Mixed ability teaching and challenging fixed ability thinking

January 5, 2015 — Leave a comment

There has recently been a debate on twitter about mixed ability teaching – see for example Emma Ann Hardy’s blog.

Forum is a journal that has been campaigning against fixed ability practices in schools for over 50 years.  The journal is published three times a year.  It is published by a small independent publisher and unfortunately we cannot make the journal completely open access.  All articles more than three years old are openly available (and now the whole back catalogue of the journal is available online).

The journal has carried countless articles, by teachers and academics, in support of ‘mixed ability’ teaching – but as a contribution to the debate on twitter, here are some recent ones.  Three of them relate to mathematics teaching – the area that many argue is the most problematic as far as mixed ability teaching is concerned.

Streaming and Setting in UK Primary Schools: evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study

Susan Hallam

This article provides a brief historical perspective on structured ability grouping, a summary of recent research on streaming and setting amongst seven-year-olds from the Millennium Cohort Study, and considers some of the implications of what appears to be an increase in structured ability grouping in the primary school.

Susan’s article downloadable here – 11_Hallam_FORUM_54_1_web

The Blue Table Means You Don’t Have a Clue’: the persistence of fixed-ability thinking and practices in primary mathematics in English schools

Rachel Marks

The use of structured ability grouping is increasing in English primary schools and is regularly seen in primary mathematics classrooms. Ability is a normalised discourse with beliefs that some individuals are ‘born to do maths’ permeating society and infiltrating school practices. In this article, observation and interview data illustrate the persistence of fixed-ability thinking, even in situations where explicit ability-grouping practices are not used. The data analysis suggests a mismatch between mixed-ability practices and fixed-ability thinking, and the article argues that change will be difficult.

Rachel’s article downloadable here – 4_Marks_FORUM_55_1_web

The Dinosaur in the Classroom: what we stand to lose through ability-grouping in the primary school

Rachel Marks

Embedding setting (subject-based ability-grouping) into the primary school environment creates structural conflict – physically and culturally – fundamentally changing the nature of primary schools through the imposition of secondary practices and cultures and the loss of pastoral care. This article examines the hidden implications for teachers and pupils of taking on secondary school roles within the primary school context. It highlights the wide-ranging, yet nuanced impacts of the use of setting, examining the shift towards subject-based thinking and the erosion of the pastoral-centred holistic ethos of primary education.

Rachel’s article downloadable here – 7_Marks_FORUM_56_1_web

The ‘Psychological Prisons’ from which They Never Escaped: the role of ability grouping in reproducing social class inequalities

Jo Boaler

In stark contrast to the recommendations of the current White Paper, Jo Boaler’s recent research suggests that the radical progressive state school commitment to mixed ability teaching has, in the case of this landmark study, led to better results and better life-chances than its more traditional counterpart whose ability grouping practices created, in the words of one ex-pupil, ‘psychological prisons’ that ‘break ambition’ and ‘almost formally label kids as stupid’. If ability grouping reproduces social class inequalities any political party that really cares about social justice must look again at the norms of ability segregation that blights so much of contemporary practice. In their stead we need equitable and effective grouping polices that promote high achievement for all.

Jo Boaler’s article downloadable here – 9_Boaler_FORUM_47_2-3_web


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