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Mixed Ability Teaching Doesn’t Exist

April 15, 2007

It’s a favourite myth of the fashionably minded that you can teach children of different ability levels all at once. This is based on the idea that you can set them different work, and help them individually or in groups. Unfortunately setting work is not teaching, and talking to small groups is not teaching a class. The one thing you cannot do with a mixed ability class is teach it. Teaching involves telling the class what they do not know. This is not possible with a class where some students already know what you want to tell them, and some of them know so little that they won’t understand it if you do tell them.

This is, of course, why the movement for mixed ability classes is indistinguishable from the movement against teaching. The mixed ability class teacher is not a teacher at all. They are, often quite explicitly, a facilitator. They are a person who designs educational activities for children but doesn’t actually tell them what they need to know. They are a friend to the child, but not an expert on an academic subject.

Of course even setting work and leaving the kids to it can be fairly impractical to arrange, and in my experience, here’s how teachers cope with mixed ability classes:

  • Colouring in and drawing. The most able can design a poster illustrating the topic in question. The least able can draw a car or write the name of the topic in bubble writing. Where mixed ability classes are most common (e.g. humanities subjects at Key Stage 3, PSHE lessons, etc) students can be forgiven for thinking that the entire subject revolves around colouring in and the drawing of posters.
  • Group work. This is actually misnamed as it is highly impractical for an entire group to do the work. A better name for it would be “Sarah, the bright girl and her friend Lucy’s work”. However as long as Kevin, who sat at the same table picking his nose, is allowed to write his name on the back of the piece of work then the teacher can claim that Kevin has also worked in the lesson.
  • Copying down. As long as you have a lot of writing in the textbook, and you have at least some actual questions for the fastest writers to do when they’ve copied the whole of pages 57-63 then an entire class can be kept busy copying down the same piece of work. Admittedly, Sarah and Lucy will have copied an entire text book by the end of the year and Kevin will never get beyond copying the first paragraph, but it keeps them all busy.
  • Ignore a large chunk of the class. Let’s face it Kevin probably wouldn’t learn anything even if he could understand what was going on. Sarah and Lucy will be fine in exams, and life regardless of whether they learn anything today. The lesson is pitched at the child who is about two thirds of the way through the ability range. Sarah and Lucy can spend any spare time they have after finishing their work decorating it with ornate borders. If you deliberately forget to tell Kevin he should be getting on with his work, he may never notice he can’t actually do it.
  • Project work. This is where you give students a variety of exercises to do, but they can be done in any lesson, in any order and they all have to go in a folder. If they finish too soon they can decorate the folder for a lesson or two.

The worst thing is that despite the fact that these are obvious scams to get round the problems of teaching an unteachable class, there are now advocates of group work and project work who believe that all lessons should be conducted in this fashion. It just goes to show the lengths teachers will go to convince themselves they are doing a worthwhile job, even when students are learning less than they would if they were sent home with a book to read.

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40 comments

  1. It is more important to be able to show on paper that the class has moved from point A to point B as indicated in your minutely detailed planning, based on someone else’s currently trendy idea of what should be happening in a classroom, than it is for them to actually learn anything.


  2. Sorry, but that’s just so depressing :(
    How do you all stick at the job? I couldn’t, on those kinds of terms.


  3. Gotta agree with you here. I teach IT and am regularly faced with a 4 tier class:

    Tier 1: Love Computers have tried out the concept already

    Tier 2: Bright kids. Take to anything like a duck to water

    Tier 3: With encouragement reach a good or above average level

    Tier 4: For all the will in the world, they can t do it because of lack of understanding, knowledge, language skills etc.

    Take a topic like Programming and the gaps between tiers 1 and 2 and the rest are even more stark.

    Wee Jimmy in tier 4 has no business holding back Joanna in tier 1 but this is invariably what happens unless you tailor make 20 individual lessons. Even if you did go that far (no one can) there is no way a single lesson of 40-60 minutes will change anything.

    Subjects where there are a least sets made have a better crack of it.

