Mastering the ability concept

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Schools and teachers exist to ensure that children enter adulthood endowed with the knowledge and skills to add to their own and society’s well-being.  Schools want the best for their pupils – whether they be fancy private schools, leafy suburban schools or urban state schools – schools and teachers want the best for their pupils. I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t want this, although some have not always gone about it in the right way. We also know that education matters; it matters because if you have a decent one the chances are you will be healthier and live longer than if you hadn’t. In so many ways, education has a profound significance to people’s lives.

This is why it surprises me that still today some schools and teachers are still grouping children by their ability at a very early age, seemingly unaware of the profound effect this rubber stamping has on children and their futures. It surprises me even more that some teachers and school leaders seem unable to see the causal relationship between creating lower ability groups, largely populated by poorer children from less privileged backgrounds, and the national trend for poorer children to do less well in education. Clearly, putting children into groups is not working if our aim to serve all children well and break the cycle of poverty and low attainment.

Many teachers still appear to understand intelligence as innate, like an endowment from birth  meaning that some pupils are intelligent while some just aren’t. This ignores so much that we know about the causes for high achievement in education that this viewpoint must be a very deeply ingrained idea that has been established in culture and society over many years; pat every turn this idea of ‘inborn intelligence’ is confirmed rather than upturned. It is almost comical that many assume a child born into a stable, affluent family, surrounded by a culture of achievement might be ‘bright’ despite these things and not largely because of them. Conceptually, we know that stability, money and background help a child to do well, but fail to link this understanding  to the idea of  intelligence being constructed and not inherent.

We reinforce these concepts everyday in the way we talk about pupils too. We talk about certain children being ‘clever, talented, artistic, gifted, high ability, or exceptional,’ the list goes on.  Parents do it too; I have been guilty of this. However, every day this feeds the idea that intelligence is a fixed endowment rather than incremental, supple and capable of great change. We easily forget all those factors that help children to learn well, like ‘affluence, good teaching, deliberate practice, effort and enthusiasm and parental support.’ Everywhere we look we can see evidence that intelligence is not innate, but cultivated. No doubt, there is a physiological dimension, connections between synapses can be faster in some people, of course, but in most healthy brains, connections can be increased and intelligence built. I would never agree that all children are the same, they aren’t, or that some children are not more knowledgeable and skilled than others, but that’s because they got there, not because it was all there in the first place. Neither am I elevating nurture over nature because we know genetics matters and it would be wrong to discount biology. However, a propensity is just that: a tendency, a proclivity, it is not the end result; an apple seed is not an apple. Our world is still so governed by the historically embedded concepts of birthright and heritage that our expectations of others are heavily influenced by where they’re from and ‘who their people are’ rather than seeing people just as they are.  Education is no different. It’s time to shrug off our implicit fixation on what might appear ‘natural’ and think nurture.

The work of Professor Carol Dweck has looked into this in great detail and her work shows that fixed attitudes to intelligence and ability by teachers, parents and pupils are detrimental to learning. Unfortunately, her work has been widely misused by many educators who have turned her ideas into little more than motivational jingles without understanding the depth of these important theories about the self. How learners think about themselves and other learners, and importantly how teachers view their pupils, might just be the most profound and largely overlooked aspect of education. If existence is fashioned by anything at all, it is mostly by how people view themselves and others.

When pupils consider themselves to be ‘clever,’ they often shy away from challenge because after all, if you’re clever then you shouldn’t misunderstand anything, right? Fixed conceptions of ability generally cause pupils to avoid possible failure for this same reason. Alternatively, when children have a more fluid conception of intelligence, then failure doesn’t matter so much because you can  build on the knowledge and understanding and eventually get it right. What you need most of all is effort and practice. When pupils and teachers have this attitude, Dweck calls this a ‘growth mind set’. Like this, attitudes to intelligence or ‘mind sets’ matter in learning a great deal. However, as said, too many schools have used her work as a blunt motivational instrument and approaches to classroom practice have not changed. Differentiation is still defined by ability groupings, attainment and achievement by data and deliberate practice and redrafting are not key features of classroom practice, but are instead suffocated by curriculum coverage and that dreadful thing called ‘pace’. What has not followed the general appreciation of Dweck’s extensive work on ability and intelligence is a change in educational practice. Still schools and teachers are labeling and grouping pupils by ability despite all the evidence that it is not beneficial for learning.

