Ability Grouping and the Fixed Mindset

Here is an excellent scholarly article, a bit longer than some, but well worth the 10 minutes or so to read. It explores the issues of ability grouping so prevalent in British schools and sometimes elsewhere, especially in relation to Maths.

Jo Boaler Professor of Maths Education Stanford University – Ability and Mathematics
(Click on the link above to open the file as a pdf)

The article is very interesting from a number of perspectives. Firstly, it draws on Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset to explain why ability grouping doesn’t work and in fact why it causes poorer performance for lower and average achieving students.

I also found it really interesting when talking about neuro-plasticity and the implications for learning Maths, especially when it comes to how mistakes are treated. I was reminded of a classmate when I was in school. He was a high achiever in Maths and it tended to come quite easily and naturally to him. However, he was so traumatised by the sight of a cross on the page in his exercise book if he got a question wrong that he would carefully remove the page from his book with a knife and reproduce all the sums on the page on a fresh page with the error corrected (and all on the reverse side of the page if necessary). Then, after some time, he even took to asking the teacher to re-mark the work so that it would be seen to have only ticks and no crosses or evidence of failure (in his mind). I’m sure that teacher loved him!

I believe the article has lessons for those teachers practicing differentiation, especially in the ways that it has been encouraged by KHDA in Dubai. Here, vast numbers of schools are not physically segregating the students, but the teachers are confidentially categorizing them in to one of four categories (High, mid, low and SEN). Whilst they stay physically in the same classroom they are given different work, especially in the form of different levels of complexity and challenge in worksheets. We shouldn’t be too surprised that the UK OfSTED (Office of Standards in Education – responsible for UK school inspections) has had a strong influence on KHDA. My suspicion is that most of the time, consciously or unconsciously, the children know what’s going on and understand it as a form of ability segregation – in other words, they’re buying in to a fixed mindset as a point of principle.

So, the three big takeaways for me – we need to create classroom setups where every student can strive to achieve at high levels. Secondly, we need to inculcate a mindset that emphasises rigour, effort, practice and thoughtful experimentation so as to develop the growth mindset in a bigger proportion of the pupils (and teachers). Finally, we need a cultural change with regard to how success and failure are defined and treated in the classroom, especially as regards the handling of mistakes.

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