    Now, if I was remote teaching 20 kids that might be a different story but with distractions, interruptions, malfunctions and disruptions, that is never happening in a standard classroom.

    Project work can be good BUT almost all the time, the poorer kids will NOT put in as much as the rest and will hide within the group as best they can.

    I agree with the notion that a class of two = mixed ability, but there are kids on broadly the same lebvels as eachother that should be put together. Mixed ability, I agree, doesnt work.


  4. So glad to see this written so clearly. As a Maths teacher I agree that mixed ability teaching is not successful. I think that setting at Primary School would really help achievement in Maths (or Numeracy whatever you want to call it!)

    Sadly there are always those who state that a really good teacher can teach a mixed ability group successfully. I’ve not been in this job long but in schools with a lot of banding sets have a far more mixed ability and from what I’ve seen it doesn’t work and everyone is pulled down.
    If behaviour was perfect you could differentiate a lot more successfully but it’s not and it won’t be any time soon.


  5. With regard to the question about the will to stick with teaching, I think the best solution is to keep burning the fires of indignation. That and being good at your job.

    I recently read through Zig Engelmann’s critique of Project Follow Through. One of the most striking elements of his book was the effective grouping of students to avoid the exact problem we’re discussing here – basically, eliminating that 4-tiered system that Graeme mentioned. Unfortunately, such grouping necessitates the honest evaluation of students’ abilities and the acceptance of that assessment by parents. Few teachers and administrators stay strong on these topics and, as we’ve read from a few people here, classrooms suffer.

    Remember, fires of indignation.


  6. A lucid deconstruction of the mixed ability myth.

    I’m a primary school teacher and hate having mixed ability for everything except Lit and Num (and that was only because me and the other yr5 teacher decided to go against the grain)

    Lower down in the school they have mixed-year mixed ability Literacy and Numeracy lessons.


  7. Around about 1999 there was a C4 documentary on the George Orwell school in Islington. The school had mixed ability classes and small but significant part of each class seemed to be kids who were either insane or bad. They disrupted the lessons and the good kids looked very frustrated – and some started to join in.

    But the really STRANGE thing was at the end of the documentary about 6 of the teachers were in the pub discussing the school – and they ALL defended mixed ability teaching. eg the brighter kids can help the less able etc. They seemed unable to learn from their own experience.


  8. ian, I know the one you mean. It is hard to be the one who pours cold water on a scheme that people who genuinely believe in its value (or it’s in their best interests to appear to) have put a lot of work into, and I should know because it’s usually me (naysayer, not a team player, negative thinker etc etc).

    And there’s nothing wrong with being positive about something and giving it a go.

    But in the case of that school, it was patently not working to the advantage of anyone but the dim but reasonably willing and yet there they were, probably hand-picked at the time and SMT now, saying in the teeth of the televised evidence that it was fine and dandy.

    I have personally lost count of the number of reincarnations of Brilliant Ideas that failed the first time and will obviously fail again for the same reasons but even faster because of modern-day pupil attitudes and non-existent discipline.

    I’m not a genius or an original thinker. If I can see it, loads of people will have spotted it ages before me; and yet here it comes again, generating rainforests of paper, millions in consultancies, training and resources and nothing it seems can stop it.


  9. “they ALL defended mixed ability teaching. eg the brighter kids can help the less able etc.”

    Ugh. Of course the brighter kids go to school precisely to prop up those less able, not to nurture their own talents and stretch themselves. *sigh*


  10. I would not bang the drum of mixed ability teaching at any cost and in any circumstances. However I teach D&T and have only ever taught mixed ability classes (which sometimes include supported SEN students). I have been surprised at the progress made by the weaker students in a climate where exam outcome is not capped.
    My exam cohort is sufficiently small that setting beyond my class is not an option even in the run-up to GCSE’s so I set internally at that point (yes, ok “top tables” & all that) so that the students get the chance to stretch against others of similar ability.
    I agree this would not translate into all other subjects. I pitch my teaching high in the knowledge that not all will get all of it (although I’m often pleasantly surprised) and provide opportunity for independent learning for the very top end.


