Mixed Ability Teaching Doesn’t ExistApril 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.