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'Ability' groups in maths

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

  1. Sorry, I should have split these up and replied to each one individually, but I'm not entirely sure how to do it....a little help, anyone? [​IMG]
    I take your point about your daughter's situation, but you're still talking about a 'task' that has to be completed. If everyone has the same activities to do, and they are well designed, then each child - or group - can work at a different pace if necessary. What you're talking about sounds suspiciously like a worksheet-type activity where you start at (a) and finish when you get to (b). And the fact that your daughter isn't 'finishing' makes me wonder if she's working alone. If not, what are the rest of her group doing? Why aren't they involving her; insisting that she pulls her weight? In any case, you've admitted that there was very little differentiation - this is the problem, not the lack of ability grouping.
    As far as teaching formal algorithms is concerned - yes, I've covered a lesson where we ended up doing nothing but column subtraction, because there was a problem with the planned activity and I felt the children needed practice at it. But I didn't put them into ability groups to do it! They sat right where they were, and I moved around the classroom and helped them. Or children who could do it went and helped those who were having difficulty.
    I don't quite see your point about the project thing (sorry, brain has run out of suitable nouns...). Yes, it takes planning. But that's part of it. The children generate an idea, the teacher skilfully incorporates learning objectives, and over time the whole thing comes together. So if you've decided to make badges for Red Nose Day, for example, there will be quantities to work out - number of badges to make, amount of materials required, cost of materials, time taken to produce them. If that's not enough you add in something else - a cake sale is a cliche, i know, but it does the trick. It doesn't even have to be something that really happens - but it's based on reality, which is more than can be said for most 'real-life' problems in textbooks, or even the ones about floor tiles and garden fences that teachers dream up.
    Surely it's not beyond the capabilities of a good teacher to work out how various children in the class can meet their targets by taking part in activities which involve measuring, or multiplication, or shape, or estimating, or angles, or anything else to do with the sort of maths that does in fact take place every day in the real world.
    Knowing where each child is and planning for them to learn effectively is differentiation. Shoving them into groups and giving them second-rate activities to make it easier for Teacher is exclusion. I'm regularly surprised at teachers who stay at the front of the classroom and don't ever go and look at what the children are doing; I suppose that if you've already decided what they're capable of, and given them worksheets to match those prejudices, there's no need to shift your bum and listen to their thoughts. Or even expect them to have thoughts! [​IMG]
  2. Thank you for that. If you've tried and and didn't like it then you have every right to never try it again! However, I am going to stick to my assertion that you cannot possibly say with certainty that a given, unchanging group of children, will in every single case have difficulty with new maths concepts. Unfortunately, the minute you tell them they are low ability (by your actions, because children pick up on these things in a nanosecond), you have removed much of their confidence and made them firmly believe that they will have difficulty with everything you try to teach them from now on. You have, in fact, created low ability in those children.
    If you had said that you wanted to split the children into three groups after you saw how they got on with a new concept, I would say that you had a good point. Or was that what you were saying?

  3. Karvol

    Karvol Occasional commenter

    Let's not get carried away here. There are a number of assumptions you are making here which need challenging.
    First of all, who on earth tells children that they are either high ability or low ability? I cannot ever recall a teacher telling any child that they were of low ability in nearly two decades of teaching. This idea of ability is used by children themselves as a way of assessing relative ability or achievement. If you think that children do not compare test scores, then you are unfortunately mistaken.
    As for mixed ability teaching in a single classroom. Having different tables in a classroom assigned to children with differing levels of attainment is setting by ability in all but name. Changing the physical parameters of a classroom does not change the reality of what is happening. It is still setting by stealth. The groups just happen to be smaller, more fluid and arranged on the subjective decision of the teacher, but it is still setting.
    No you haven't. This is just sensationalism. Low ability is neither created nor destroyed because, in any meaningful way, there is no such thing as low ability. There are certainly issues to do with achievement in mathematics and there are issues to do with the speed at which new material or topics are understood, but low ability is a relative concept and like most relative concepts is an artificial construct.
    This idea that ability or attainment is linked to genetics and is therefore nothing one can do anything about is probably one of the most damaging in mathematics (and most other subjects). Attainment is largely governed by a combination of aptitude for a subject and the amount of effort put into working at that subject, and the amount of effort a child is willing to make - to do the hard graft that goes into learning a subject properly - will top aptitude the overwhelming majority of time and certainly at the KS4 level and below.

