Setting versus mixed ability

When I began teaching in 2007 in an outstanding school in Chippenham, I worked with an excellent team – the majority of whom were advocates for mixed ability classes. Deep down inside, this seemed to resonate with me too. I have never liked the idea of capping someone’s ability or putting a label on someone; it goes so much against the idea of growth mindset and is in danger of creating students with self-fulfilling prophecies who have learned helplessness.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that teaching mixed ability groups isn’t always easy; there are legitimate concerns about being able to stretch the most able and at the same time being able to support those who are struggling. However, my dream would be that if students were taught well in mixed ability groups from the very beginning of their school life then these big gaps would be minimalized and we wouldn’t see such gulfs in performance at secondary school. Mind you, even if we did, even if my dream is an unrealistic fallacy, I will still be advocating for mixed ability teaching.

When reading Lucy Crehan’s Cleverlands and listening to her talk in Bath, I was most interested to discover that out of the top twelve performing countries in education (according to PISA), ten of those do not set or stream until the age of 16. It is then at 16, when everyone has the same high level of education, that students can choose to either continue on an academic route or take a more vocational option. In countries like Finland, all students follow the same high quality, academic curriculum with the objective of providing everyone in society with an outstanding the education. The aim is to better society, to create a better educated whole – not just a select academic elite. However, as noted earlier, there are those who will question whether the most able are being stifled. I, too, having recently worked at a school where the greatest impetus was placed on differentiation by task and the understanding that students have different starting points and need different levels of challenge, was concerned that the Finnish model did not allow the most able students to be stretched and advance at a quicker rate. But, the answer to this question when put to those working in the Finnish system was that working at the rate of the slowest student in the group did no harm to the most able. Those who, for whatever reason, were able to grasp new content more quickly were simply able to master it. They had time to fully embed and rehearse the skills and content – instead of moving o to the nex thing. They could also help other students and, in doing so, consolidate their learning even further (something that in my experience there has been a move against; I distinctly remember in some CPD being told not to get more able students to help less able students because the more able students didn’t like it and shouldn’t be used as child teachers – even though I had seen the contrary in many classrooms). 

When completing a one week placement at a primary school in South Wales, as part of my PGCE, I witnessed a sensational Year 6 teacher teach in the ‘Finnish Way’. She was teaching addition (or it may have been multiplication) by 50 and then by 49 and 48, 47 etc but she would not move on until every student had mastered the concept of how to do this most effectively. Some students had grasped it on day one and some were still grappling with it on day 5 – but no student was being left behind in a race to move on to the next thing. O, and they loved math; no one hated the approach. The ones who had grasped it on day one just practised more and more until the ones who hadn’t grasped it originally caught up to them. Yes, there is a question here about whether those who were slower to grasp the concept initially ever get time to master the skill and this is where the gaps begin to creep in – but this blog is an opinion piece and  not a full gone conclusion on how to improve the British education system.

In the vein of not being a full gone conclusion and instead being an opinion piece, I’ll return to some of my own recent experiences. I currently teach two Year 11 groups: a set 2 of 3 and a set 3 of 3. We cover the same content and I do my best to have high expectations about what both groups can achieve; although despite my best intentions, there will sometimes be marked differences in the depth that we go into or the way we cover the content. I try my best not to have prejudices in my teaching but it’s a difficult thing to get away from when the entire institution is set up to rank students in order of their ability (a fixed term). My team and I have tried to move away from any rhetoric including ‘top set’ and ‘bottom set’ or ‘more able’ and ‘low ability’ but in a school where every student is ranked it is impossible and damaging.

To add to this, I shamedly have to confess that when I covered the top set of a colleague in school this year (I don’t teach any top sets) my whole demeanour and the language I used changed. I understand that this shouldn’t be the case but it is (was). And we are a school who believe in high challenge for all. I also teach a group of year 9 students – some with reading ages to the equivalent of eight year olds and yes we did study Great Expactatins this year but I still think it would be much better if I was teaching Great Expectations to these students in a mixed ability set so that those who were LOW PRIOR ATTAINING could learn from those who have benn HIGH ATTAINING (not fixed).