  11. Oh this is so so true! I’m doing my Diploma of Education (Australian equivalent of the PGCE) at the moment and my tutors won’t SHUT UP about bloody group-work, ‘collaborative learning’ and not ‘labeling’ children through streaming or ability grouping. The ONLY tutors who warn of the possible perils of group work are those in the ‘Gifted and Talented’ school, who freely admit that group work is total crap and does a complete disservice to anyone who is not absolutely smack on middle ground ability. I used to HATE HATE HATE group work at school (I would either have to do all the work, the tasks were idiotic and simplistic, it was fraught with social anxiety and the only thing that I learned was that any form of collaborative learning should be avoided like the plague) and it’s so depressing to be taught that I will have to inflict that misery on my students. As for mixed ability, I really can’t see how we can serve either the very bright or the ones who struggle in the same 40 minutes … and as for differentiating tasks, surely that just means that the ‘labels’ are still enforced in the classroom …
    ARGH!!!


  12. Sorry to add yet another layer of gloom to this situation, but I suspect this insane m/a obsession is actually hindering nay-sayers attempting to join the teaching profession. I attend one of the top universities in the country and every where I turn my peers are being turned down for PGCE courses. (I thought everyone was desperate for them!).

    When I went to interview and expressed a tentative scepticism about m/a teaching I was stared at like a fascist with two heads. I was also foolish enough to mention that I had shadowed at a grammar school as well as a comprehensive; the ultimate streaming taboo.

    I was told I needed more experience to enable me to understand the ‘complexities of teaching’ before I could be offered a place on the course. As a result I am likely to find a job in the private sector instead. In some ways that’s a shame as I would genuinely have liked to help less advantaged children achieve their best. Then again at least I’ll be out of all this barmy PC nonsense.


  13. No Sir! You are mistaken! It exists if we could actually split ourselves to attend to the needs of every student in a classroom!


  14. Oh dear. Group work. With my individual students, no classes of any kind, I’m often amazed at how teachers organise things so that they can have no possible idea of a student’s knowledge or skill. One yr6 student who struggled with tables, fractions, the whole maths thing told me that they did maths in groups at school.
    “What about when you’re working on your own?” I innocently asked. We never work on our own, she said – neither she nor the teacher had any idea just how far off the mark she was in both understanding and performance of maths tasks. They never had maths homework either. It seemed to me that, at least in this class, group work was a way of avoiding “labels” or any other distinctions within the group of students. Probably very PC, but very unhelpful to students a matter of months away from high school.


  15. Mixed ability teaching is the outgrowth of another curse of modern education – social promotion. Students who are in the lower “tiers” of a group are frequently there because they have flaws in (or complete absence of) understanding of prior concepts.

    Social promotion is, if not the leading cause of trouble in schools, amongst the top few. The concept that a student can graduate to the next grade while having demonstrated incompetence at the current level is a tragedy.

    The argument that it is necessary to maintain the social cohesion of a group of students by allowing students who are unready to graduate to still move to the next grade shows a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of education – and the (effective) role of shame in motivation.


  16. Nail. On. The. Head. And in my subject it’s worse than that. Even in the so-called “top” sets, I get kids with little or no real musical ability or experience. If I’m lucky, there might be one or two who play an instrument or have lessons, but that’s about it.

    Music is a practical subject. I’d like to see these people try to teach a class full of musical novices to play the keyboard/guitar/recorder or whatever. It’s impossible when there are 26 of them and one of you.


  17. I loved the intial thread comments, and all so true.
    My top set daughter has just been placed in a mixed ability literacy class and is struggling to concentrate on her work, as other low group children mess around and interupt her, not wanting to learn/ or understanding why they should learn. Vey dishartening for my daughter to be back to a mixed ability class like primary school at such an important time in HER education.


