Ability Grouping & SOLO Taxonomy

One of the things I have been doing this year, is being Parent Help in my sons yr2 class. I am rostered in for one of the math lessons each week. This post may come across as being highly critical of my sons teacher which I do not want to be as she seems super competent, experienced and the students love her. Also, I am in a very naive position, only getting small snapshots into this classroom. Having said that, some things just hit you in the face and get you thinking.

So…….. In this class, they use grouping where the teacher will have a small group to work with on the mat while the two other groups are engaged at different activity stations or book work. My job as parent help is to keep the other groups on track and help where I can. I like this set up and do not know why I haven’t adopted it in my own High School Teaching – working with small groups and rotating them around. You kind of do it by going to different groups as a lesson goes on but I like the whole kinaesthetic get up and move around stations thing.

Anyway, it appears that the groups are ability based and this is where I have a problem. The groups are the Circles, Squares and Triangles but these students already now that they are the top, middle and bottom.  I found this out because I went to check on the Triangles (my sons group) and help them get organised. Their task was to play some math games in the Math corner. I saw a game that looked good and challenging for where I know my son is at but none of the kids would touch it. Why? Because it came from the squares box and they were in the bottom group and that was too hard for them. I was amazed at the conviction they had and I could not convince them to break the perceived rule that they could only do stuff from their own box. This totally spun me out to the point I spent the rest of the afternoon researching best practice on ability grouping. I am sure that my sons teacher has the best intentions and has diligently set up differentiated learning activities for students so they can work autonomously but in doing so, she is also embedding a belief, as said by one of the girls, that they are not good enough and that they are the bottom group.

I am particularly sensitive to this as one of the things I have to spend a lot of time on in a high school setting is convincing these students later in life about their potential as learners (remember Success = Effort + Effective Strategies). By this time, they no longer think of themselves as the Triangles but rather the “Cabbage Class” or something similar. I was totally freaked out that these 6yr olds were beginning to self label as not good enough and the risk that they will carry this for the rest their lives.

This is being a valuable lesson for me in my own teaching practice and I welcome any thoughts or reflections upon it. From my own thinking and the couple of hours I have spent online researching, here is what I have found and thought so far:

Research about Ability Grouping

I do not want to do a literature review (If anyone has done one, I would love to read it) but there is lots of research that supports both the negative and positives of ability grouping. From my brief look, I think the opposition side to ability grouping wins.

If you are going to use Ability Grouping…

If you are going to use ability grouping, there is a thing called best practice and this is labour intensive on the teacher (thus I suspect not done or forgotten). The main principle is that groups need to be flexible and constantly changing. For example, it is not good enough for a student to be fixed in a math group for the whole year. The teacher needs to be looking for opportunities to move students – for the fractions unit, addition unit, and so on. Even if this is done for social engineering purposes to stop these kids self labelling themselves as dumb, I am all for it. Also if you are going to create differentiated sets of learning activities, I think, the set for the lowest group still needs to have activities that allow the students to surprise you or have a go at more complex tasks. This aligns with a SOLO framework but more on that later.

Also, I believe, that if you are going to ability group, it is essential that the pathway for success to the top group is visible and understood by the students. This is more than “try harder”, it is about making visible strategies for success and helping students improve and be cognisant of themselves as learners.

SOLO to the rescue

Again and again I am reminded how a SOLO framework attends to best practice and the development of engaged, enthusiastic and positive learners who can see a pathway to success rather than accepting a fixed label for their ability in any given thing. Via simple rubrics (like the ones I have posted on this Blog or from the experts like Pam Hook, Julie Mills and increasingly other teaches around the world) we can empower students to see themselves as learners on a continuum where they can identify their own next steps for improvement rather than grow to believe they have fixed ability and a limited future.

Sorry, a bit full on but this topic really got me thinking. I know I do not have a wide readership and this blog is more about me pontificating and collecting my thoughts than a wiki for growing collective knowledge but if you or your colleges have thoughts or strategies on or around ability grouping, I would love to hear and share them.


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