Tracking or Streaming: ability groups need to disappear whilst learning to differentiate instruction.July 25, 2012 – 1:30 pm
Do you remember the wombat group? (that’s a slow-moving Australian marsupial for my o/s readers) You would if you were in that group in an Australian elementary classroom for they were often the slow or dumb students. You wouldn’t forget either for your name would be listed often on a laminated sheet “proudly” displayed in a classroom for the year. If you weren’t in that group you felt pretty happy about it.
I remember as a student you would walk into a classroom on the first day in the new school year and work out who was the brightest in the class and their group name and who were the “dumbest” which often strongly correlated with their slovenly dress (read poor) and their group. You then knew the sort of work you would get with the brightest often getting to do lots of problem solving and extension stuff for they would finish first.
The most shocking thing to me was I did this as a teacher for the first so many years thinking I was a “good” and organised teacher.
Why shocking you ask? Well, while I was busy organising I was also quietly sorting out, in children’s minds, the expectations and academic pecking order. We perform to expectations with a “he work well all year” on the report card to keep mum and dad happy at Christmas (end of our school year).
The term most commonly used to describe this practice was “ability groupings”. You know that it was years later that I had the ahaa moment when I connected Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and open mindsets to this ability grouping practice that I finally saw the damaged to young learners. When I as a teacher formed the ability groups few if any children left the “wombats” for I think I had associated the belief that ability (read intelligence) doesn’t change (skill level might) as it’s a set level – as determined by the intelligence tests used to psychologists to determine disability.
I know its weird how we make connections sometimes.
Why am I writing about this now?
Well we tried in our senior levels to form flexible groupings across classes for maths and literacy groupings. We used data to form the groupings (that’s the good part) but after 6 – 12 months what changed – few children left the lower skill level group (we didn’t call them the wombat group or have laminated sheets with group names on) – a few left the middle groupings to the top groupings which were large because of achievement data.
We, in good faith believing we could achieve this, perhaps “sold” flexible groupings across classes to parents and those parents of students in top the groups were disappointed when we stopped. I wonder is it the groupings or the learning task that should be flexible to cater for learning development to occur. I now think both – but more of the later (task) and a little of the former (grouping).
The research on this most controversial of subjects is a little mixed. I say controversial for this strategy of ability groupings (if not by name by practice) is still quite common in both American and Australian schools.
I recently got hold of a good article written by Doug and Barbara Clarke titled “Is time up for ability grouping?” published by EQ Australia (have to pay for the article). Late edition I found this article for free at: Curriculum Leadership Journal.
“We believe that ability grouping has a largely negative effect, cognitively and affectively, and its time may be up.”
They however did qualify that statement that what we are asking of teachers:
“that teaching is greatly enhanced in catering for individual needs when the teacher has access to accurate information about what students know and can do, a sound knowledge of typical learning g trajectories, an expanded repertoire of teaching approaches, sufficient time with students to develop trust and supportive relationships, and the flexibility to spend the time with the students who need it most. This is no small ask!”
They did quote Slavin (1990) in their article, who is an acknowledged researcher in this area, and his synthesis of research in the article ‘ Achievement effects of ability groupings in secondary schools: A best evidence syntheses’ (you will have to pay for the article published in Review of Educational Research Journal -60(3), p471-99).
I found an article by Adam Gamoran titled ‘Synthesis of Research / Is Ability Grouping Equitable?’ in Educational Leadership (Journal of ASCD) Oct 1992 Vol 50 No 2 who also quoted Slavin which I got for free. I am a member of ASCD and I do encourage all educators to belong.
Gamoran made similar conclusions to Clarke and Slavin saying that “ability grouping rarely benefits overall achievement but it can contribute to inequality of achievement as students in high groups gain and low group students fall farther behind.”
What we are now trying to do – is still group but not lock students in (flexibility for most is better achieved within classes – except for a very small minority who are well outside range). We are strengthening the instruction for all students with better quality tasks that allow all students to succeed. These tasks and strategies are developed by teams of teachers who set clear learning intentions and success criteria. We are looking at “critical needs” and intervening with appropriate short-term support. Finally we through team planning and teacher observation we are aiming to support teachers cater for all students by learning to differentiate their instruction which is no small feat!.