Thursday, October 30, 2014

Teachers using ablity grouping contributing to growing inequality in schools!!

Dr Rubie-Davies
Does your school use ability groups?

There is no doubt in my mind that the biggest contribution to inequality in our schools lies outside the school gate – in the difficult home circumstances of the students

The Minister has spread the myth that one in five students are failing and that schools can alleviate this situation with better teaching - and National Standards. It is all too easy for politicians to blame teachers and in the process ignore that poverty is the problem – poverty created by the neo- liberal polices implemented by governments since the 1980s. 

One in five students failing – one in five students living in poverty – seems hard to ignore the correlation.

Schools can't do much about the poverty issue – this is a matter for politicians – but they ought not to add to the disparity by their teaching methods.

With this in mind it was welcome to read Dr Christine Rubie-Davies article about ‘enacting high expectations for all students’ in the NZ Principal magazine Sept 2014.

She writes that we often hear that teachers ought to hold high expectations for all students implying the currently teachers do not hold high enough expectations. But, she asks, ‘what do high expectations look like?’

Her research has led her into identifying teachers with high expectations and whether holding high expectations has a positive effect on achievement and student self-belief. Rubie –Davis defines high expectation teachers ss those who have high expectations for all their students ‘relative to achievement’. The point she makes is that ‘high expectation teachers expect all their students in their classes to make large learning gains –and the students do’.

So, she asks, ‘what is it that high expectation teachers do? Several studies have shown that high expectation differ from low expectations in three key areas: they do not  use ability groups, they create a warm class climate, and they set clear learning goals with their students. At the heart of these difference, in my opinion is the use of flexible groupings rather than ability grouping.’

This is why the article caught my attention as I have never believed in , or used, ability grouping because of the consequences for students attitudes about their learning ability – ‘once a weka always
An excellent book.
a weka’. (A weka is a NZ bird that has lost its ability to fly! )

Rubie –Davies' research lines upwith the findings of Professor of mathematics Jo Boaler and the research of the UK Teaching Without Limits project.

According to New Zealand researcher John Hattie within class ability grouping show little benefit in raising achievements levels – and this leads on to the negative effects of streaming or banding.

Hattie 'no benefit'
 As a secondary student commented to Rubie- Davies, ‘as you move down the streams, the students get browner’. ‘The major problem with ability grouping’ writes Rubie –Davis, ‘is that it results in differential opportunity to learn and therefore differential learning. Students learn what they are given the opportunity to learn.’

My own thought is that there is not an achievement gap in our schools but rather an opportunity one.

Students Rubie –Davis writes arrive at school as 5 year olds and within a week or two they find themselves in the Red group or the Tiger group (or the Wekas) - names teachers think disguises the hierarchy that represents ability grouping. Once placed students are given different learning experiences and this placement begins their careers not only in an academic hierarchy but also a social one.

 Although many teachers talk about groups being flexible there is research that ability groups students are placed into in their first year predicts the stream they will be placed in at secondary school.

 Other research shows that if children from low achieving groups are placed in average or even high achieving groups they quickly begin achieving at the same level as their peers. There are also studies that show the pernicious effect of ability grouping and streaming. And, it seems, there are no studies, says Rubie- Davies that shows ability grouping is wonderful.

Sadly all this evidence against ability grouping is ignored by schools and as a result schools contribute to student discrepancy.

In contrast Finland, hailed as having a high quality education system has a policy of schools using only heterogeneous grouping and they also have one of the smallest disparities between their highest and lowest achievers. Rubie –Davies concedes there may be other explanation for Finland’s success but, not withstanding, their policy of heterogeneous grouping versus our homogeneous ability grouping is worth considering as one potential explanation for our large ‘achievement tail’.

The high expectations teachers Rubie-Davies studied do not use ability grouping instead they use flexible mixed ability grouping where students can choose the activities that they complete, or higher and lower achievers are paired, or students are socially grouped, or students choose who they work with, or students assigned to mixed ability grouping.

  Educationalist David Perkins suggests students can be withdrawn individually or in small groups, for catch up help and then placed back into the ‘game’ of learning. This approach was identified by Rubie-Davies. She observed teachers ‘pull out students to teach particular skills so that the salience of ability is diffused’.

