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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Ability Grouping or Mixed Grouping: A Point of Contention?

By Peter DeWitt — March 06, 2016 4 min read
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Want to strike a nerve? Start writing about whether ability grouping works or not.

In her recent guest post, Shirley Clarke wrote about how, in many cases, ability grouping doesn’t work. Clarke began by quoting the research of John Hattie, where he found that the effect size of ability grouping was a .12 which is far below the hinge point of .40. The hinge point means that students are making a year’s growth with a year’s input.

Shirley then wrote, “The PISA studies (2012) in which countries are compared: ‘These studies have repeatedly found that the more schools group by ability, the lower the pupil performance overall.” Overall was the key word.

Clarke went on to write about comparisons between countries because she is from the UK and works all over the world. However, she then focused on the US because a good percentage of the readers of this blog are from the US.

Clarke quoted the Teaching Gap when she wrote,

One of the key differences was that US teachers see mixed ability as a problem, whereas far-eastern teachers see mixed ability as a gift. Individual differences are seen as beneficial for the class because they produce a range of ideas, methods and solutions that provide the material for pupils' discussion and reflection.

One of the reasons why Shirley Clarke referred to the focus on ability grouping versus mixed ability grouping is that there has been a lot of research, presentations, articles and blogs focusing on the fixed mindset versus the growth mindset, which Hattie has shown to have a .19 effect size. The growth mindset vs. fixed mindset is well below the hinge point (read more about the growth vs. fixed mindset here).

The issue with ability grouping is that that type of grouping can help further a fixed mindset in students at the same time that teachers and leaders are talking about how they promote a growth mindset in their schools.

On the blog, many people chimed in with comments. For example, Malroux commented by writing,

It is worth mentioning: If we are going to take Hattie's analysis at face value as Clarke does, then it is important to note that he does not say that all ability grouping is ineffectual. Specifically, he finds a 0.30 effect size for ability grouping gifted students. And as Carolyn K mentions, he finds a huge effect size (0.88) for acceleration."

In her defense, Clarke was referring to the dangers of ability grouping because it can set up a self-fulfilling prophecy where students who are in the “low” group will be made to feel as if they are in fact low, which will affect their subsequent achievement.

Additionally, very often students will enter one group and have to stay with that group for the entire year, or perhaps a lot longer than they should. Much to the point of Malroux, there is not much flexibility in ability grouping. And as much as Hattie has research showing the benefits of acceleration, many students who are ability grouped do not feel the benefits because they are not allowed to accelerate.

I believe that Hattie’s research can provide a cautionary tale. We have to be careful not to set up a dynamic where students enter one group and are doomed to stay there merely because that’s the group they start out with in the beginning.

Additionally, many of the comments were geared toward gifted students, which Clarke did not specifically write about in the blog. Even one commenter remarked about how a majority of blogs that focus on ability grouping are geared toward struggling learners, which is something to think about as I move forward bringing guest bloggers in to write for Finding Common Ground.

Our Mindframe
As a Visible Learning trainer working with Hattie, one of the areas we explore are his Mindframes, for which he has 10 of them (which you can read about here). In the Mindframes Hattie refers to “I engage in dialogue and not monologue” which is why I appreciate the comments on this particular blog by Clarke, because they help deepen the learning of readers.

Which brings me to mixed ability grouping...

Although there is a great deal of research that suggests it has enormous benefits, there is often a danger to mixed grouping as well. For example, I recently visited a few combination classrooms that brought together first and second grade students, which in theory is mixed ability. In many of the classrooms that I visited I noticed that all of the students were engaged in (which I use the term lightly) pasting the days of the week on a sheet of paper.

When I spoke to one of the 2nd graders to ask if this was difficult for her, she responded by stating, “No. I’m in second grade. I learned this last year.” And yet, she had to do the same mundane activity that her first and second grade peers were doing. Is this really mixed ability grouping? Yes. But is it mixed ability grouping that is actually challenging all students? No, it’s not.

For mixed ability grouping to work, we should engage in what Clarke wrote about in Part 1 of the 2 part blog series, which is random talk partners. Many readers went to part two without reading part one, which may have helped clarify any concern.

In the End
Perhaps the issue is not always what we say we are doing to foster students learning, but rather take a closer look at what we are actually doing? For some teachers ability grouping is working, or at least they say it is. My suggestion is to prove it. Provide the evidence to show that students are making at least a year’s growth in a year’s time, and that they are actually engaged in learning that they want to get back to each and every day. Prove that they are not being held from learning ever more than they could because they are in an ability group that may stifle learning.

Provide evidence that ability grouping fosters the growth mindset that we so often talk about.

The same can be said for mixed ability grouping. Are we accelerating students through learning based on their own understanding, or are we merely creating a fixed situation even though the students are mixed? Do we have a 1-2 combination where we are making all of the students do the same thing?

As a former school leader I am less concerned by which method teachers are using, and more concerned with the evidence they have to prove that it’s working. If students are being challenged academically at the same time they are being supported socially-emotionally, then I would be happy with either method. The name alone doesn’t mean that we are doing what we think we are doing, which is why Hattie’s research, and diving down as deeply as you can with it, is so vitally important.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.