  4. Karvol

    Karvol Occasional commenter

    Is this really mixed ability
    teaching? I would say that this is setted teaching with 6 small sets
    within a single physical location, and the teacher is teaching 6 sets at
    the same time.
    This idea that setting is done purely on the basis of attainment is surely wrong? None of the schools that I have taught in ever setted only in that manner. Of course there is an element of attainment in all subjective placings such as setting, but there is a much greater emphasis on what an individual teacher feels is appropriate for the needs of a child.
    In my department, while all decisions on which child is placed in which set is ultimately mine, the actual dynamics of setting are generally the decision of an individual teacher. Setting is very fluid - we tend to move children as and when we deem it appropriate. It may very well be that a child is moved to a faster paced set because the teacher feels that they could achieve more either because they will respond to the challenge or because the teacher feels that they are in a slower paced set because they wish to coast. We sometimes move children because we feel that they would be more comfortable working towards the upper end of a slower paced set than at the lower end of a faster paced set.
    We also talk to the children involved and ask them what they would prefer (although we do not necessarily go along with what they want) and we find that in probably 75% of the cases, the children suggest what we were thinking.
    At the end of the day we all want the same thing. That the children in our classrooms work to the best of their ability, are happy, inquisitive and leave the classroom with a love and appreciation of the beauty and usefulness of mathematics. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Whether that means setting or mixed ability teaching, it is important not to forget about the desired result.
  5. Our faculty were reading about mixed ability teaching and we decided to give it a try. It's three years on now and three of our year groups have a two-week, mixed ability project once a term. However, with respect to Nerllybird, I think a good strategy during your training is to jot down your ideas and dreams but not say anything at all judgemental out loud. Assisting and observing lessons, even leading groups or teaching on placement is not like the pressure or responsibility you will feel as a teacher.
  6. Guish

    Guish New commenter

    Work ethics, determination and discipline are very infleuential factors. Students who underachieve are usually the ones who don't want to put in the effort required. I've seen a lot of students working badly because of bad behaviour. Some students get some topics quicker than others while they'll take time to understand other topics. However, each one of them should put in the extra effort when needed. It's all about practice and reflective learning. Students should be thinking about what they are doing. Students who just practise to get the right answer is another matter.

  7. mature_maths_trainee

    mature_maths_trainee New commenter

    So...if we want to increase attainment, what should we do? Learn to teach even better (pedagogy). That's what teachers have been trying to do for 20++ years, and although everyone's improved, what positive, measurable difference has it really made to student achievement?
    Perhaps we're focussing on the wrong thing. Perhaps we don't all need to spend ages getting just a tiny fraction of a percent better teachers. Perhaps we need generic (non-Maths-specific) intervention strategies that improve student work ethics, determination and discipline (Guish's critical factors) and, ultimately, 'amount of effort' (Karvol's).
    Where are the carefully-designed intervention programmes that directly address that? Where's the realisation that that's even the problem? 'Learning To Learn' isn't quite it, but was along the right lines?

  8. Having tried both, for secondary schools I can honestly state that until year 9 it might work, with a proper foundation of numeracy skills created at primary.
    But, the very abstract nature of algebra skills (when done properly) are not something that a lower ability pupil will ever hope to understand. Algebraic manipulation at the higher level requires the firmest foundations in understanding of numeracy skills, alongside a quickness of mind to work at the required pace. By which I mean, if you are still having to consider how to add or subtract fractions and use directed numbers, how are you ever going to get to a stage of dealing with algebraic fractions where the skills required are intimately tied into clearly formulated methods.
  9. Unless your school is like mine: problems with work ethic, determination and discipline are ALL the fault of teachers. If your teaching is better you will have no discipline issues. Pupils will be interested enough to work hard and thus become more determined.
    Ignore the fact that a pupil (or potentially several in a class) might arrive hungry, tired or bombarded by other issues. Your teaching is meant to be the only factor in their desire to work...
  10. Guish

    Guish New commenter

    Ignoring the reality is an old management trick.

