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Response: Using -- Not Misusing -- Ability Groups In The Classroom

(This post is Part One in a two-part series)


This week's "question of the week" is:

"What does research say about use of ability groups/tracking, and how have you seen it used or misused? What are workable alternatives?"

Grouping by ability has been receiving particular attention recently due to a Brookings Institution study, and you can learn more about the discussion at The Best Resources For Learning About Ability Grouping & Tracking.

Today, author/educator Rick Wormeli will be sharing his thoughts on the topic. Part Two of this series will feature several guest responses, including ones from Carol Burris, New York's 2013 High School Principal Of The Year, and from Tammy Heflebower, Vice-President of the Marzano Research Laboratory (and, of course, comments from readers). That post will discuss more of the research on ability grouping/tracking, and will also discuss classroom practice.

Response From Rick Wormeli

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and writer living in Herndon, VA. He can be reached at rwormeli@cox.net. His recently released book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching is now available from Association for Middle Level Education:


The teacher points to a round table in her classroom and tells her students, "Those of you with little or no ability, sit here." Then she walks across the room and gestures to another table and announces, "Those of you with high ability, sit here."

Sounds pretty harsh, and it is. It's also uninformed and unnecessary.

Ability implies something permanent, unchangeable. It's very threatening to students to hear it referenced by the teacher, even if the ability is high. If it's a high ability, students spend the majority of the class trying to protect their status as the one who always gets the right answer or finishes early. If it's a low ability, students spend the majority of the class avoiding assignments: Why should I attempt this, they think, when it's just one more proof that I'm stupid?

Instead of "ability," I recommend teachers use, "readiness." "Readiness" implies a temporary condition: I'm not ready, but I can become so. There's hope here. Now the teacher can refer to each of those tables and say, "Those of you ready for the first few steps in learning this content, start here, and those of you ready for the next level of challenge, you will start here." Using the word, "start" instead of, "sit," is also a semantic advantage as it suggests to both beginner and advanced students that they will be improving so much that they will move from this initial position in their learning. 'Hope, man.

Tracking and grouping are contentious topics in many schools, but add my voice to the chorus of teachers who love homogeneous grouping. You read that right: homogeneous, not heterogeneous, grouping is the way to go - as long as it's temporary and group membership is dynamic, not static. If it's a permanent, all day long grouping, you'll find me in the opponent's choral program.

Homogeneous grouping is effective for students who need a particular need met: They struggle with writing introductions, they need to adjust their lifting technique in the weight room, they still don't understand stoichiometry, or they're ready to explore trigonometric functions: sine, cosine, and tangent, as they apply to navigation. Focused, yet temporary, these groups fill specific learning needs.

Heterogeneous groups, on the other hand, also serve positive instructional purposes - fresh ideas, connections, everybody has something to contribute, learning to work with others. Let's be clear, however: Always placing struggling students with advanced students doesn't work well for either group. Struggling students feel intimidated by advanced classmates. Advanced students don't always have the patience or skills to help struggling students, and working with struggling students does not meet the needs of advanced learners. Occasionally grouping this way is fine, but as a chronic default? It's not appropriate.

I agree with skateboarding physics professor, Dr. Tae, (see his Eastside Prep Ted Talk on comparing classroom teaching to learning a skateboarding trick below) that we don't really know how long it takes anyone to learn any one standard, nor do we know exactly how long it takes to learn a complex inter-weaving of standards applied in flexible ways. Some students will take more time than others, some will need more support along the way, and some will need less. Some students will find meaning in curriculum via non-routine methods, and some will find meaning in fairly normal ways. For any given moment in the journey for these students, grouping them according to interest, learning preferences, learning challenges, or readiness (advanced or otherwise) will lead to their great success, and not grouping them will lead to their digression.

Grouping students should be done based on what we know about students and how to maximize their learning, not because we were told to group students in a differentiated instruction seminar. We group purposefully. This means we put students into groups when we think students will learn more, or they will find more meaning in their learning, than they would achieve with a one-size-fits-all general approach. Most students can do most things we assign or that we facilitate with the class, but we remain attentive to those who aren't learning with the generalized approach, and we change things so that they are successful.