  18. As an ex-teacher I couldn’t agree more. I think that some teachers defend the mixed ability system as it is easier to MANAGE difficult kids if you put that responsibility on the other kids in group work. (And who wants to teach a class of no hopers? So spread them out.)Unteachables will get carried along by the will-to-learn of a few leaders…
    I MOST resent this system in uni, (Australia)where each of my kids has inevitably become group leader (due to lack of alternative) and spent TEN times the amount of work the project required if done alone, just struggling to get group members to participate and contribute. Sure saved the lecturers the chasing up and tutoring time for the slower or contrary ones, not to mention the “Overseas” students who struggle to understand but bring unis Big Bucks.


  19. I was educated abroad and worked as a foreign languages teacher for about 10 years and only in mixed ability classes. Of course, there were kids who shone and those who achieved average grades and may be 2 or 3 with poor marks. The same pattern applied to other subjects. To cut the long story short the literacy in my native country is 100 %. Can you imagine my shock when I started working in a british school ? Appaling behaviour, the low standards of learning and very poor academic results even in so called top sets ? The answer to improving the bitish system lies not in the streaming but in total overhaul of the philosophy of educations, but this is, I am afraid, the class issue – Britain does not need widely educated, free thinking citizens. The ruling classes want just a dumbed down consumer able to read the price tag and press the button on the remote control.


  20. There’s mixed ability and in ESOL very mixed ability!
    At an FE college with a limited programme my department head, who taught maths, allocated students to my classes. Classic: an advanced Swedish student sent along to my beginners’ class. She didn’t stay long and it was easy to explain the situation to her: not always easy in that context. I took over initial student interviewing after that, even though on only a few contact hours a week.

    Best not get me started on differentiation and ILPs: great when certain students had nil English, others reasonable communicative skills but illiterate (in L1 as well) and…

    Still, at least I had no discipline problems!


  21. This rings so true. I work in primary and we are now being told by our head that not only will the children no longer be set for maths, which I as a former secondary maths teacher consider dreadful but the teachers are supposed to not even teacher the same subject to all the class at te same time. They will work wonderfully in groups each doing their own thing while the teacher focuses on a group! My bright eager to work, likes peace to do so daughter is at the school and I am very concerned. But this is the latest ‘wonder’ teacher’s baby and of course any failure is because other teachers are just not up to scratch. So what works for 20 6 year olds will work for 30 10 year olds.


  22. An interesting but rarely used variation is behavioural setting. I don’t have first-hand knowledge of it but a colleague had taught in a school that used it and said it worked extremely well and led to good progress across the board. There were very high expectations indeed in the top sets, and it avoided the demotivating effect of less able children being stuck with less willing. The sets changed more frequently, and the kids wanted to avoid being “busted down” to a lower set; but if they were, they could move up again later on.

    That would fit more with both research into growth vs fixed mindsets and with the prevailing ethos of most teachers.


    • It depends what you do with the badly behaved kids. Some schools try and dumpy them on NQTs and less favoured members of the department and it’s little more than bullying. Ultimately, every child should be required to behave in whatever class they are in.


  23. There was a very odd but annoying 10 minute interview about this on BBC News 24 this morning , with Janette Wallis, editor of the Good Schools Guide. The thrust of the item was that mixed ability teaching is damaging to children’s self esteem. She was adamant that mixed ability teaching is better for all the children despite accepting (and lightly dismissing) the fact that it does not always stretch those of higher ability. This was treated as a minor inconvenience. Those trailing at the bottom were not even considered. There was no defense of setting during the interview, except for the reading out of one email from a teacher. This also was dismissed by JW as one way to make things easier for the teacher.
    My son has just been demoted from set one in Spanish to set two and he is mightily relieved – the pace of set one was too fast and he was struggling. He is now much happier and consequently finding learning Spanish easier. There is fluid movement between sets as well – he was moved from 2 to 1 in another subject .
    The whole point is surely that setting aims to teach the children at the level they can cope with. One would think the way it was treated here that it was designed specifically as an elitist system to humiliate pupils, not to help them.
    Thank you for your great posts oldandrew.


  24. Will someone please explain to me then why Finland always comes out top when they don’t stream the kids?


    • I’m sure that there are people who know more about it than I do, but as I understand it the mix of abilities in Finnish classes is reduced by:

      a) A generally successful education system.
      b) A fairly homogenous culture
      c) Keeping kids who don’t keep up back a year (allied with opportunities to catch up if one is falling behind).
      d) Small class sizes.

