Why do so many people hate mixed ability teaching?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Among academic circles in education and the teaching associations, properly executed mixed ability is very highly regarded, as it is in all the schools in which I have worked (most of whom have never done it) because local schools which did it were so successful and well reputed.

Yet wandering around in cyberspace are a number of people who hate it.

I had to teach mixed ability secondary maths between 2006 and 2008 because I worked in small school heading for closure in particularly unusual circumstances. I was very lucky in that some some highly skilled teachers came out of retirement to teach me how to do it.

It is indeed a very strong way to teach with unexpected benefits both for students' progress with maths and for their personal development into being, in general, more confident, mature people who are more at ease in situations where they don't know exactly what to do or what's going on mathematically.

Personally I'm a yin and a yang kind of person. Given the choice I would put perhaps a couple of terms of mixed ability into year 8 and perhaps a term at the start of year 10 now we're on linear maths GCSE with terminal maths assessment. Naturally I'd make sure the teaching plans and objectives for those terms were very clearly understood and explained to and by all involved.

The question I'm asking today is
"Why is there such a strong will to deny the existence of/discredit those great teachers who were so highly respected and who inspired me?"
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Leonard James's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 05:01

I think it boils down to what you think the purpose of a teacher is.

If you think a teacher should be telling children what they don't know then it is impossible to teach a mixed ability class and one has to either ignore part of the class or resort to setting activities instead of teaching.

However if you think a teacher should be explicitly getting kids to feel good about themselves then I suppose there is some justification for mixed ability teaching.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 21:21

Hmm, I don't know many teachers who think either of those things Leonard.

Most teachers I've met focus on the knowledge and skills students acquire rather than demanding that they acquire them by a teacher explicitly telling them what they are to learn and that being that.

Proper mixed ability teaching uses a wide variety of pedagogical practices which ensure that all students are properly engaged. Points where a teacher stands at the front of a classroom and teachers a specific technique happen only when there is a clear need for that. Generally such teaching is done to groups. Because such points arise in context the teaching is usually much more rapid and efficient so it's easier than it sounds.

A heck of a lot of peer teaching goes on as students are explicitly taught to work on things together and to get as far as they possibly can before asking a teacher. Rich tasks which create differentiation by outcome are more widely used, as are the pedagogical strategies developed within the title of 'the subordination of teaching to learning'.

Students do tend to feel good because they become more confident with their maths and they have more freedom to pursue the bits of maths they feel are right for them - be that areas they feel they need to gap fill or areas they just want to explore - often beyond the core curriculum.

But I do think you've touched on what might be a key point in that some teachers can cope with and actually enjoy situations where students are exploring knowledge with which that teacher may not be familiar while others feel threatened and uncomfortable in this kind of situation. Mixed ability classrooms certainly lie within the first culture.

Leonard James's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 08:23

As I've mentioned before none of the 'pedagogical practices' you mention are exclusive to mixed ability classes unless you are actually advocating that more able children ought to be mixed up with the less able to do your job for you.

Given that teachers main priority is to get children to pass examinations this seems like a toxic mix of bad practice to me and, as ever, you have no third party evidence to back any of this up.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 13:37

Hmm, well I have plenty of evidence from Wyndham because I live in Cumbria and was there at the time. I could dig out the facts and figures given a little time if you think that's important.

It is possible to find further verification. If you're not part of an education network through which you can do that one way is to join the TES forum, watch for people who post that their school is doing mixed ability and then have a one-to-one conversation with them to explore the evidence from their experience.

This book is a classic data based study but it really comes from a different era. It's a great read though: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Experiencing-School-Mathematics-Traditional-Math...

As I've suggested before it's also a good idea to go to good workshops at maths teaching conferences where teachers will talk in detail about the practices they've used and how they've impacted on students results.

Validation is more complex as one you get beyond 'the child is not an empty vessel' or understanding of the psychology of education is so hazy. Hardly surprising when society really has no idea what consciousness is! But if you look at it that way you can't validate any form of learning :-). One of the best attempts to explore the connected 'science' of the subordination of teaching to learning is expressed in this current book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Learn-Should-Taught-Introduction/dp/09568755...
Here's a video of Piers and Roslyn who wrote the book which introduces you to some of the ideas in the book. It's quite interesting as it explores language teaching where learning is subordinated to teaching to the extent that the teacher is nearly mute! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ER6eyQeB69w

