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'Ability' groups in maths

Discussion in 'Mathematics' started by nerllybird, Mar 7, 2013.

  1. Apologies if this is repeating a previous post - I've been back several pages and can't find anything similar but do let me know if something exists...
    I dislike maths 'ability' groups, and even, as you can see, the idea that children can be categorised by ability before they've even had a look at a concept.
    Yes, I know that I will have to use such groups if that's what my school does (I'm a student), and yes, I do have an alternative. But what I would like to know is - has anyone done away with 'ability' groups in maths, and how did you find the experience? Or has anyone tried to do away with them and been thwarted by management?
    It happened in a Y4 class I worked with as a TA, and none of the children, even in their mixed groups, wanted to sit where the 'low ability' group had previously sat. It was, apparently, the 'stupid table'. One child's mother even came into school and complained about her daughter having to sit there - mainly because the child hadn't reported the situation accurately, lol.
    Anyway, we were having a discussion today about it and some colleagues couldn't even begin to imagine teaching without grouping the children by 'ability' first. So I'm wondering what the bigger picture is like.
     
  2. Apologies if this is repeating a previous post - I've been back several pages and can't find anything similar but do let me know if something exists...
    I dislike maths 'ability' groups, and even, as you can see, the idea that children can be categorised by ability before they've even had a look at a concept.
    Yes, I know that I will have to use such groups if that's what my school does (I'm a student), and yes, I do have an alternative. But what I would like to know is - has anyone done away with 'ability' groups in maths, and how did you find the experience? Or has anyone tried to do away with them and been thwarted by management?
    It happened in a Y4 class I worked with as a TA, and none of the children, even in their mixed groups, wanted to sit where the 'low ability' group had previously sat. It was, apparently, the 'stupid table'. One child's mother even came into school and complained about her daughter having to sit there - mainly because the child hadn't reported the situation accurately, lol.
    Anyway, we were having a discussion today about it and some colleagues couldn't even begin to imagine teaching without grouping the children by 'ability' first. So I'm wondering what the bigger picture is like.
     
  3. Guish

    Guish New commenter

    My HOD believes that setting is bad because it holds back others who have the potential to improve but get stuck and demotivated in weak groups. My experience tells me that a mixed ability group may work if the ability gap is not too wide in the class. I have witnessed students progressing in such situations. IMHO, a teacher should create an environment where students help each other but expecting students to explain others basic things while the former are being slowed down is not a good thing. Moreover, the teacher is not able to deliver a high level Mathematics lesson that may make the "good" students curious. Finally, it's mixed lesson planning and more differentiation for the teacher. Do we really need that?
     
  4. hammie

    hammie Lead commenter

    most secondary teachers have never taught mixed ability except perhaps in year 7. I trained to teach mixed ability, investigational maths. Many top performing European nations teached mixed ability.
    It could work if you were allowed to teach your own class without interference.
    Certainly the behaviour you see in some "sink" sets in year 8-10 suggests that setting does not work for everyone, or perhaps for many at all.
     
  5. David Getling

    David Getling Lead commenter

    Absolutely right! Teachers who are against setting are sacrificing kids on the altar of their own twisted ideological beliefs.

    Mixed ability betrays kids at both ends of the spectrum. Those in the middle might be OK, but those of low ability will struggle and get left behind, and those of high ability will get frustrated because they are not sufficiently challenged. And this will often lead to disruptive behaviour at both ends, so in fact even those in the middle won't do as well as they might in a setted environment.

    In most things some people are better than others, so it makes sense to try and adjust the pace accordingly. Would the anti-setting brigade put a group of double-diamond and green run skiers together, or train the first 15 together with the kids who barely tip the scales.

    It's frightening how many teachers put politics before common sense.
     
  6. Guish

    Guish New commenter

    Schools have to sell the idea that they are treating all students the same way and are giving students the same chances to succeed. In international schools like mine, it's more flagrant. During the last parental meeting, I had a parent who came in and believed that his son is failing A level Mathematics because he wasn't given the chance to do Additional Mathematics before. The truth was that the student was in core Mathematics and never had the ability and desire to do more. A lot of students also believe that they are failing As Mathematics because they weren't allowed to do Mathematics extended before. Hence, parents are believing that their children aren't given the same chances to succeed. This has resulted in an over-population of students in Additional Mathematics and A level Mathematics now and as usual no one cares when I warn them about the high drop out rate that will occur.

