If ever there was a need for clarity in education, it is around the issue of setting or streaming according to ability. Whether syphoning bright children off to top sets or to grammar schools, what is actually best for our children? Without a doubt, opinion is split, and research continues.
According to a blog published by the Sutton Trust (founded in 1997 to improve social mobility through education) in 2014, Lee Elliot Major explains that on reviewing the research available on whether to group by ability, the message is nuanced. He says that: “When I had the privilege of meeting Adam Gamoran, one of the leading US academics in this field, this was his view. ‘Given poor instruction, neither heterogeneous nor homogenous grouping can be effective; with excellent instruction, either may succeed.’” In other words, Elliot Major says, perhaps we should follow the Bananarama principle: it’s not what you do, but how you do it that counts.
DIVERSITY IN THE CLASSROOM
What isn’t in doubt is that diversity in ability exists in every group whether mixed ability in name or not. And if, as the Sutton Trust blog highlights, the “damage done to poorer pupils whose progress is stunted by languishing in the bottom sets outweighs the academic gains seen for more able learners flourishing in the top sets”, we clearly have to be extremely careful about ensuring that the best possible progress is made by all despite the nature of the group they are in.
So we cannot move on in our questioning of ability groupings without exploring the need for enrichment activities for all, regardless of ability. And there is little point in exploring enrichment activities unless we are crystal clear about what we are seeking to achieve: faster learning, or deeper learning?
It’s far from the intentions of this blog to presume to tell teachers how to enrich the learning their pupils achieve, but it is worth reminding ourselves about a few core principles of enrichment. Some ideas as food for thought:
– Diversity exists in any group. And it’s possible for children to be disadvantaged by their placement in any group (for example, too much pressure and too fast a pace of learning for some in the top groups and low expectations in the bottom groups). We don’t teach groups, we teach groups of individuals. Enrichment activities would need to keep this in mind.
– Relating learning to life – why is this important to know? – can enrich school life for all. When time permits, offering the opportunity to manipulate learning, to apply it to real life problems, and to practise what is learned, can greatly enrich school experience.
– Think about how you might extend the curriculum for all students, for specific students and for especially talented
– Consider the skills as well as subject knowledge that might be extended.
One of our greatest assets in the classroom will always be the quality of teaching and instruction. Offering teachers high-quality professional learning throughout their careers on how best to stretch all their pupils would be a useful priority, regardless of whatever the current trend – setting, streaming or mixed ability – may be.
FIND OUT MORE
– Teaching matters more than setting blog by Lee Elliot Major
– Adam Gamoran’s article, Synthesis of Research / Is Ability Grouping Equitable, can be found here
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for eTeach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.