Ian Taylor's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 09:33

Rebecca. Would you give the same reading book to someone with a reading age of 16 and someone with a reading age of 7? In a fully Comprehensive School (whole range of ability) this range of reading ages exists in a Year 7 class (children with a chronological age of 11 years). Clearly you would not give the same book to these children. In a mixed ability class you could give the children different books but the class would not be able to discuss things as a class. The teacher could not explain issues to the class as a whole because they would be working on different things. Even within a setted class there is a range of ability which the teacher needs to cater for. Why make it even harder for the teacher?
Mixed ability teaching presents different challenges to different subject teachers. In a year 10 French class it is difficult for advanced speakers to practice their skills in front of students who have very little language skill.
Some teachers do like mixed ability teaching. In my experience teachers of art and PE and drama are happier with mixed ability teaching.
There is probably a good reason why most Comprehensive Schools do not offer mixed ability teaching throughout. I would be interested to hear of any fully Comprehensive Schools which offer mixed abilty teaching throughout the age range and across all subjects. I would be amazed if you can find a single one (apart from ones which have shrunk to a tiny size and have so few pupils that they have to put them into one class).
The reason I am replying at all is because linking the idea of mixed ability teaching to Comprehensive Schools gives the general public the idea that this is what happens in Comprehensive Schools. As far as I am concerned it does not. I am a believer in Comprehensive Schools but spreading this myth about mixed ability teaching undermines their credibility especially Rebecca as you say you are a teacher. I have taught in Comprehensive Schools for 36 years and never have I heard of a school which teaches mixed ability throughout.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 21:31

"Would you give the same reading book to someone with a reading age of 16 and someone with a reading age of 7?"


"In a mixed ability class you could give the children different books but the class would not be able to discuss things as a class."

You don't do that. It's generally not like that.
Occasionally you have students working on different stuff and that's okay some of the time - for example if you chat to half the class and then chat the the other half of the class.

Students quite like earwigging what the other lot are up to and get more from that than you might think. Students in a higher group who have gaps will be listening to the discussion of the lower group to check and sort out their own understanding. Some of the students in the lower group will be tuning into and getting some exposure to the higher level work which is a great thing for them. But like I said it's not like that all the time. Some teaching is based around clear visual structures which all can share and where the stratification of ability is much more chaotic than those who've only taught according to NC levels would expect (which is why the expert committee for the NC review has so strongly recommended their abolition). Other lessons are based around pure or applied topics so particular maths topics are subordinated into pockets. This allows students who fail to follow a particular aspect of the thinking to rapidly rejoin the group discussion.

Leonard James's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 08:29

If you put the two 'lower' ability halves of two classes together and the two 'higher' ability halves together you only need to have two chats instead of four. This seems a much more efficient way of doing things and leaves you with twice the amount of time to discuss problems specific to the higher or lower students.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 11:32

I prefer to focus on the benefits to students than making life easy for myself Leonard. Is that such a bad thing?

You analysis does not fit with the ideal that teaching should be subordinated to learning. Do you believe that the purpose of a lesson is for the teach to be teaching or for the students to be learning? The two approaches to not lead to same behaviour of teachers.

Leonard James's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 11:40

I'm not sure how spending less time with a group of students is of benefit to them Rebecca.

I don't think you can subordinate teaching to learning. See here for more;


Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 11:57

There is a very significant culture of the subordination of teaching to learning among both the academic community of mathematics education and the professional associations Leonard.

The basic idea is that the teacher says less to allow students more space to explore and express their own thoughts and ideas as they are so they can move them on effectively and efficiently.

The idea that the child is an empty vessel waiting to be filled - so more teachign = better teaching was found to be deeply flawed decades ago and people paid more attention to teaching practices which were highly effective.

If you attend ATM conferences or the like you will see a great deal of it being shared through workshops. If you fancy attending one I could look at the list of workshops for you and advise you one which ones will demonstrate the kind of teaching we are discussion here.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 11:58

discussing! not discussion.

Nigel Ford's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 13:30

I can't speak from a teaching perspective but as a student at a minor (all ability) public school I was put into a class of discarded pupils where we were only setted with the rest of the year in English and Maths.

This didn't have ramifications in the humanities subjects, but most of us had to take General Science (rather than separate Sciences) and we all learnt French together. This meant that the CSE failures - seriously - were taught alongside 3/4 of us who were o'level potential.

The teaching was pitched at CSE level which was easier than Common Entrance I took at prep school 2/3 years earlier. Needless to say I only passed French o'level, after an initial failure, when I was learning with a group who were my peer level.

My fervour for comprehensives schools is as strong as any other advocate on this board but I could never defend mixed ability teaching as a basis for choosing it in preference to private schooling, quite the reverse.

