Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Gifted Students and Ability Grouping

It is interesting that, within a week of #edchatie and #gtie both discussing mixed ability/streaming/setting on twitter, this article by Dr Emer Smyth of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) appears in the Independent. 

"Some second-level schools use streaming, placing pupils in particular classes on the basis of entry tests. Thus some pupils are taught in lower ability classes, not only for English and maths but also for metalwork, physical education and religious education." 

In my experience, most Irish schools engage in setting, not streaming. Streaming, whereby a student is placed into a high or low ability stream for all subjects does not make sense to me. It does not allow for the very many students who are much better at some subjects than others. Setting for individual subjects such as maths and Irish/English makes perfect sense as I cannot imagine how a teacher could adequately teach both higher and lower level in the one class when the course work is different, never mind having to deal with the wide range of student abilities. 

But now to the bee in my bonnet:

"Contrary to popular perceptions, there is no benefit to those placed in higher ability classes; their results are similar to their peers in mixed classes."

Everything I have read suggests that high ability students do better in high ability groups than mixed ability groups. I fully accept the drawbacks for lower ability students, but I am not convinced that the negative impact is entirely due to the grouping itself. It seems to be at least partly related to the expectations, the behaviours and the teaching. However, that's another issue.  In this article, Dr Emer Smyth refers to a "ceiling on potential achievement" being set in lower ability classes. Could a similar ceiling effect not also be part of the reason  that high ability students in high ability streams do no better than their peers in mixed ability classes? 

International expert, Dr Deborah Ruf has just written published School is Not Real Life, Part 3 in which she says:

"Most people think that teachers teach to the average. Well, no, they don't. They can't! If they taught to the average, too many of the slower learners simply wouldn't catch on to most of what was happening in the classroom. Teachers teach to the top of the bottom third once they know their class. This way, they reach the slower learners fairly well and the majority of the kids in the middle get lots of encouragement and opportunity to manage their time, learn study skills, and how to handle a certain amount of intellectual struggle and feel success when they finally "get it." The sad truth, though, is that the brightest students end up spending a lot of time waiting for something new to happen. Depending on a number of other factors, like whether they are male or female and their personality profiles, they learn a lot that ends up not being helpful to real life. They learn that if you are smart, you don't need to study or work hard. They learn that their parents and teachers don't know what they are talking about if they think this assignment matters. They learn that they are smarter than everyone else in the class and are in for a shock when they actually do get out into the real world."

Why is equality of achievement the holy grail of education? What about equality of challenge? Are we closing the achievement gap by holding the most able back? In what other area are we so focused on equality of achievement? We are happy to promote and celebrate the pursuit of excellence in sport and music, for example. Why not also in learning? Why is the education system in Ireland now heading down the same standardised testing route as the US with its No Child Left Behind policy? It has now become known as the No Child Gets Ahead Act and, to my mind this is not fair or equitable either.

Here is the transcript for #gtie chat on setting/streaming and mixed ability.
Here is the transcript for #edchatie on setting/streaming and mixed ability.

Glad to have that off my chest. Off to make dinner now!

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't agree more with last paragraph. My very bright 3-year-old is in huge danger of switching off. Homework done in half an hour. It's very hard to teach him that real achievement does not come easily, no matter how bright you are. A couple of very dedicated teachers in primary made sure he was stretched, but I'm very afraid this will be lost in secondary. He could learn so much more than he's currently learning. Whatever it is, it's not education.