Saturday, July 14, 2012

What’s wrong with Ability Grouping?


Education is about creating the conditions for all students to grow

The view of fixed ability originates from early theories of IQ – that there is a single central factor known as general intelligence. That young people are born with a given amount of intelligence. And this is the principal determinant of learning.
This view still has considerable currency even though it is largely discredited and determined by cultural factors and limited to language and mathematical aptitudes. The argument of TeachingWithout Limits is that there is a more empowering, complex and multifaceted view of learning. Most teachers of aware of the multiple intelligences research of Howard Gardner.
 Today there is an understanding of the relationship between socio economic background and school achievement and the cultural background of students. Ability grouping is unfair if it doesn’t take into account young people’s prior experiences and opportunities to learn. In the 70s researchers like Coleman (Coleman Report1996) seemed to indicate schools could do little to compensate such differences.
New areas of research started to focus what was happening in classrooms which showed that teachers themselves are implicated and maintaining persistent patterns of differential achievement; that ability grouping helps create the very disparities it purports to solve. It does this in subtle and unintended ways through the ways it has on teacher’s thinking and through the impact it has on self-image for children in the ‘lower’ ability groups. It is obvious that teachers do not set out to do their children harm but they also know that children live up or down to what is expected of them. The recent focus on literacy and numeracy standards  has resulted in a greater emphasis on ability grouping, narrowing the curriculum  and limiting the opportunities for students to shine in other areas.
Learning Without Limits builds a new agenda for school improvement around the development of effective pedagogies that are free from ability grouping.
Research has brought to our attention the ‘hidden curriculum’ and how important relationships are between the learner and the teacher. If teachers ‘see’ their students in terms of levels of ability the students will ‘pick up’ on this. Students live up or down to the expectations of their teachers (as expressed in Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’ 1968)
Although most teachers claim that students are moved up groups as they improve  research shows that once placed in a slow group this is where they stay: ’Once a weka always a weka’.  The achievement gap actually widens. Jackson (1964) found that ability placement at 7 was final –  and now such definite decisions are made at an even earlier age.
Hargreaves (82) writes that ability labelling leads to a ‘destruction of dignity so massive and persuasive that few subsequently recover from it’. He says that ability labelling, ‘strips young people of their sense of being worthy, competent, creative, inventive, critical human beings, and encourages them to find other ways of achieving dignity, often through oppositional means’. Sadly many students go through school accepting what happens to them without complaint. Gradually a polarizing effect occurs with pupils allocated to the slower steams becoming increasingly oppositional and resistant as any secondary teachers will know. Students are expert about picking up on messages about their perceived worth – their position in the hierarchy of power. We all do.
Hargreaves believes we need to understand the behaviours of such students and set up alternative means for such students to achieve success. Ironically those who end up in our prisons unable to read and write have had many hours of unsuccessful teaching. More of the same teaching will not help them.  
The answer lies in students being helped to take responsibly for their own learning(Dweck 200); through their own efforts – to see that learning is within their power and not determined negatively by others.
Schools are, according to Cummings (2000) ‘white, middle class, monolingual and mono-cultural’. Some students enter with all the ‘cultural capital’ to succeed. Through increasing constant evaluation by their teachers, through messages of greater or lesser worth, some students are made to feel incompetent leaving them ill placed to engage in curriculum experiences. John Holt has written persuasively about the negative effect of this ‘hidden curriculum’ – not so hidden in some schools. It is the culture from the dominant group that is valued.
The acceptance of the ability mind-set makes it normal for teachers to use such groupings. This acceptance makes it difficult to question its use and denies teachers the creative opportunities to explore alternatives. Ability grouping acts on a constraint on teachers thinking and creativity. .
The acceptance of ability grouping also makes teachers believe they cannot effectively teach students of different abilities together leading to differentiation of programmes for different levels of ability instead of assisting all students dig as deeply as they can into common experiences.
In the UK the political decision to introduce literacy and numeracy hours has led to more deterministic use of ability grouping and setting –and this is happening in New Zealand as schools clamber to demonstrate success against learning targets. Wait until National Testing is introduced along with League Tables!
That all students can learn with appropriate time and help was demonstrated by Benjamin Bloom (1976) with his mastery learning approach. Unfortunately Bloom was fixated on improving traditional learning not in developing more creative alternatives but he proved that ability was not the limiting factor. Bloom’s teacher dominated approach is still alive and well in schools with the emphasis on intentional teaching and success criteria and the like. The work of Marie Clay in the area of reading is a better model.
There is a need to raise teachers horizons of what is possible to create the conditions for all to learn, particularly those currently in the so called ‘achievement tail’. To ensure success for all students requires removing the limitations of ability groups and valuing success in other areas of learning. Today we are in danger of developing two curriculums – on one hand literacy and numeracy and on the other all the other areas of learning. It seems that literacy and numeracy have gobbled up the entire curriculum!                                      
There is nothing fixed about ability grouping or how schools are organised.
We could, as it says in Learning Without limits, ‘commit ourselves to an alternative improvement agenda, dedicated to freeing learning from the limits imposed by ability-led practices.’ ‘That young people are clearly capable of achieving very much more, and in ways different from those suggested in current patterns.
The authors are aware that is easier said than done How can teachers explore new creative ways and at the same time fulfil compliance requirements which are more political than educational are issues to consider?
Thankfully there are teachers and schools who have already shown it is possible. The pioneer works of Elwyn Richardson in New Zealand in the 50s is one such teacher but there were, and still are, plenty of others to learn from. There is also thewritings of countless educationalists (see my book list) and such schools as Reggio Emilia schools of Milan and the Big Picture Schools of New York etc. In New Zealand the Learning in Science Research based on learners constructing their own knowledge and the Kotahitanga Research ( Waikato Univ) of Russell Bishop, which demonstrates the importance of respectful relationship in learning for Maori students, are valuable resources.
The side-lined 2007 New Zealand Curriculum has a key phrase – ‘every student should be their own seek, user and creator of their own knowledge’ reflecting  George Kelly’s work on personal construct theory that we each construct our own personal ways of seeing the world- our personal constructs – and that this system defines the understandings by which we live. Thankfully for us our understandings can be reconstructed; we can change our minds.
The remaining chapters of Learning Without Limits are based on the experiences of teachers who were willing to share their experiences of teaching without recourse to ability grouping and, from them,  a set of principles have been developed to assist others who might want to replicate such ideals.
The questions that teachers had to answer were: What ideas do they use to inform their teaching?  What adjustments will they have to make? How will they organise their classrooms to engage and inspire learners? What compromises will they have to make to fulfil compliance requirements; and how will the school they work in support or constrain them?
As George Kelly wrote (1970) ‘even the most obvious occurrences of everyday life might appear utterly transformed if we were inventive enough to construe them differently’.
So it seems as simple as changing our minds –and, if we do, we know enough to create a far more equitable and creative education system where all students can have all their gifts and talents identified and amplified.
Next blog – the process used to develop principles for others to make use of based on the experience of selected classroom teachers – a model to follow in New Zealand schools before it is too late!