Such flexible grouping would seem to me to true to the spirit of holistic, integrated, student- centred or personalised learning that once NZ primary education was recognized for  as exemplified by the writings of the late Elwyn Richardson.

Elwyn Richardson
Another aspect of flexible grouping is that students can form relationship across the curriculum and in the process developing a stronger sense of class community.

Flexible grouping shows to students that teachers care equally for all of them. Ability grouping is more harmful at the secondary level where students are streamed and sadly this process is becoming more common in primary and middle schools with inter-class grouping and setting, usually in literacy and numeracy.

Schools’ using flexible groupings requires teacher expertise to monitor individual progress and provide feedback and assistance as and when required – but this is expertise that can be learnt.

 Rubie –Davies has completed studies to develop this expertise. This is the creative teaching that, when I was an adviser, teacher or principal, I admired. My own experience as a principal showed me how hard it was to shift teachers out of using ability grouping in literacy and numeracy – it seemed hardwired into teacher DNA.

‘All students’, concludes Rubie-Davis, ‘come to school enthusiastic about learning and the adventures that lie in store. Many leave school several years later disillusioned, disappointed and dispirited.’

As a country the talents of all our students is our biggest future asset – our school system should focus on developing the unique talentsand gifts of all students and not, as at present, contributing to some feeling winners and other losers – wounded by their schooling.

‘From an equity perspective, all students deserve the opportunity to achieve to their highest potential. High expectation teachers recognise the possibilities in all their students and work to ensure that all students achieve to the highest level they can. It is teachers who foster students’ talent and who can help every child to love learning, to challenge themselves, and to achieve more than others might have thought possible’.

All that is needed is some courageous leadership to create the conditions to encourage teachers to escape past destructive  ability grouping practices.

Further reading................................ Wounded by School by Kirsten Olsen

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Educational Readings - educational myths, powerful learning, common core and David Perkins

By Allan Alach

I welcome suggested articles, so if you come across a gem, email it to me at

This weeks homework!

The Myth of Knowledge Gaps

Let's put kids in the driving seat.
I asked this question:

Is there really a developmental window of opportunity when learning needs to happen, and if it doesnt happen at that time, can never effectively happen?

5 myths about the human brain, debunked

Education is full of myths propagated by snake oil salespeople and non-educators.

three pounds of flesh!
The brain is the most amazing organ in the human body. Somehow, this collection of billions of cells gives rise to thoughts, feelings, action all the things that make us who we are. So it's no wonder that there are lots of misconceptions about how this three-pound hunk of flesh actually works. Here are five of the biggest myths about the human brain:

The Science Of The Common Core: Experts Weigh In On Its Developmental Appropriateness
By Alice Walton

Child development experts and early childhood educators believe that there is actually quite a lot to lose. The issue is not at all ideological, they say its partly pedagogical, and partly psychological. According to experts, a poorly conceived set of standards has the potential to be, at best, fruitless and, at worst, detrimental to the youngest kids who are on the frontline of the Common Core.

The great peril of standardized education

If Einstein was right when he said that standardization is a great peril,our nation may have suffered a brain robbery that has stunted the full development of the intellect and unique talents of millions of people. In their obsession with making students uniform or commonin knowledge and skills, reformers may have overlooked the value of variety. Could it be that the great perilof standardization has been the devaluing of student curiosity, creativity and initiative, as well as reducing personal integrity?

Learning, making and powerful ideas

Steve Wheeler
Recently Ive included articles about the maker movement. This article from Steve Wheeler provides a pedagogical background to this movement.

The theory of contructionism is experiencing something of a revival in recent years with the emergence of maker spaces, robotics, 3D printing and other tools that can promote the making of objects.

Metacognition: The Gift That Keeps Giving

Students who succeed academically often rely on being able to think effectively and independently in order to take charge of their learning. These students have mastered fundamental but crucial skills such as keeping their workspace organized, completing tasks on schedule, making a plan for learning, monitoring their learning path, and recognizing when it might be useful to change course. They do not need to rely on their teacher as much as others who depend on more guidance to initiate learning tasks and monitor their progress.

Q&A with Daniel Goleman: How the Research Supports Social-Emotional Learning

Goleman's work still examines the unconscious influences on our conscious mind, and gives us tools to understand and harness these influences to positive ends. In his latest book, The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education, he collaborates with Peter Senge to showcase the importance of cognitive control in helping students make good decisions.

