Are ability groups a form of segregation?
Shortly after I first stepped foot into a classroom, I felt like there was something wrong with grouping my kids by ability. In my mind, ability groups weren’t just counter-intuitive, they felt like a form of segregation.
I’ll explain why. Let’s say in maths, ‘Joe’ is near the top of the class at shape, space and measure but in every other element he is achieving below average.
Under the grouping system, Joe may be put into a low ability group for all of maths.
Consequently, he is suitably challenged in most areas but totally patronised when it comes to shape. This is wrong! Joe didn’t spend his entire early life hearing cries of “Isn’t he just an adorable low ability baby!”
Ability Groups Are Related To Low Confidence
Children are acutely aware that their teacher groups them by ability. They know and ‘feel’ what group they belong to.
I’d bet almost every child from the age of eight knows if they are on the ‘clever table’ or the ‘thick table’. This is despite the cunning table name trickery many teachers deploy in order to mask the reality. Children aren’t that easily hoodwinked.
As a supply teacher, getting to know the class I was teaching was always my first priority. In every school I have taught in, I have seen a pattern between a child’s ability group and their levels of motivation. That is, the higher the ability, the more confidence, resilience and motivation you seem to see.
So, is a child’s lack of confidence, motivation and resilience a result of being put in a low ability group?
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Perhaps most importantly though, is something I have realised more recently.
Ability groupings reinforce a child’s status as a low ability child. By sitting in one group, the low ability children not only suffer a loss in confidence, motivation and resilience, they are almost completely insulated from the higher achievers. We are setting a large proportion of our children up to fail.
Think about it – if a teacher only observes poor practice, he or she won’t progress as fast as they would if they were regularly seeing exciting new ideas and excellent practice. So why are we doing exactly that with our youngsters?
In order to progress, a child has to see progress. To learn to be resilient, a child has to see resilience. In life, we aren’t insulated from success – we regularly stare it in the face.
Something Had To Change
I decided to be the change I wanted to see, so I tried to address the problem in my own practice. Thinking back to one of the lessons I’d observed in university, I remembered I had once seen a lesson in which the children were able to choose the level of difficulty work they thought would challenge them – either Bronze, Silver or Gold. I now understand this differentiation technique as the ‘Chilli Challenge‘.
The atmosphere in the class had been turned on its head. I saw support, communication and, above all, quality, enjoyable learning taking place.
Two friends, who had previously been separated by ability, had helped each other answer the questions. The class had been totally transformed. The next lesson went back to the grouping format. Normality resumed.
My Solution To Ability Groups
I have vowed never to use ability groups again. In my classroom, I use the challenge format every single day. There is no limit to what a child can achieve. A child can excel in one area of a subject, choosing all of the most complex challenges and have no trouble asking for, and receiving, encouragement and support from their teacher and peers.
Children sit in mixed ability pairs for maths and literacy and I teach whole-class guided reading. As for everything else, there are no groups, no seating plans and, most importantly, no limits to what a child can achieve.
Though I never referred to my approach as ‘growth mindset’, it is clear that this approach has positive effects on morale, attainment and confidence.
By adopting the ‘Chilli Challenge’, teachers can hand responsibility for learning to the children and watch them flourish.