2 comments:

nzkoobi said...

Bruce,
A masterful blog today.

The view of fixed ability - The old TOSCA test being one example? I admit that was my default view - so that must change.

Confirming the 'once a weka' - yes for the most part. Children stay in that group or with the same children week after week. It's like apartheid in a way.

The questions teachers had to answer are absolutely the nub of the matter and I eagerly await the next installment to see the practical application.

This year I have a multi level class - 23 - Y4-8 children. Ideally suited to teaching without limits approach.

I did take a look at the Wroxham School website in England. Plenty there to look at.

Again grateful thanks Bruce.

Bruce said...

Hi Koobi

The issue of the use of ability grouping is just taken for granted in our schools - it's just how it has always been done!

I guess , in the past, primary schools used ability grouping in a benign way. I am sure the thought of harming kids in the process was never in their thoughts. Even setting was seen as good for the kids but in all this I don't think the kid's point of view was considered. It was all to make transmission of teacher ideas easier. And it is the long term effect of being in the low ability groups that causes the damage.

With the growing distortion of education by political ideologies - standards, targets, and in the near future national tests and league tables ability grouping will become more hard wired and sorting kids by success in literacy and numeracy will create damage for many students.

I am just hoping that teachers/schools will , at least, give the ability groups issue some thought.

To me the compromise is to make student inquiry central to learning making use of literacy as a means to an end - and maths as much as possible. Even these two area can be taken with a whole class investigation approach individual students digging as deeply as they can. No one is arguing that students don't have different abilities - any thing but.

We need an approach that personalizes learning allowing all students to make a valid contribution.

I think I will write at least three more blogs based on the book Learning Without Limits.

Will check out Wroxham School.