.

Schooling grammar

Grammar of schooling is the organizational and pedagogical forms of schooling that have persisted over the years and resisted efforts to reform them, shaping the structure of teaching and learning in much the same way as grammar shapes language. (Tyack & Cuban)

Categories can include:

Schooling grammar: adapted from Jal Mehta in Kappan: Toward a new grammar of schooling. 2, 2022
Category Historical grammar Propose grammar
Purpose Prepare for the social order Prepare with agency and purpose to maintain and remake the social order
Pedagogical goal Assimilate preexisting knowledge Engage in using and creating knowledge as producers in a variety of field and worth human pursuits
Ethos Transactional Relational
View of knowledge Pre-specified and discipline centered Constructed, interconnected, and dynamic
Boundaries between disciplines Strong Permeable
Learning modality Teaching as transmission Learning by doing; apprenticeship learning
Learner choice Limited Open, multiple
Time Short fixed blocks Variable blocks with sufficient time for immersive experiences
Space Individual classrooms Variable linked spaces
Assessment Time on task, standardized tests Creation of worthy products (projects, portfolios, performance, research
Groupings Age-graded, ability, class, race Cross-age learning, integration of students across ability, class, race
Equity Closing gaps on assessment Recognizing, knowing, and loving students and holistically helping them reach their potential.
Places where students learn Schools Various spaces (home, school, community, centers, Online, field experiences
Organizational model Linear, top-down planning Distributed leadership and emergent change


School organization categories

A meta analysis of school organizations found the organization of classroom in schools can be described by several variables, some of which are more dominant than others and all have historic roots, which today may be advantageous or not, but some are more deeply rooted in today’s schools. These can include the following:

  1. Student placement in class groups
  2. Sequential progress
  3. Curriculum planning
  4. Student grouping
  5. Schedule
  6. Guidance / advising
  7. Teacher utilization
  8. Subject format

Displayed in this diagram:


Organization or grammar of school image


Typical historical grammar

Let’s review these elements for a stereotypical grammar of schooling today:

  1. Student placement in class - same age to achieve learners with similar abilities
  2. Sequential progress - graded K-12, social promotion, credits, diploma
  3. Curriculum - state and district mandate based on traditional subjects 
  4. Student grouping - learners grouped by age and placed in graded classrooms 
  5. Schedule - rigid start and stop time for school and different subjects 
  6. Subject format - separate subjects; elementary 3’rs secondary college prep courses 
  7. Teacher utilization - teacher centered instruction; self contained classroom
  8. Guidance & advising - teacher with counselor support


Historical analysis

Historically schooling started with tutors and master craftsmen teaching a special task or skill to select apprentices or a select few for college prep in very small groups or often one on one. As schooling becomes more necessary, parents organize to hire tutors for larger groups of learners. Eventually groups become larger as schools have multiple classrooms and teachers. Class sizes and instructional methods are determined mostly based on economy and efficiency. This resulted in increased class sizes as well as multiple sections. Skills becoming subjects. Decisions on how to group students. Abilities being related to age. Progress associated with grade levels. Failure resulting in repeating grades and success leading to a diploma. Eventually failure caused large numbers of students being left behind so social promotion is initiated.

While social promotion means much older and younger learners are not grouped together, it increases the differences between abilities of learners in heterogeneous age groups. Therefore, ability grouping and putting learners into different tracks (college prep track, academic track, feral track, vocational track, remedial track …) is initiated to assist teachers by having more homogeneous groups to teach.

All of these different tweaks on organization were to achieve the purposes of education with schooling. Most, a missions that is merit based and egalitarian, to achieve an ideological vision by using principled procedures to guide decision making, set goals, and achieve outcomes that satisfy the community who provide the resources to achieve their (communities, parents, and learners) vision of education through schooling. All which is too often based on personal emotionally charged grammars, than based on research and wisdom of practice. Which appears to be an acceptable organization that is:


Learning environment management - structure, proactive, supporting tools, instruction, risk free environment, grouping, materials & space, transitions, & parent & community involvement

Pedagogy - Curriculum, teaching, learning, human development & planning



Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes

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