Learning Is Different Than Education

Learning is different than education. One can be self-directed but supported; the other is led and caused. One is driven by curiosity and the joy of discovery; the other is metered and measured, and a matter of endless policy and mechanization.

This weeks contributions

As Overtesting Outcry Grows, Education Leaders Pull Back on Standardized Tests

Bruces comment: The anti testing movement slowly rising to the top as Obama speaks out. Too little too late. Best to not even have gone there in the first place politics before education.

As the outcry against the overtesting of American children has grown, state and local education leaders in a move endorsed by President Barack Obama have announced a new focus on dialing back the volume of standardized testing and dialing up the quality. 
Learning from Live Theater

In a previous study, we examined the impact of field trips to an art museum. We found significant benefits in the form of knowledge, future cultural consumption, tolerance, historical empathy, and critical thinking for students assigned by lottery to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (see The Educational Value of Field Trips,research, Winter 2014). In the current study, we examine the impact of assigning student groups by lottery to see high-quality theater productions of Hamlet or A Christmas Carol.

Duluth Middle students use STEM concepts to build solar-battery-powered cars

Bruces comment: Importance of active learning

‘“If we learn by using the car, we can actually have a hands-on experience with it instead of just looking at a board and writing stuff down about how to do it,Jackson said.

Five Keys To Building A Culture Of Active Learning

Independence does not develop in a culture that values compliance. Independent learners will be motivated to confront relevant problems, engage in challenging tasks, persevere long enough to overcome obstacles, and have ownership of goals for new learning. These are challenging tasks. Students will need educators willing to give them the latitude and guidance to start today.

25 Things Skilled Learners Do Differently

Bruces comment: Sit down and quietly go through the list of learning strategies how many do you use - or teach your students to use?

Imagine for a moment that all human beings had the same IQ, but that some of us knew how to tap into it better than others. How would we approach education differently?

Innovation Psychology: Innovate like Leonardo da Vinci

Bruces comment: Learn by seeing connections between art and science Learn like Leonardo da Vinci.

Many people today believe that science and art, like oil and water, do not mix.  However, many of the worldsgreatest innovators were not constrained by this bias. Leonardo da Vinci was pretty innovative, and his creativity spanned fine art, military engineering, anatomy and biomimicry.  He was not alone.

Stagnating? Innovate How You Innovate With These 5 Ideas

Bruces comment: Is your school stuck in the present? Here are 5 ideas to develop innovative practices?

Throughout this past year, Ive been having conversations with innovation leaders from a couple of BIG companies about re-inventing their innovation capability. The pattern of conversation: weve had a good run, but feel that our process for making innovation happen is delivering incremental results. Bureaucracy has developed, and so we arent taking a lot of risks anymore. How do we shake ourselves out of it?

From Bruces oldies but goodiesfile:

Great read
Advice from David Perkins to make learning Whole

To get students involved in any learning game teachers need to present 'threshold experiences' suited to the students developmental level. And students need to see the point of the game in any content area.

Contributed by Phil Cullen:

Common Core gets AWFUL review in new study

Bad news for supporters of national education curriculum: States with education standards most closely aligned to Common Core fared worse on math tests than states with their own standards, according to a new study.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Educational Readings - critical ideas for the educationally curious

By Allan Alach

I welcome suggested articles, so if you come across a gem, email it to me at

This weeks homework!

Are You an Autodidact? Or Do You Need Other People To Learn?

Thanks to Heather McQuillan for this article, good for self reflection.
An Annie Murphy Paul blog

Most people are not autodidacts. In order to learn effectively, they need guidance provided by teachers. They need support provided by peers. And they need structure provided by institutions.

Reading Is About More Than Evidence
Sure is.
A few weeks later, another colleague and I were designing a reading curriculum. She suggested this daily objective: Students will categorize evidence from a nonfiction text by subtopic. How strange to think of the information we gather from a nonfiction text as evidence.Evidence of what? I thought. I suggested we keep her objective, but replace evidencewith the word information.