     
  7. frustum

    frustum Star commenter

    The first thing to learn from this is to avoid creating the "stupid table" in the first place. As far as I can tell, the table children sit on in my daughter's classroom (year 2) is dictated by whether they are working with the teacher, the TA or independently, so the actual table will vary from day to day. They seem to be used to finding their books on the tables or following her instructions as to who is to go where.
    They do have named groups for some things (phonics, spellings and reading), but for maths and writing there aren't named groups, which presumably makes it easier to direct children on Tuesday according to how they got on on Monday. In that way, you're not making pre-suppositions about new topics: although you probably have a good idea who will fly with anything new and who will struggle, you can see how the middling ones get on. You should, hopefully, have some indication of strengths and weaknesses so you might know that particular pupils are much stronger on shape than number, or can/cannot tell the time, helping you to decide which task they should do on Monday.
    You can't do away with differentiation, but there are ways of making it responsive when you're grouping within the class. Of course, the children will always work out which tasks are the easiest and the hardest: they know who is brilliant at maths (and useless at football), but to an extent, that's life.
     
  8. hammie

    hammie Lead commenter

    is there evidence that <u>proves</u> this beyond personal tales?
    Some of the top performing Northern European nations teach mixed ability throughout. The expectation is that lower ability pupils work harder to keep up.
     
  9. Guish

    Guish New commenter

    I agree but I'll insist that ability gap shouldn't be too wide.
     
  10. PaulDG

    PaulDG Occasional commenter

    Education doesn't really go in for proper research, but the evidence in the UK is that schools that set get far better results than those that don't.

    Can you see the flaw in that sort of system being applied here?
     
  11. googolplex

    googolplex Occasional commenter

    Two of the highest achieving schools in our county teach various forms of mixed ability, albeit at GCSE by separating out Higher and Foundation students. Do tell us, Paul DG, of your evidence base.
     
  12. PaulDG

    PaulDG Occasional commenter

    Look at the league tables. The Independents that dominate the top couple of hundred places will all be set.

    Why do they have any Foundation students? If "mixed ability" actually works?
     
  13. mature_maths_trainee

    mature_maths_trainee New commenter

    I agree that the research on this is weak.
    But one obvious possible reason why mixed-attainment schools in the UK may not do as well as set classes is because excellent teachers like PaulDG and David G appear to rule out teaching there on principle.
    The question is - and I've not seen anyone with convincing evidence either way - how well would each system do on a level playing field? (i.e. with similar quality teachers, cohorts, etc. etc.).
    I don't see how people can argue one way or the other on such weak evidence. Sure, they're entitled to their view, but it is just a view. :)
    MMT

     
  14. googolplex

    googolplex Occasional commenter

    I know of at least two independents that teach mixed ability. I know of one other which 'sets' but the kids in the bottom set all get A* at GCSE anyway - must be something to do with the fact that they are not working with a comprehensive intake.. How on earth would you set there?! Anyhow, hardly a level playing ground for those of us who teach in real schools. I'd say your evidence base is flawed.
    . Who said that mixed ability teaching negated the need for foundation tier?


    I'm no fan of mixed ability. I organise my department in sets and always will do in some shape or form. However, I simply state the case for mixed ability using the evidence of schools that use it well. It's called being open-minded and willing to learn from good practice elsewhere rather than dogmatically dismissive.
     
  15. Are you saying there's a causal link? Or could there be some other feature(s) of 'top independent' schools that contribute to high results?
     
