Why I Am Against Mixed Ability: Part 1November 27, 2015
Last weekend, I spoke at the Debating Education event, at Michaela School, opposing mixed ability teaching. Hopefully the video of the event will appear in the next week or so. The following is a rough summary of what I said (i.e. it’s me going back over my notes and reconstructing my argument but nothing like my exact words). Obviously, it is in no way intended as a research article on mixed ability teaching or a summary of the evidence, just an explanation of my views.
I’ve hated mixed ability teaching since I was 12. As a year 7 student I had the misfortune to be in a mixed ability French class where many of my peers had learnt some French at their primary school. I hadn’t. Worse, these were the days of the “immersion” method of language teaching where the teacher would speak French at us in the hope we pick it up. I couldn’t understand a word of it, while others could. The presence of more able students didn’t allow me to catch up, it just meant that for a year I got further and further behind. The following year we were allowed to do another language; I did Latin, and was amazed to learn it wasn’t that I was terrible at languages, it was simply that I was in a mixed ability French class where I couldn’t learn. I always think of this when people tell me that mixed ability classes are good for the self-esteem of the least able. That nightmare did nothing for my confidence with French, and I gave up the subject at the first opportunity.
As a teacher, I’ve experienced mixed ability classes a number of times, even as a maths teacher. Often, some newly promoted manager declares “we should try something different with year 7” before introducing an experiment with mixed ability, problem-solving, group work in maths. An experiment which is invariably abandoned at the end of the year due to low academic progress. I’ve also had the experience of being told to teach foundation and higher maths simultaneously to a mixed ability year 10 class, and been handed two different curriculums and two different schemes of work, to be taught at the same time to the same class. I’ve also seen what happens when schools keep kids in mixed ability form groups for much of KS3 and they become so used to being together that any teacher is seen as an invader on their territory, and their disruptive behaviour is honed to perfection in the many hours they have together.
Now, of course, these anecdotes of bad mixed ability teaching, could be balanced by examples of bad setting. But I would argue that we tend to find that stories about the failure of ability grouping are actually about failures to ability group enough. I am not going to defend all practices that might be classed as ability grouping, so I will be very careful to make it clear what I am arguing for. I am using “ability” in the usual way, of referring to what somebody can currently do. I am not using it to describe innate ability. I am not claiming it to be fixed and defending setting which does not allow movement. I am only arguing against teaching an unnecessarily wide range of ability. I am not interested in situations where the range of ability is already narrowed, say in a grammar school, or on a university course, or for that matter in a country where the weakest students are held back a year. I am arguing for a narrow range of ability in classes in English secondary schools. Now when you hear complaints about students losing out due to setting, it is, more often than not, about sets where the range wasn’t narrow; where students didn’t get to move, or where some classes were neglected. Where ability grouping fails it is because there was too little, not too much, ability grouping, and this is in contrast to where mixed ability fails, which is usually because of, rather than in spite of, the wider range of ability, and is very often blamed on the teacher.
I prefer a narrow range of ability because it makes the two most important parts of teaching easier and more effective. Firstly, it makes it easier to teach students the knowledge they don’t have, if they start from roughly the same level of prior knowledge. Secondly, it makes it easier to practise knowledge and skills to achieve greater fluency if the levels of fluency the students already have are about the same. Because these two vital parts of teaching are limited by mixed ability, support for mixed ability is usually combined with advocating some pretty ineffective or impractical teaching methods. For instance, using massive amounts of different, personalised worksheets, asking students to learn from each other (rather than the expert in the room) or focussing on skills instead of knowledge.
Continued in Part 2