Curious learning
Uk academic Steve Wheeler:

Curiosity killed the cat, but it also made each of us who we are today. Without curiosity, none of us would learn very much at all. Learning is based more on curiosity than any other human characteristic. Children who are curious are always interested in discovering more. Children who lose their curiosity usually turn off and tune out. Children are naturally curious, but sadly, rigid school systems and curricula have often knocked this out of them by the time they graduate.

One size education no longer fits all
This article is from Australia.

Things like "leadership and personal development, confidence and resilience, wellness and a social conscience". God forbid that we equip our students with the latter. For might not our charges then turn bolshie and question the premise of rank materialism, the celebrity culture and democracies which are sometimes anything but.

What Happens When Education Serves the Economy?
Anthony Cody
A thoughtfully politically post by Anthony Cody - read it!

Our political system has become one that similarly revolves around making profits. There is no political will to defend the environment, because just like public schools, the common resources of the natural world including the air we breathe, the atmosphere that creates weather we can live in, and the water we drink, all must be put to maximum profitable use.

GRIT: A Skeptical Look at the Latest Educational Fad
Alfie Kohn - is any comment needed?
Alfie Kohn

Anyone who talks about grit as an unalloyed good may need to be reminded of the proverbial Law of Holes:  When youre in one, stop digging.  Gritty people sometimes exhibit nonproductive persistence; they try, try again even though the result may be either unremitting failure or a costly or inefficient success that could have been easily surpassed by alternative courses of action,as one group of psychologists explained.
The Opposite of Grit
Following on, heres Curmudgucations take on grit:

Life provides plenty of need for grit all on its own. It's not necessary to provide more on purpose. And the need for grit doesn't help get things done, doesn't help people succeed. It may call on their strength, but it doesn't create it. We know that. We understand it. When we want someone to succeed, we do as much as we can to remove the need for grit. Do we not want our students to succeed?

This weeks contributions from Bruce Hammonds:

Sir Ken Robinson: What you cannot miss in the classroom.
Bruces comment: Another great interview with Sir Ken Robinson. Lots of links to other videos featuring Sir Ken.
Sir Ken Robinson, renowned in the field of education for his valuable contributions, expressed his view on the relationship between education and technology

20 Collaborative Learning Tips And Strategies For Teachers
Bruces comment: Strategies for cooperative learning building on the ideas of Vygotsky

Many consider Vygotsky the father of social learning.  Vygotsky was an education rebel in many ways.  Vygotsky controversially argued for educators to assess studentsability to solve problems, rather than knowledge acquisition. The idea of collaborative learning has a lot to do with Vygotskys idea of the zone of proximal development.  It considers what a student can do if aided by peers and adults. By considering this model for learning, we might consider collaboration to increase studentsawareness of other concepts.

The Importance of Teaching Critical Thinking
Bruces comment: Focussing on standardisation neglecting critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking is a term that is given much discussion without much action.  K-12 educators
and administrators are pushed to teach the necessities as dictated by the standardized assessments in order to catch up the students to students of other countries.  In this push for better test scores, many students are leaving the K-12 education system lacking the critical thinking skills that are necessary to succeed in higher education or in the workplace

5 Reasons Leaders Need to Encourage Teacher Voice

Being a school leader is not easy. It takes a delicate balance between knowing when to push, understanding how to pull, and making sure that you take the time to listen to all stakeholders in the school community. For too many years teachers have lacked a real voice in schools, and without their powerful and informative voices, we can never move forward to engage and encourage students to have a voice.

Perspectives / Do-It-Yourself Learning
This issue of Educational Leadership addresses the question, How do students learn for the long term? Our authors' research-based answers, although familiar enough, also pack some surprises.

Why Don't Whales Have Legs?
Following on from the above article:
Time and again, long-term student feedback, program reviews, and end-of-year student reflections cite these two guided inquiry lessons as the most memorable. Posing lessons as questions, or problematizing them, allows students to learn and practice science in ways that make it stick.”’
From Bruces oldies but goodiesfile:

Disorganisation.Why organisations must 'loosen up'!
From a creative individuals point of view there is a desire for greater autonomy and flexibility. Such people want a greater say in the future of the organizations they work for. In short they want organizations to disorganize!

