In my last post I hope I set out some of the arguments for mixed ability groupings; here I’d like to share some of the ways I tackle this in the classroom.
If we accept that learning is more effective within mixed ability groupings, as opposed to children being grouped by ability (which is itself a misnoma as no two children are alike anyway) then the question is, how are all children allowed to learn and progress? This is where much thought and organisation come into play. Mixed ability grouping is one thing, but it should never be thought of as an excuse for less planning and less differentiation in learning opportunities Here are a few fundamentals regarding ‘smart differentiation’, that cater for all, but allow differing abilities to rub shoulders:
- THIS IS A PREREQUISITE! Make sure the class is a supportive learning orientated environment so that children are discouraged from showing off or mocking others who they might be ahead of. Make sure you cultivate an ethos of support for each other’s learning, where mistakes are seen as part of the learning process and that learning is seen as a ladder that every one is on and that everyone can move along. Make sure the high ability experience errors and stretch as much as everyone else!
Some activity options:
- Three to four choices of activities made available to all and working towards the learning outcome and in degrees of challenge (I like to call these activities must, should, could and even would). These can be question cards, baskets/envelopes of different activities the children choose from or activity options on the board.
- An open ended investigation can be used for all, as long as the investigation is accessible to the lower ability children and open ended enough to stretch the higher ability. Maths, science and the humanities might lend themselves more to this approach. Support tools/resources can be put on each table for children to use if they need, this is a form of differentiation too.
- The higher ability option can sometimes be to write questions for others (as long as they can work out the answers!) This can only be done when the concept is really understood and can be applied!
- Try to avoid the progression in difficulty just being more of the same, but go for ‘more of the same but different’ instead! By this I mean giving the opportunity for the higher ability to use the concepts learnt in a different way. They should be demonstrating how the concept is used in a different context so that they are applying and synthesising what they’ve learnt. Another option is to give them examples they need to evaluate themselves, as in checking for errors or trying to improve pieces. This is then one step further and progressing them towards evaluating the learnt concept.
- Supporting ideas:
- A ‘Carpet Clinic’ can be used before and during the activity. This is where anyone wanting further demonstration or support can stay on the carpet before going off to start the tasks, or during the lesson you can ask anyone wanting support to come to the Carpet Clinic to clear up any misconceptions and set them straight again. This is also ‘real time’ assessment for learning isn’t it! You don’t want to get to the end of the lesson to find out who didn’t get it (that’s old school!)
- Plan who you will support at the start of the lesson. Take the concept to a table and get the higher ability to explain how to do the simpler activities before everyone gets going. Then support individual(s) where necessary. The trick is not to stick to one pupil or set of pupils like glue every lesson. This applies to my teaching assistant too. This allows the children to learn to be independent too. It’s actually a disservice to a child to support them all the time.
- Pause the class and do an AFL check. Then ask the children who think they are confident enough to explain things to someone else. Then pair the children up with the children who need help on the carpet for their own Carpet Clinic for a short while before going back to the tasks. (The children should be trained to use their mini white boards to give others demonstrations and to offer answers as they are questioned etc.
- Use a carefully thought out ‘success criteria’ or ‘what makes good’ for the lesson so that the children know what success at each point should be like or what it takes. This is important because then they know when to progress on to the next activity.
- Use peer assessment to ensure the children are pitching themselves at the right activity. Going through the success criteria in the lesson with a peer will help the children assess their own learning and see where they are.
So these are just some of the ways I tackle differentiation with mixed ability groupings. I’m sure there are better ways out there, please let me know of them if you have them! However, I always try to stick to this idea when I plan and teach:
“Everyone on the bus, everyone knowing where they’re going and everyone moving!”
Stick to this and we can’t do wrong!