      And then they do stream at 16. The issue is not about whether there is streaming/setting/tracking but whether there is a wide mix of abilities.


  25. I feel like a lone dissenting voice here but it would seem to be a fallacy that mixed ability teaching = group work = low expectations = poor results. I don’t what to repeat nauseating tosh about being a ‘guide on the side’ (although I have I see) but I find teaching mixed ability English may sometime = group work although balance is always key. I have very high expectations and very low tolerance for colouring in and my results are ‘outstanding’ with 50% of students making 4 levels of progress at GCSE.

    My problem with people having a pop at collaborative learning is that that’s how students learn best. I’ve never learnt anything from a teacher lead discussion and have met few who have. Of course group work (or anything) can be done badly. I feel very sorry for Josephine who “used to HATE HATE HATE group work at school” but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen.

    Various naysayers have take up positions against the idea of ‘bright children helping the less able’ but Hattie’s research is clear that reciprocal teaching (which this essential is) has an effect size of .74 and is one of the most effective teacher interventions after formative evaluation, micro teaching – which also work just fine in a mixed ability setting.

    Maybe this is really a conversation about effective differentiation? If so then I completely agree that this is taxing in any class, let alone a mixed ability one. My solution? Mark students’ book often & well and provide excellent formative feedback which will enable all of them to make progress.

    Ta, David


    • I’ve never learnt anything from a teacher lead discussion and have met few who have.

      Are you seriously claiming that a teacher has never directly taught you anything useful? This seems absurd. Particularly, if you are going to quote Hattie who found direct instruction to have an effect size of 0.59. In contrast, co-operative learning had an effect size of 0.41. Incidentally, when only standardised tests are used, as opposed to tests contrived by the experimenter, “reciprocal teaching” has an effect size of 0.32.

      My main objection to getting the bright kids to teach the less able, is that I would rather they spent time learning. Particularly, if they want to. They aren’t in school to be an unpaid T.A. but to learn.

      I don’t think that this is a discussion about “effective differentiation” because it is impossible to differentiate teaching, (that was the point of this blog-post) only activities. “Differentiation” is a slogan, used when teachers are faced with unteachable classes, not a strategy.

      My arguments against group work can be found here: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2008/08/03/group-work/


  26. A word of caution: Hattie’s research is flawed.

    Google invisible learnings.

    /D


  27. I’m not claiming that teachers never managed to teach me anything through direct instruction. Although on reflection, i can’t think of anything off the top of my head. What I’m saying is that the ‘teacher lead discussion’ that default setting of many lessons is a great opportunity for everyone to switch whilst sir talks cobblers.

    If that is true (an I have no doubt you’ll disagree) then it stands to reason that kids being active in their learning will make them more likely to remember the cobblers.

    My main objection to your main objection is this: I know a hell of a lot more about my subject since starting to teach it. I am significantly better at English now than I was as a student. Maybe getting students to tutor their less able peers could be considered as an opportunity to reshape and use their knowledge so that they will have a better grasp of it? Far from them being unpaid TAs, it is they who benefit far more than their ‘tutees’.


    • The activity where no child switches off doesn’t exist yet. However, it is a lot harder to switch off learning during interactive whole class teaching than in activities where everyone in the class is free to chat. As for that cliche “active learning”, activity is often the biggest obstacle to learning: http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/summer2000/sewall.cfm#pagenote1

      As for peer tutoring, I think teaching is a good revision activity. It is not a good way to acquire new knowledge. We can expect kids to learn a lot less from it than actually being taught.


  28. Agreed, teaching is not useful for acquiring new knowledge. Terribly useful for applying it though.

    But Andrew I cannot disagree strongly enough with “it is a lot harder to switch off learning during interactive whole class teaching than in activities where everyone in the class is free to chat”. Au contraire: it’s a piece of piss to switch when all is required of you is the appearance of paying attention as long as a couple of keen beans can convince teach that he’s getting through at last. Clearly ‘free to chat’ is a pejorative statement. Try substituting with free to discuss, free to experiment, free to think.