  16. For what it's worth, nothing I've seen here - except the comments about a big gap between highest and lowest achievers - has changed my mind about 'ability' grouping. There are several reasons for this, including the following:
    1. It impacts heavily on the achievement of those in the lower groups. It's also not good for some children in the higher groups, who are conscious of their status and don't want to lose it. I worked with two 'top' Y6 children who would rather copy, or change their answers, than admit that they didn't understand something.
    2. It makes no sense. How can you decide that a static group of children will fail to grasp one concept after another, before you have even let them have a go at it? By all means give extra help to children who have difficulty, but let the dog see the rabbit before you tell him he can't catch it.
    3. People who say that mixed groups don't work generally haven't tried it.
    4. The reasons given for the efficacy of ability grouping tend to focus on the results of summative assessment. It's all about the school's league table results. Not only that, but claims that 'We changed to ability grouping and it worked' tend to be accompanied by long lists of other changes and interventions which might equally have impacted on the results. I can tell you about two schools which have got rid of ability grouping and it worked. And I've only been looking since yesterday.
    5. How on earth do you organise three different activities within the same class? Only answers that don't include the word 'worksheets' will be considered. I reckon that if all the teachers who torture their maths pupils with worksheets (I'm talking about Primary here, let me remind you!) were made to plan three separate activities which required physical resources and built in time for pupil talk/exploration, they would either give up and go mixed-ability, or at least make damn sure that the groups were properly differentiated (ie based on individual learning targets properly assessed) in order to get the most from the planning.
    6. Gonna stop there. You can see which side of the fence I'm on. However, I really didn't come on here for a row, I genuinely would like to hear from anyone who's done the mixed-ability thing. Sadly, there don't seem to be many responses.
    Thank you, though, for the reasoned replies. I do think it's different in secondary, although it felt dirty telling my son that he would be 'more comfortable' in the middle group when he got moved down...:(

     
  17. The point of mixed ability is not to magically remove all differences between the way in which various children grasp a concept. It is the way in which the teacher responds which is different. That is, instead of deciding that it's too difficult to personalise learning and categorising a whole group of children as no-hopers (the language of 'low ability' is very telling, no matter how it's dressed up), s/he moves around the classroom helping children who need it. And personalised learning also means giving extension activities to anyone who's finished. Not starting off by deciding that this group of children over here are so amazingly clever that s/he can just give them the extension activities right at the beginning.
    I'm not saying it's perfect, of course, but it's certainly a lot more conducive to learning, right across the class. And you would need to be a good teacher to do it properly. Fortunately that doesn't put everyone off.
    Maybe the confusion lies in the idea that a maths lesson can be based on 'doing column subtraction' or similar. What's wrong with having a session on, say, exploring 3D shapes, or tessellation, or creating a project in which children can take on various tasks depending on their learning targets? Maybe, in primary, the problem lies in the lack of specialist knowledge. But then again, specialist maths knowledge often comes in a package with a maths graduate who has no idea about primary maths and the need to explore and make mistakes.

     
  18. frustum

    frustum Star commenter


    I'm
    sorry, but I have to disagree. My daughter is a very able
    mathematician, but very bad at concentrating. Last year, there was very
    little differentiation, and she would quite often be one of the slower
    ones to finish, although the task might be far too easy: I saw this
    happening when I was in as a parent helper. So if there was an extension
    activity to follow (which there wasn't), she would never have reached
    it. If extension activities always come after a core activity, then the
    children who do them will be those who work efficiently, and not
    necessarily those who need them. And actually, the extension activity
    needed to stretch the ablest will be too hard for some of the others who
    complete the core work.
    Indeed, you can have a great session exploring 3D
    shapes in which the differentiation is by outcome rather than by task,
    and mixed-ability grouping is probably good for that. But you will have
    to teach column subtraction at some point.
    A project in which they take on various tasks depending on targets? If they're all going to make progress, this will take rather more planning than three/four-way differentiation. Again, it might be something you can do from time to time, but it will be difficult to move them all on.
    Allow me to disagree again. My training may have been mainly to teach children at level 3 and above, but actually, the skills are very transferable. Secondary pupils also need to explore and make mistakes. Skills need to be broken down carefully and pre-requisites considered. I've been quite struck by how much my secondary experience helps when working with very young children.

     
  19. David Getling

    David Getling Lead commenter

    Been there, done that. I used the MEP texts to help provide differentiation, and, for the very brightest, supplemented this with other texts and materials of my own.

    This is how I know that mixed ability teaching is a really bad idea. Yes, I was able to cater for every student's individual needs. However, if I had been able to split the class into three ability groups I could have done so much more for each group.
     
  20. hammie

    hammie Lead commenter

    all the primary schools that i visit on supply set their maths groups by ability. BUT they all also sit pupils at tables within each class, again by ability.
    So the teacher then differentiates work for each table day by day, and often with individual work too.
    In general the pupils are motivated and well trained, so each table gets at least one day a week of small group teacher input, another day of TA input. They are trained to do follow up work and other tasks independently, working with their partner and group.
    Many of those classes are also mixed age.
    Now if we were to teach mixed ability but with say 5 grouped by ability tables of 6 pupils, then it would certainly be possible to teach Maths to very mixed ability classes with well targeted differentiated work.
     

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