Incidentally as an aside I see my unnamed school hit the national headlines this week when one of its teachers (or masters as we used to call them) was sent to prison for an offence under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, although I take no pleasure whatsoever from reading about his downfall

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 21:56

"My fervour for comprehensives schools is as strong as any other advocate on this board but I could never defend mixed ability teaching as a basis for choosing it in preference to private schooling, quite the reverse."

Now the first part of your statement I totally understand. I certainly wouldn't decide on a school for my child based on a statement about mixed ability teaching - I'd want to probe more deeply than that. But you seem to be saying that if you saw a school did mixed ability teaching you would not send your child there. I'm wondering if you're rejecting the reality of mixed ability teaching or a particular perception you have of it that's not real?

To test that let me describe the kind of literature/discussion you might get.

In year 8 students are taught maths in mixed ability classes for two terms during which time they follow a carefully prepared program which draws on the specific strengths of this teaching methodology which include:
- students become much more confident in discussion and exploring mathematics in unfamiliar situations with students who have not had the same teaching they have had.
- students have more freedom to focus on and properly address their personal areas of weakness in mathematics and also to pursue the specific aspects of mathematics which interest them to high levels.
- students become more aware of the core visual structures of mathematics which research shows are particular evidence in teaching in China and other nations which achieve exceptional standards in mathematics.
- students often mature rapidly and become more self-motivated and proactive in their studies of mathematics.

In the summer of year 8 students are prepared for competitive tests in preparation for setted teaching in year 9.

Students return to mixed ability sets for one term at the beginning of of year 10 during which time they study applied projects which are carefully chosen to consolidate the skills they have learnt in year 9. In the light of year 9 results, year 10 observations of student progress, discussion with students and parents and any other evidence provided, most students are then placed in sets to prepared them for GCSE. Some students opt to continue with the applied topics throughout year 10 before switching to GCSE preparation for higher or foundation level in year 11.

Leonard James's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 10:53

Putting students in sets for Years 9 and 11 seems like an argument for setting to me and, again, I don't understand why you think something like 'discussion' is exclusive to mixed ability classes.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 24/12/2011 - 11:47

When students are taught together for a long period of time, Leonard, they tend to develop the same ways of seeing particular maths problems and substantial volumes of shared assumed knowledge and blind spots arise.

They then find the jolt when they step outside that classroom community very substantial and it can really shake their confidence in their ability apply the mathematical skills they have gained in that classroom outside of it. If they don't make that link between the maths they experience in their classroom and that they experience outside of it then they lose a great deal.

When you put together students who've been in different sets, there is a jolt at first as they learn to communicate with each other. Essentially in maths once a student can do something they don't bother to look for other ways of doing it. If you put students together who are seeing and doing things in different way they have to come to understand a wider variety of methadologies (which leads the the exposure of the deeper visual and axiomatic insights you see in the studies of China and Japan). Once they've got over that initial jolt, which of course they do in a secure classroom environment they become much, much more confident in expressing their own ideas and expecting to understand those of others.

There are, of course, many well established arguments for setting. I'm not denying that at all.

Leonard James's picture
Mon, 26/12/2011 - 09:50

Look i'm happy to debate the science with you as long we accept that science is not the only thing to consider here - there is the practicality of a lot of what you are suggesting here. For example I'm happy to consider the possibilty than learning can happen through group work rather than interaction with an expert - the problem we have in schools is that children are often unable or unwilling to work productively in a group.

Leonard James's picture
Mon, 26/12/2011 - 09:56

Given the current priorities in education is getting students to do the same thing several different ways more important than getting it right and moving onto the bits they can't get right using any method?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 08/01/2012 - 00:18

It depends how it's done Leonard. If 'getting to students to do the same thing several different ways' is interpreted as teaching them lots of disconnected abstracted methods for the same technique then no, it's not worth doing.

But if it's done in a way whereby the discussion of different methods is crafted to ensure that students become aware of and confidently able to describe and use the primitive structures or root axioms which underpin those methods then it very much is worth doing.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 26/01/2012 - 20:59

Just came across this article from Gove's DFE
and still wonders why it seems to be a fad of free schools to actively promote extreme setting.

Clearly it's a case of policy being to give the parents with little knowledge about education what they initially think they want rather than to follow best practice and spend time listening to fears and countering them with evidence and experience.

That is the purpose of free schools isn't it?

Ray's picture
Sun, 29/05/2016 - 05:46

Because most people are smart enough to recognize Marxism masquerading as a teaching philosophy.

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