Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ability Grouping - unintended consequences for learners and teachers. A need for a new transformational mindset for teaching to develop the talents and gifts of all students

This book explores ways of teaching without recourse to judgements about ability. It asks all teachers to reflect on the consequences for learners self images and the way they teach.

This blog will be the first of series based on the book 'Creating Learning Without Limits.'

I broke a promise to myself to not buy any more educational book but I couldn’t resist this one. And it didn’t disappoint.
I have never believed in the practice of teaching children in ability groups but the use of such groups is taken for granted by most teachers I have worked with over the years. How else do you cater for the range of abilities of students in my class', teacher’s reply when asked? I would reply but what about the harm done to those labelled as slow learners? This didn’t seem to be a problem and still isn't.
When I taught I chose, against advice of the school, not to use ability grouping instead choosing to help students individually, or in small groups skills required and then returning students back to whatever they were studying. The teachers who were advising me seemed to spend most of their day worrying about reading and mathematics whereas I wanted to focus on inquiry studies, language and the creative arts.
Anyway I bought Learning Without Limits which explores ways of teaching free from determinist beliefs about ability.
The book critiques the practices of ability labelling and ability focused teaching and examines the damage done to young people by there  use . The book's theme is positive and constructs a model of pedagogy based on transformability, the mind-set that children’s capacity as learners are not pre-determined and that with appropriate teaching all students can learn.
With the new deterministic emphasis on measured achievement based on National Standards ability grouping is gaining greater popularity. Schools  are being asked to set targets and being compared on their achieving results in literacy and numeracy .To gain ‘success’ have to comply to ‘best practice’ formulaic teaching differentiated for the three or four ability groups. Some schools are even moving into setting students across classes for literacy and numeracy. In secondary schools streaming is still the practice. In primary schools such an approach is resulting in a narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the tests and the side-lining of the creative arts.  And in countries where these ideas originate achievement levels are falling whereas,without this new emphasis, New Zealand has always been in the top performing group in international testing in literacy  and numeracy.
'Learning Without Limits' is an antidote to such nonsense.
The book provides teachers who are unhappy about what they’re being asked to do with an alternativeone that resonates to the creativeideas of New Zealand teachers past and present.
Teaching focused on ability grouping results in students unconsciously  indignity of ‘learning their place’. The view of ability has a long history starting with now discredited IQ testing. Today teachers use such grouping in ways they believe causes no damage but the evidence is otherwise. For many schools it is an unquestioned practice – it is the way things are done.  Cross class setting and streaming exaggerates the problem for learners that need more time
The book outlines a more optimistic view of education free from the constraints of ability grouping and in many respects it relates to the work of teachers in the 60s and 70s when creative teachers did their best to approach their work in a spirit of inquiry and adventure. Unfortunately the early promise of 'child-centred learning' was never fully realised as it was subverted by traditional pressure to group students and also by schools that over promised but couldn’t deliver.
By the mid-eighties the emphasis had swung to top down hierarchical National Curriculums Ability grouping was firmly established and alternative pedagogies were only for the determined. Briefly, in New Zealand, the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum and talk of personalisation of learning by the then Minister of Education providednew inspiration.
 'Learning Without Limits', after interpreting what went wrong, and following practical research by a number of teachers come to very different conclusions.
The book outlines a vision of schooling that allows everybody to enjoy a full education to realise their gifts and talents.
The authors quote Stephen Jay Gould ('Mismeasure of Man') to capture the author’s central concerns.
‘We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even hope by a limit imposed from without but falsely identified as lying within.
The book is concerned that the talents and gifts of many young children remain untapped throughout their formal education. That , because of teacher mindsets about the value of ability grouping, not muchcan be achieved by those children from disadvantaged social backgrounds; those who do not enter schools with the ‘social capital’ to become positive learners’.
As the current reforms being imposed on schools by politicians fail or plateau, the time will be right for teachers to introduce a personalised pedagogy that promises a more promising and equitable improvement agenda- one led by educational research in tandem with creative teachers.
Getting rid of the often unintended consequences of ability grouping labelling is the first step; even just thinking about their use from the point of view of the learner.
I plan to write further blogs to describe the ideas formulated in this book.
Buying the book was worth breaking my promise.



Mac Stevenson said...

Clearly a good read Bruce.

The Laws of Unintended Truths produced this phrase in your blog.

"The book provides teachers whore unhappy about what they’re being asked to do.."

Probably nothing more to be said really.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Ooops! But you are right teachers , or more schools,do 'sell out' on their principles under pressure to ensure they are seen as successful. In the UK ,with the emphasis on literacy and numeracy, ability grouping is increaing.In NZ, with National Standards, teachers and parents will see students as below, average or above average based on achievement determined in two areas. Such a 'sell out' fits in with the current political 'winner/loser' ideology.

Maybe my error was pertinent ?

Bruce Hammonds said...

Ability grouping fits in well with that other law - The Law of Unintended Consequences.

The use, or not, of ability grouping depends on ones view of how people learn. Lots of for and against on Google!

Anonymous said...

I agree totally. I teach in a school where ability grouping is almost enforced and aslo setting of studnts for maths by ability across classes. I appreciate the thinking behind such practices but it is in opposition to the integrated teaching I believe in. Such practices make inquiry learning across the curriculum almost impossible. Literacy and numeracy is all the leadership team seem to worry about. But what choice do I have?

Bruce Hammonds said...

It is difficult to try alternatives in such an environment - that's why most innovative teaching in the past happened in small schools by teaching principals.

What is required today is for whole schools to introduce inquiry based programmes seeing literacy and numeracy as 'foundation ' sklis that contribute to current studies.

Ideal advice - find a school led by a courageous principal. Pretty difficult. I guess the best thing is to do your best to integrate literacy and numeracy and, in those two areas, use whole class investigative experiences and then help individuals ( or groups with similar problems) as required.

Unknown said...

Hi there. Very briefly. My youngest son was recently placed in what he considered to be the 'wrong' 'set' for English. Up until this point he had been in the 'top' set and had been 'downgraded' for no apparent reason. I agreed with his appraisal and contacted the school. I spoke with the head of the English department. She explained (tried to justify) the placement by saying that my sons previous set and the one he had now been assigned to were pretty much the same level. How can they be the same and yet different? It transpired that in reality a major factor in this instance was to do with juggling numbers between departments……..After being dismissed, I sent an e-mail stating that children are damaged by being labelled at an early age and that there was no justification for treating my son or any other child in this way.
My son is extremely articulate with a command of the English language beyond his years. Of course I put this down to the fact hat he didn't go to school until he was 10. He was educated at home.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Hi Ansell
That's ability grouping for you - more for the teachers/schools convenience than the students education