So many schools have misunderstood the growth mind set idea by conceptualising it as referring to a pupil’s attitude to learning without understanding that a pupil’s attitude to learning also comes from the school’s own ethos. The irony of some schools declaring that ‘at our school we have a growth mind set’ yet allowing some pupils to toddle off to a ‘top maths set’ day in, day out, seems palpable.

Yet, many teachers first reaction to ability grouping is to raise concerns about differentiation and meeting children’s needs, legitimate arguments you might feel, after all how do you teach children at such disparate levels of understanding? Well, the disparity in achievement of pupil groups will never change if you keep the groups in place! Sheep in a field will never move to new pastures if the gates are always closed. (See this clip for a perfect analogy of ‘lifting the lid’).  The achievement gap between pupils will never narrow if barriers to achievement are kept in place.

In reality, when children are put into ability groups they rarely move from these groups;  these groups are largely populated by poorer, less affluent children also. This means that the cycle of poverty and low attainment is kept in place by education rather than broken by it. It is likely then that when poorer kids make it in life, it is despite education and not because of it. If you’re a child put into a lower ability set, when will you ever have the chance to see or try the things the children in the top are doing? When will you ever be allowed to catch up? The chances are never, because such is the nature of this kind of system.

Now, the answer is not a big soup of bland education taught to the middle. The answer is to free up avenues of learning and to make the growth mind set a reality for pupils. The answer is to group and label activities rather than the children; take the emphasis away from personal traits and put it onto the action. I can say this as a teacher who has done this, is doing this and has closed the achievement gap because of it. Every good teacher must differentiate learning activities to suit where pupils are in the process of learning, but why limit pupils’ potential by limiting the scope of what they can do? Ceasing labeling children by ability supports the understanding of intelligence as malleable and able to be built upon. It fosters an ethos of ‘doors open for everyone’. Children begin to push themselves further and try things they would have never have had the chance to. Pupils who are further ahead support those who are working on activities further back down the learning progression; this supports those further ahead to understand what they know and build on that further – let’s face it, there’s nothing like teaching someone else to make you understand what you know and don’t know. Contrary to traditional ideas, pupils are a great resource for each other that has been left untapped because old ideas about the teachers being the only knowledgeable person in the room die hard. Through this smarter differentiation of learning, labels begin to become softer round the edges.

In the same way that labeling children by ability does not serve pupils well, misconceptions about of the concept of mastery are also in danger of being harmful to ensuring ‘the best for all, all of the time.’  Some schools now mistakenly consider ‘mastery’ as the preserve of only ‘high ability’ children, or the ‘gifted and talented’ (a counter-productive term for children who have so far learned more than others).  However, if mastering means what it implies: to gain comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or activity, then those assigning mastery to only a select group of pupils are in effect saying that all the other children will gain only part of these comprehensive knowledge and skills. In effect, most children will then remain ‘half taught’ while the ‘top children’ will be fully taught. In reality, this would also mean that children from less affluent families would be more likely to be taught this ‘partial curriculum’ than the ‘comprehensive mastery curriculum’ reserved for the elite children on top. This could not be further from the original intention of the changes in curriculum and assessment.

The mastery model means that all children should gain comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or activity, before moving on to new learning. This is counter to the performance model curriculum where children where rushed through content to cross level thresholds. Offering a specialised mastery curriculum alongside a ‘normal curriculum’ is at best misguided and at worst completely pedagogically unsound. What should happen is that once knowledge is mastered, pupils move on to the next progressive step in learning and all children follow the same trajectory. They may not all get to the same point at the same time; they won’t, but we do a terrible injustice to the majority of children if we offer ‘mastery’ to only a few. In the same way that children had to master how to walk before they ran, we should expect all children to master the curriculum.

To end, educators must delve deep into themselves and reflect on these things. We are beginning a new era in education because people like Dylan Wiliam, Paul Black, Carol Dweck and John Hattie have taken the time to ask and investigate why education hasn’t worked for large numbers of children.  For too long, schools have blamed all sorts of things: government, parents, society, poverty, all manner of things, while overlooking that the most profound changes lie in how teachers view their pupils and importantly how pupils are encouraged to view themselves.

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