Just as importantly, we enhance the experience for those that have already demonstrated proficiency with standards and are ready for something more challenging. In high school this achieved by students taking advanced coursework. In elementary and middle schools, however, there is not the economy of scale to offer varied and advanced coursework, so special attention should be given to training teachers to provide advanced/accelerated instruction in their own classes as warranted, and to provide advanced students in these grade levels with at least two to three hours a day of advanced curriculum experiences. Less than this amount of time doesn't meet advanced students' needs.

One concern: In my school district, we have several language immersion programs in which students start foreign language instruction in first grade. These groups stay together as a cohort in the language immersion program through their middle school years, and often, they are so advanced, they take special classes together in high school as well. In addition, because some of these foreign language teachers are itinerant, the immersion classes are taught during the same portions of the day as other classes taught by other itinerant teachers, thereby preventing immersion students from participating in specialized classes in other areas of interest offered at that same time, or forcing immersion students to take those classes at the same time later in the day, which only furthers the concerns of the homogeneous, narrow exposure.

These immersion students are a small subset of the larger student population, and we've found that some of these groups become insular and problematic/disruptive for teachers in higher grade levels because of their close association with one another year after year without dynamic mixing with other students for significant portions of their school day. They become their own self-sustaining communities, and it's harder for some students to mature, or for some groups to let classmates mature, and become something more than their earlier selves. Both teachers and parents have shared their regrets with this element of the immersion program and wish there were more opportunities for the immersion students to participate fully with the larger student body and courses. It's nowhere near Lord of the Flies, of course, but it's a caution nonetheless.

I've had the chance to teach both homogeneously and heterogeneously grouped classes in English and math over the years, and in both groupings, I do a ton of differentiation. The teacher of a homogeneously grouped math class can't rest easy and do a one-size-fits-all program. He'll do just as much differentiation as he does in other classes. In addition, in looking at the research and comparing it to the real classroom experiences, my colleagues and I have found that success in either grouping comes with the teacher's willingness and preparedness to respond to students' specific learning needs, i.e. to provide differentiated instruction. Absent that training and willingness, either format is just as inert, or worse, just as damaging.

When grouping students, we have to re-group them as well. Students may be grouped according to readiness levels for one activity, but then re-grouped according to interest or learning preferences for another. This allows students to be known for competence rather than incompetence, and to act upon personal interests, both of which are meaning-making for participants. If students know the current placement is not permanent, they are not as threatened by it, and they develop a sense of self-efficacy.

Effective teachers do a little role-playing with students, too. They ask a small group to conduct a group task or discussion in the center of the room, while the rest of the class surrounds them 360 degrees and records observations about what was and was not successful. Then that outer group offers constructive critique to the center group members. Observing students get to rotate into the center group while members of the center group rotate to the outer group and critique the new center group. Observing and critiquing others' helps students move successful group behavior into their internal editors. They self-monitor more often as a result, and adjust behavior accordingly.

When wrestling with whether or not to group students, consider these questions:

• Is this the only way to organize students for learning?

• Where in the lesson could I create opportunities for students to work in small groups?

• Would this part of the lesson be more effective as an independent activity?

• Why do I have the whole class involved in the same activity at this point in the lesson?

• Will I be able to meet the needs of all students with this grouping?

• I've been using a lot of [insert type of grouping here] lately. Which type of grouping should I add to the mix?

When considering what type of grouping to use, most teachers choose one or more of the following, any one of which can be productive, depending on the lesson:

• Whole class or half class

• Teams

• Small groups led by students

• Partners and triads

• Individual study

• One-on-one mentoring with an adult

• On-line communities

• Temporary pull-out groups to teach specific mini-lessons

• Anchor activities to which students return after working in small groups

• Learning centers or learning stations through which students rotate in small groups or individually.

Over the course of a unit of study and even within a one week section of the unit, students need to experience content in small groups, but also independently and as a whole class. This is the Ebb and Flow of grouping, as differentiation expert, Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson, describes it, and it works well. Some students learn better in one of these three ways, and we need to provide meaningful interaction with content via all three of these formats.

Some teachers are not comfortable with one or more of these groupings, however, and they don't offer it as often in their lessons. This is a mistake. Let's improve those parts of our teaching practice that may be weaker, and remember that we should teach the way our students best learn, not the way we best learn. Our success will come with theirs.

Lets-improve-those-parts.jpg

Thanks to Rick for contributing his response.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of seven published by published by Jossey-Bass.

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Look for Part Two in a few days....

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