This weeks contribution from Phil Cullen:

Theres more to education than spelling and numbers
We need to go beyond the economic, rote-learning mindset, which is singularly concerned with the acquisition and regurgitation of facts. There is great concern that the race to the top in PISA rankings is undermining the education our children and our country really needs. What is the point of top marks in all subjects if you are unable to live a fulfilling life?

Testing Teacher Professionalism

Members of the teaching profession are trained to accept each pupils natural desire to learn and to develop each ones learnacy potential at the same time as each one accumulates knowledge. There is no greater kind of care; no greater profession.
There is no greater professional ambition. But we know that we have been turned around. We are under instruction to ignore the best-known teaching techniques and to use the soft bigotry of low expectations[Newkirk] caused by judgemental tests.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

North and South Magazine:What’s Wrong with National Standards?

The October ‘North and South’ Magazine featured an education essay on National Standards  written by Jolisa Gracewood who has seen the results of standard based assessment in her son’s primary school  in the United States where small children face a battery of tests. She asks if that’s want we want for Kiwi kids?

The essay is well worth a read.

This blog shares some of the main points.

National Standards are National’s flagship education policy and in the wings wait league tables, performance pay and Charter Schools.

At a pre-election meeting held at Ponsonby School Peter O’Conner ( School of Education Auckland University) said, echoing the findingsof a recent Nigel Latta TV programme on education, ‘there isn’t a crisis in education’ and then introduced the elephant in the educational equation – poverty.

When her turn came Hekia Parata (Minister of Education) introduced her catch cry for the transformative power of education, ‘decile is not destiny’ and that National Standards are a ‘proudly democratising tool.

National Standards got off to   bad start, writes Gracewood, introduced as a post-election surprise and rolled out with minimum consultation they were ‘opt in ‘at first but then made compulsory. The process was a blow to the co-operative spirit established between the sector and the Ministry.

The idea of National Standards is simple enough: for Years 1-8 schools must report twice a year how well children are doing in reading, writing and maths, relative to a given standard.

Children are ranked in four categories: above standard, at standard, below, or well below. As Gracewood writes, ‘at first blush, there’s an old fashioned straightforward appeal – it’s the Three Rs in modern dress’. Gracewood has two reservations – there is no category for well above and if the whole curriculum is crucial, why require reporting on only those basic skills?

Parata has said that National Standards ‘are to education what pulse and blood pressure are to a GP’ Gracewood  checked with some doctors who said that they mostly confirm what they knew already and that they are an incredibly narrow part of an overall assessment.

Gracewood reflects on how much of National’s plan for education hangs on the framework of National Standards. The spectre of performance pay looms in the offing and the Minister has hinted that ‘performance’ could be measured by student progress against National Standards. 

Meanwhile, third parties have complied league tables that compare schools according to their National Standards results. And if you’re not happy with how your local schools perform charter schools await to ‘provide parents with choice’, as the government tells it.

Gracewood writes with the experience of her own children experiencing the effect, while living in the United States, of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

 In the US children experience compulsory multiple –choice tests that begin in Year Four. The original goal of the NCLB was – like National Standards- was to identify struggling children and lift their achievement. The NCLB offered a simple proposition: test children on basic skills, and make sure the numbers go up year by year.

Gracewood worried that the school her children attended, chosen because of its inquiry based approach, noted that the inquiry approach was being edged out by a test based focus. As the stakes were high students were being trained in test taking and the school struggled to make the mandated ‘adequate yearly progress’. On top of this there was the risk of being put ‘into administration’, or being supplanted by a charter school. Despite the teachers’ best efforts the learning of every child in the school was subtly shaped by persuasive test anxiety, to the detriment of other kinds of learning. 

The testing cart was driving the teaching horse, and worse; it was running over the children who most needed the lift. And it was driving the bright kids bonkers.

Reluctantly Gracewood shifted her children to a school in a more prosperous area where the tests were more a passing nuisance.

Gracewood’s experience led her to question where National Standards might lead New Zealand education and wondered at what point would the ends might shape the means – and whether people would notice the incremental transformation. Maybe, she wondered, National Standards wouldn’t be as bad as NCLB. Or maybe it was the thin edge of the wedge.