In my opinion, setting leads to capping students’ attainment. It leads to a culture where there is a limit on what some students can achieve. It leads to demotivation and apathy and a feeling by students of low self worth. This cannot be good.

Let’s move away from setting.

In defence of Learning Styles

I am getting increasingly annoyed by those who are definitively declaring that ‘Learning Styles don’t exist’. To me, that’s the same as saying ‘Clothing Styles’ don’t exist or ‘Handwriting Styles’ don’t exist. Of course they do!

A style is merely a choice, a preference. 

I would say that in my own learning, I like to make use of a range of learning styles – particularly visual and auditory. In terms of being a visual learner (dirty word) I believe I have quite a photographic memory (although I’m sure in writing this that someone will choose to declare to me that they don’t exist). I believe I am very fortunate in that I can picture things I’ve looked at in my mind’s eye (yep, probably doesn’t exist either). Amongst other things, I believe I can spell some words because I’ve looked at them in a dictionary and I conjure that image in my mind. So, in many ways I would say that at time I make use of a visual learning style.

In terms of auditory learning. I know it helps me to process information if I can say it out loud. I’m pretty sure that when I studied Psychology (if that still exists) that this has something to do with my phonological loop and auditory processing. Sometimes, I will choose or prefer it if someone told me information – rather than me reading it. Sometimes, I feel that hearing information can help clarify meaning – but apparently this isn’t a learning style; they don’t exist.

And, even though I wouldn’t say I’m very kinaesthetic, surely there are things that we definitely learn better by doing: driving a car, brushing teeth, making a sculpture?

The truth is: learning styles do exist but they are context bound.

No, you won’t necessarily be able to write a better essay on volcanoes if you’ve made one out of newspaper – but you might become a painter if you look at lots of paintings.

The disadvantaged Head of English

I grew up in South Wales in a small town where drugs and suicide thrived.

I am the youngest of five children and, at some point in my school life I would have appeared on a list of ‘disadvantaged children’.

My father was a plumber and worked seven days a week to provide for his family. My mother worked part time as a nursery assistant then care worker.  Despite this, I was classed as coming from a low income family and I vividly remember my laminated FSM card – complete with photograph.

I was fortunate.

Looking back I can confidently say that I had excellent parents. Not perfect parents: my mother is the world’s biggesr stress-head and my father’s hard discipline (of my brothers rather than me) was difficult to justify – but I was loved.

All that being said, I was still disadvantaged. My parents failed the 11plus and went to comprehensive schools. They left said schools at 15 and went to work. They met in their early twenties, got married and raised a family. They did their best to raise four boys and one girl.

I remember fondly all of the stimulation my mother gave me. We painted with potatoes, made pictures with egg shells, pressed leaves under the mattress and picked shells on the beach. We went to the library. We went on holiday. I was very fortunate but I was still disadvantaged.

I was disadvantaged compared to my peers whose parents had more money and more education. I would have started secondary school knowing less words than those who were more advantaged than me. I would have started secondary school knowing less factual knowledge than those who were more advantaged than me. And, those gaps still exist.

I can still, as a Head of English, be confronted by my peers with words I do not recognise. I can still, as a Head of English, have to dodge questions from my superiors because I do not understand the words being used to ask them or, at best, I have to rely on the context to try to figure them out.

But what does all this matter?

It matters because you can still be a success if you are disadvantaged. It matters because even as the Head of English I do not need to know the meaning of every word but just know that I will continue to try to learn and be better. It matters because if you build the right relationship with a disadvantaged child then that child will grow into an adult who is continually striving to achieve. Who knows they will have to work twice as hard to keep up and so will work three times as hard to compete and four times as hard to win. It matters because that child will grow into an adult who will be humble and gracious and not take things for granted. It matters because that child will grow into an adult who acts with integrity and transparency and want the best for all.

Not every disadvantaged student is  the same but every disadvantaged student is a student who is capable of becoming something wonderful.