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Why Ability Grouping Doesn't Work

Today's Guest post is written by international Formative Assessment expert Shirley Clarke. Clarke is located in London, England. It is Part 2 of 2 in a series of posts from Clarke. 

'When you're in a lower group you think you're not smart enough'

With random talk partners as the classroom set-up (See Part 1 blog), students are already involved in mixed-ability learning.  We need to take account of the substantial research which shows that grouping students by ability makes them less successful. Hattie's meta - analysis looked at 500 studies on ability grouping, resulting in an effect size of 0.12, one of the lowest effect sizes. 

The Sutton Trust (2011): 'The evidence is robust and has accumulated over at least 30 years of research...if schools adopt mixed ability, they are more likely to use inclusive teaching strategies and to promote higher aspirations for their pupils'

The PISA studies (2012) in which countries are compared: 'These studies have repeatedly found that the more schools group by ability, the lower the pupil performance overall.'

In the 'Pygmalion Study'(Rosenthal and Jacobson 1968) elementary teachers were told that the lowest achieving students were actually the highest and vice versa.  Simply because of this information and teachers' subsequent expectations, the low achieving students showed significantly higher gains in their scores. Thus labelling or grouping students not only has a negative impact on their self-efficacy, but on teacher expectation.

Stigler and Hiebert, in their inspirational book The Teaching Gap (1999) outline the differences between Japanese classes and American classes.  One of the key differences was that US teachers see mixed ability as a problem, whereas far-eastern teachers see mixed ability as a gift. Individual differences are seen as beneficial for the class because they produce a range of ideas, methods and solutions that provide the material for pupils' discussion and reflection.

In the UK, many schools have overcome the perceived difficulty of teaching math in mixed ability by having a common starting point focusing on a particular skill, then offering students a choice of differentiated challenges.  Teachers began with challenges called 'mild, spicy or hot' or similar. This caused some children to label themselves as one or the other, even though the system emphasizes that you should move up or down the challenges mid-lesson if they are too easy or too difficult. Children desperate to show their growth mindsets would choose hot even if it was inappropriate for them, so the new strategy is to call them 'the incredible challenge', 'the amazing challenge' and 'the fantastic challenge', changing the level of difficulty each day, so that students have to read them first and study the mathematics.

Formative assessment is another term for ipsative assessment, which means that the learner is in competition with one person only - his or herself. Students use the Deliberate Practice (Senninger 2000)  bullseye chart (see below) to make sure they go for the learning/challenge zone and not the comfort or panic zone, sometimes choosing to move up or down if they have chosen a challenge which is not providing them with the appropriate challenge. 

The 3 challenges don't simply take the skill to a higher level - they explore fluency, reasoning and depth and mastery at 3 levels:

Mixed Ability.png

The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics is widely used in the UK, as it provides a wealth of practical materials, such as the following: 

Adding and subtraction with reasoning - ideas for mathematical challenges which will deepen children's understanding

Mixed Ability 1.pngMixed Ability 2.png

Of course, with mathematical algorithms or procedures, students start in the challenge or learning zone but inevitably and hopefully will move to the comfort zone for that skill once they have mastered it. Being at the comfort zone as a result of practice and developed understanding is an indication to the teacher to extend the student by applying the skill in different contexts and becoming flexible with it as demonstrated in the questions above from the NCETM.

It is tempting to move students to a higher level of the same skill, but developing depth and mastery through application, articulation and number fluency leads to higher levels of achievement. So students might be tackling different ways of dealing with the same mathematics but they are not grouped by ability. The message is not to stop differentiating, but simply to mix up the seating.  Once students are in mixed ability higher achievers and lower achievers can learn together, because they have the same mathematical theme in common, often the same success criteria for the skill being explored.

If paired with a higher achiever, students have opportunities to learn which they might never have had if placed with a 'suitable' partner.

'I introduced random talk partners changing weekly and one girl said that she really enjoyed talking to her partner because she hadn't ever spoken to him before.  This was a Year 4 class (9 year olds), so they had been together for many years! Every week the students really look forward to talk partner change and review.                                                                           

If paired with a lower achiever, students are often explainers, a higher order skill which deepens their own learning, and are often surprised by the quality of the verbal contributions a lower achiever might make:

'The impact has been that students now recognise that all students have ideas and talents.  One boy never spoke in front of others and now he can't be stopped! The others used to think he was a lower achiever and were patronising to him at first when he got a question right - they all clapped.  Now they respect his ideas and are all so supportive of each other.' (Teacher of 6 year olds)

Although it might seem that high achievers are having their time wasted, nothing could be further from the truth. As Jo Boaler, the influential guru of mathematics teaching, working alongside Carol Dweck at Stamford University explains:

 'These students end up achieving at higher levels because the act of explaining learning to others deepens their own understanding.  As they explain, they uncover their own areas of weakness and are able to remedy them and strengthen what they know. In the two longitudinal studies I conducted, the high achieving students told me that they learned more and more deeply from having to explain work to others.'Boaler, J. (2009)

Typical feedback from 15 years of my multiple action research teams in the UK and the US demonstrates  that many teachers have been brave enough to move to mixed ability teaching, despite school systems which continue to track students despite the research evidence:

Mixed Ability 3.png

Last word from students

'I like not being in a group, because when you're in a lower group you think you're not smart enough.' Age 10

'I feel happier with no groups.  Some people were unhappy because they were in the bottom group and they felt that they were labelled and couldn't choose what to do.' Age 10

'With no groups, instead of choosing to look cool and trying to show you're the best, it helps you to find your position of learning.  You discover what you're comfortable with and what you need to challenge yourself.' Age 11

 'In groups you can't learn anything new, because you sit with the people who know as much as you know.' Age 8

'You can see what you want to do.  If a teacher chooses your group, they might not know you as well as you know yourself.'  Age 7


Connect with Shirley on Twitter. 

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