Moving back to New Zealand her children’s experience of their
Sandra Aitken
primary school (Point Chevalier) ‘blew my children’s mind…there was joy in the air, and creative energy in the classrooms. ‘National Standards results appeared on their report cards but there were no compulsory tests results. Point Chevalier, like the Gracewood’s second well off (high decile) American school had little to worry about. Point Chevalier’s principal Sandra Aitken commented, ‘we have the luxury of our kids achieving pretty well’.

Although less than impressed with the way National Standards were imposed she conceded one positive aspect: ‘It was the first time that overall teacher judgment, based on multiple sources of evidence was recognised in writing’.  Primary schools had always already gathered and shared such information with parents and used it to inform their teaching.

 As for the standards Aitken says ‘she doesn’t have a problem with the idea of having some signposts about roughly where we would like kids to be but I’m just not a 100 per cent convinced that the child who’s always "below" needs to hear that time after time. Often we’ve made a significant difference, but they’re still below standard.

A level playing field?

The joke amongst schools is that National Standards are neither national nor standard and Gracewood wonders if this system might lead to an induced demand for some kind of universal nationwide test. 

Aitken doesn’t want national testing nor league tables even though her school would come out pretty well and she is vigilant that her school does not let an emphasis on standards narrow the curriculum something she sees as a real risk for schools that are worried about being unfairly compared to other schools.

Gracewood wondered about the effect of National Standards  reflecting on her children’s first American school? 

To find out she visited May Road School in Mount Roskill a decile 2 school where three quarters of the students have English as a second language.  Principal Linda Stuart states while that they have a number of issues associated with poverty the school’s families do the very best they possibly can with very little. 
Lynda Stuart May Road School (Decile 2)

Is decile destiny for these children and their families?  Stuart reckons with political will and proper support they can be raised up educationally but neither National Standards nor league tables are helping the process. Stuart worries that the introduction of National Standards has hindered the holistic approach that has been wonderful in addressing the needs of her pupils.

‘The thing is’, says Stuart, ‘success looks different according to where you are working from. Many of our kids are on the back foot to start with... the data  doesn’t capture how much progress students have made…they are measured against the benchmarks that every other child is measured against, which gives it a false perspective about where the school as a whole is at.

 Stuart believes the answer is to emphasize the children’s accomplishments and by providing opportunities the children wouldn’t get otherwise. ‘If we could get that happening throughout the country we could shift a lot of things....My students are just as eager to learn but they are starting from a much harder place.’

Profoundly democratic - yeah right!
Gracewood recalls Parata’s line about the ‘profoundly democratising’ effect of all schools being held to the same standard; no child being left behind but as one teacher says, ‘it is not a level playing field- so why measure and report as if it is?’

At the meeting Parata had spelled it out.

 ‘The students who have been left behind are Maori, Pacifica, come from poorer homes, have special education needs, or a combination of all four. Our challenge is both to lift up those who have been left behind, and push up those who are already doing well to do better.’ None of which is news to anyone Gracewood spoke to. But on the evidence, it wasn’t clear that National Standards was doing anything more than measuring the field again.

 Decile nneedn't be destiny, but it is a powerful factor.

 Even in a well off area, socio-economics matter. ‘They talk of one in five kids failing’ says Sandra, ‘and one in five live in poverty. Can we not see the connection?’ And she points out, ‘even in decile 10 schools have decile one families’ who fall between the cracks.

One criticism Gracewood heard of National Standards was that, like No Child Left Behind, it tends to encourage a focus on children just below the line. If schools can bump some of that group into the ‘at’ category their profile instantly looks better on a comparison chart.

Time for a conversation
Standards also send mixed messages about the value of a school as a whole too. Schools in which half the children meet or exceed the standard can still be read as ‘failures’ , even if they’re helping their students and communities to be the best they can be.

Schools are being given huge responsibility for outcomes beyond the school gate.

National Standards, league tables and charter schools were presented as being things parents asked for – but did we asks Gracewood?

What is wanted is a proper conversation about education not just with the government, but with parents and the wider community. ‘When we have that conversation’, says Linda Stuart, ‘when politicians really listen to what we’re saying, then we will have the most wonderful education system in the world’.

As the meeting concluded Gracewood thought back to Peter O’Conner’s image of one in five children setting off to school from homes suffering from poverty - ‘the elephant in the room trumpeted soundlessly’.

(For anyone wanting to experience the consequences of   national tests and league tables need look no further than the Australian school system)