Ability setting – breaking the habit.

There are advantages to being at the bottom of the pile

‘Why is my child not on the top table?’ This is a question I am occasionally asked and for which I have to do everything in my power not to roll my eyes, heave a deep sigh and bang my forehead repeatedly on the nearest table.

The reason I find this question so frustrating is because it is almost always born from a misguided one-up-manship that not only serves to embed attainment differences, but also to reinforce social divisions, and even those of ethnic and gender origin too, as most parents who ask me this are those of white middle class girls. I’ve even been asked to list the other children on this supposed ‘magic table’. Unsurprisingly, I meet with many a furrowed brow when I explain that there is no top table in my class.

Grouping by ability should be a teaching tool adopted in the right circumstances. It should not, as it so often becomes, a method of rubber stamping children because all too often the stamp lasts throughout a child’s education…and beyond.

Contrary to Gove and Wilshaw’s old boy’s world view, setting and streaming in primary schools (and I suspect secondary schools too) is not supported by any empirical evidence whereas teaching mixed ability groups, but differentiating appropriately within them, has proven to be far more effective, both empirically and anecdotally. Not only does mixed ability teaching like this raise the lower achievers up, but it drives the high achievers forward as they secure new concepts faster by frequently having to create explanations for others. Moreover, I have proven all this to myself in my own class for several years.

The key to this is ‘smart differentiation.’ This is achieved by offering differentiated activities to the children to select themselves, but allowing the children to sit in mixed ability groups. The way I do this is by taking the core teaching concept and creating three different activities. I call these the ‘must’, ‘should’ and ‘could’, sometimes I even throw in a ‘would’ too. Then these activities are either in baskets at the front of the class or presented as clear choices in the white board.

At first you always get the children who either underestimate or overestimate themselves (feel lazy or want to show off) but this quickly rights itself as the children don’t like being bored doing things that are too easy or struggling with things that are too hard. Children thrive on learning and progressing through activities, which they can here.

This approach is then set against the instances when ability grouping is preferable, when a skill needs to be learnt at a specific level. This is where ability grouping is helpful, but this leads into the whole skills and knowledge question, which is a whole other blog.

I will finish then by returning to that original insipid question and end by answering it with another I like to ping back: do you mean how is your child progressing?

4 thoughts on “Ability setting – breaking the habit.

  1. Bonnie

    Dear Beth
    This is a very good article, but I have a question for you. Whilst I appreciate your motivation is to help all your students equally, surely lack of streaming holds back ‘gifted’ children (for example Maths) reaching their full potential? Many thanks, Bonnie

    1. Thanks.

      I will elaborate on my concept of ‘smart differention’ further in a new blog soon, but this is how ALL children are challenged. Number one you aim high anyway, but you offer a range activities that will stretch all. It’s a case of leaving all the learning doors open so everyone is free to move on, including the more able. No one is held back. With setting and streaming too many doors are bolted shut for too many children.

      1. Bonnie

        Ok, good answer, but do you think this is relevant in secondary school? I can see this working in primary. Thanks, for your responses, keep up the good work, Bonnie

      2. As a primary and not secondary school teacher it would be hard (and perhaps arrogant too ) for me to say yes it would work. However, in every class no two pupils will be the same so I question the settings /streaming model as a differentiation solution. I think effective teaching is the solution. I think mixed ability secondary school teaching (differentiated within of course) may produce similar results to my experience in primary school, but it’s hard work and goes against the political grain.

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