  11. just out of interest, where did you train?
  12. hammie

    hammie Lead commenter

    The Maths centre at Bognor and Chichester, part of Southampton University.
    Its been interesting ever since to see how much the lecturers appeared on such things as Teachers' TV and educational vidoes.
  13. Karvol

    Karvol Occasional commenter

    No, I understood perfectly well what you said. I just don't think you have much of an idea of what you are talking about.
    At this moment in time you are in teacher training, so you have not really even taught your own class. You teach at the primary level so you have little idea of any mathematics teaching beyond that level. So, where exactly is all your experience for a "coherent" argument coming from? Out of a textbook written by people who have not been in a classroom for years?
    Unlike yourself I have taught in schools that practised setting and schools that practised mixed-ability teaching, the latter for six years. Again, unlike yourself, I have followed the consequences of both types of teaching through a number of years. Both have their relative strengths and weaknesses but only one of them allows students to truly excel. One just panders to the common denominator.
    Like most PGCE students, you feel that you can reinvent the wheel in a much more efficient manner than the one already around and that you can get much more out of it. That is fine, it is the nature of PGCE students to have that zeal about them.
    As another poster advised, it is good to have ideas and thoughts. I would go further and suggest that you mention them at any interview you get called to. Hopefully you may even find a school that agrees with you.
  14. Actually, I have been in a school that practised setting, for six years. And you will say that I wasn't a teacher, and you would be right. Have you been a TA? If so, you will know that you can get a better idea of what is going on at certain points during lessons, if you have the luxury of working with a smaller group, rather than trying to manage a whole class. And what I have seen is how those children in the 'low ability' group feel. That, alone, is enough to put me off ability grouping. It is nothing to do with textbooks. You are making assumptions again, yet that is what you accused me of doing.
    I happen to think that it is possible to differentiate in ways that do not involve pre-judging attainment, which is a ridiculous notion but one which is intrinsic to ability grouping. I have a method for a large classroom and a method for a small classroom. And given the chance I would make either of them work.
    As it happens, the last post I applied for was in a school where I was able to have quite a long conversation with the head teacher about genuine mixed-ability maths classes. Because this is what is practised in that school. I am not, however, so wet behind the ears that I would rant about it in a school where it wasn't the practice.
  15. Thanks, I've only just read this. A big part of the problem, I think, is that children are set for maths far too young. I'm really focusing on the idea of having separate tables within a classroom rather than having a cohort split into two or three streams - that particular practice seems a little gentler than the former.
    Are you saying that, if a year group is split into three streams, that an entire stream would stick to a lower level of algebra? That doesn't seem unreasonable to me, and certainly I think that the older children get, the more some of them are likely to specialise in maths whilst others have less enthusiasm and curiosity about it. If they all have the basic skills then I'm not sure there's a lot of point in trying to arouse said curiosity.
    I have these strong opinions about ability grouping because I think we condemn children to low expectations far too soon in life. And then when they get to secondary school their maths teachers complain about how there is no maths specialism in primary school. I don't know what the answer is.....you'll be pleased to hear [​IMG]

  16. I am the only Maths teacher at my school, which is relatively new and has students in the secondary school in Years 7 to 9. We set in Year 9 and I teach mixed ability classes in Years 7 and 8. All I can say is that I cannot wait for the school to grow and we can stream from Years 7 onwards. For me, mixed ability teaching lets down the top and bottom ends and although I do my best to provide support/extension materials, it is very difficult.
  17. googolplex

    googolplex Occasional commenter

    Mixed ability teaching only lets people down when teachers try and teach everyone the same thing. If you effectively stream the students within the group, and teach them completely different things there is no reason for letting anyone down. In fact, this sort of approach could be beneficial in that you have greater flexibility in terms of moving kids across streams as and when they are ready to cope. Anyone who tries to teach mixed ability groups by giving them all the same diet is asking for trouble.
    My reasons for <u>not</u> using mixed ability grouping are, amongst many other things, that the above depends on a very carefully structured curriculum with easy access to the variety of resources required, not to mention independent, highly motivated students. Planning is of the essence, or an effective mixed ability teacher's working day will be a very long one...
  18. Guish

    Guish New commenter

    Add to this list a competent HOD and headmaster who understand what's going on in the class. The support of parents is crucial also. The teacher has to be very experienced and knowledgeable as well. Finally, behaviour issues should not affect lessons.

  19. Karvol

    Karvol Occasional commenter

    Just out of curiousity, how is that "coherent" thinking coming along for you?

  20. Karvol

    Karvol Occasional commenter

    No, they weren't particularly common when I started teaching.
    As someone who has rarely worked - other than when I did my PGCE - in any school with class sizes above 15 or so, and with an average now of below 10, it isn't particularly relevant.
    It would be an extremely rare TA who knew more about what was going on in the classroom than the teacher. Or a pretty poor teacher.
    See my previous post about coherent thinking.


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