    Poorly though out “active learning” may well be a huge barrier to actual learning but then we can create barriers by doing anything badly. Anything.


    • You appear to have missed the word “interactive”. It is a lot harder to switch off knowing that you could be asked a question at any moment; that you will be expected to ask questions if there’s anything you haven’t understood, and that the whole class will hear your do either, than when 20-30 children are free to talk.

      And I think I will stick with “free to chat” as that is the default behaviour of teenagers when given freedom to interact with their peers. Actually, evidence from INSET days suggest it’s the default behaviour of a lot of adults too.


  29. Andrew, I continue the conversation because it’s good for me to be challenged by someone so articulate and knowledgeable not out of any deluded belief that I’ll convince you of my position.

    That said, just cos it’s a default doesn’t mean it’s necessarily so. Given the freedom in which chatting is a possibility I’m regularly delighted that well managed, engaging group work rarely descends. Especially when they know that at any moment they could be asked a question etc. etc.

    I didn’t miss the word ‘interactive’ – I glossed over it. Whole class teaching is only really interactive for the teacher. Exceptions might be involve whole class involved in directed drama but I’m guessing that’s not what you’re in to.

    Happy to be shown error of my ways though – do please share examples of whole class teaching where the students are active in the acquisition of new skills and knowledge. Will test out anything which doesn’t seem too reactionary.


    • I appreciate that every time you disagree with me you say something nice about how it’s good to be challenged, but really it’s not necessary. I want you to continue the conversation, if I didn’t I’d stop replying (although, I am worried that if we reply to each other so quickly it does dominate the comments, so I may slow things down at some point). That said, I do wonder if we will get anywhere, if you have not moved on from your position here:

      http://learningspy.edublogs.org/2011/09/11/knowledge-or-skills/

      Until that’s sorted out then any discussion of teaching methods is likely to resemble this one here:

      http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2011/01/03/why-it-is-annoying-to-discuss-teaching-methods/

      My point about a class being free to chat was not a claim that all that ever happened in groupwork was chatting, but that groupwork was hardly likely to prevent “switching off” from the work.

      Interactive whole class teaching is where students are asked questions and encouraged to ask questions of the teacher. Do you really need examples of it? A large number of the formative assessment techniques are based on it (when they are not being used to assess prior learning) even, and I can’t believe I’m using such a trendy example, mini white boards.


  30. As I recall, my position on knowledge evolved over the course post. I do accept that knowing things is important. My point is that group work is the most effective way that I’ve found of getting students to know things.

    Whole class teaching however interactive, is less effective. It’s so much harder to do well – and what I mean by that is, mini whiteboard use notwithstanding, it’s much easier for students to conceal the fact they’re not learning anything in this envirmonment.


    • You know from my discussion of groupwork that I don’t think it is at all effective, and definitely nowhere near as effective as direct instruction. You also know from a few comments up, that the research evidence doesn’t support you here. Neither does international comparison, nor my personal experience.


  31. Interestingly, I’ve just read through Geoff Petty’s commentary on Direct Instruction and his definition includes students working in paired and grouped activities!

    Here’s an example “They find the errors in their own example(s) and then explain them to their partner.”

    So does that mean I can carry on using groups to help students learn, brand it under the ‘direct instruction’ umbrella and everyone’s happy? Having processed what is meant by DI (and sorry for being thick about this) I have less complaints – clearly it’s much more about active, student focussed activity than the name suggests.

    Finally, and I do intend to leave it here, students’ views on teaching quality has a bigger effect size than direct instruction – this might suggest that if you hate groups and I love them that our views will permeate any such activities and have a noticeable effect on the students’ perceptions?


    • From what I have seen Petty distorts Hattie’s results ridiculously, sometimes turning things into their exact opposite. The above sounds like a perfect example.


  32. I notice this blog was quoted to the House of Commons Education Committee by Tom Burkard here: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/main/Player.aspx?meetingId=6670&st=10:19:00



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