Sunday, 12 June 2016

Throwing out the baby with the bath water.....

Last year I had the opportunity of taking part in some maths professional development around the use of rich tasks and mixed ability groups to get students thinking, communicating, questioning and working through maths problems that required persistence and a contextual application of maths concepts/skills/knowledge.

I was excited. I took my new learning back to my classroom and we gave it a go. Most of the kids loved it and I certainly loved it. The facilitator had given us lots of structure to work with so we knew how to run a problem solving lesson effectively, making use of independent thought and group collaboration. I was free to roam the room and observe the children. I wasn't stuck working with one ability group  and telling the rest of the kids to 'go away' (politely) as I was busy with a group. I was amazed at how some of my better mathematicians struggled and yet some of my 'lower' students flourished.

It wasn't long after this that I left teaching. I do remember that planning for these problem solving/rich tasks took a lot of time, if I wanted to do it effectively that is. I also remember wondering how I was going to divide my time between mixed ability grouping and rich tasks with my usual ability groups.

It seems things have progressed since then...and I'm not 100% sure I like what I'm hearing. Granted, I'm only hearing about some of the changes and I haven't seen any in action.

No groups? No 'ability' groups?? Instead, from what I'm hearing 'clinics' are run based on needs identified from rich learning tasks. So....what if you know your students well from observations, diagnostic testing and other classwork and you know where some of their needs or gaps are...shouldn't you also be running groups based on those needs instead of waiting for those things to show themselves in a rich task setting? What is wrong with having both?

I believe that this new way of thinking is based on research that claims that ability grouping limits children and that low achieving children may remain low achieving partly because of the group they were put in. Really?

I did a quick bit of internet research myself and according to Jo Boaler, kids who were grouped in mixed ability groups did better than those in ability groups. However, this research as far as I can tell was with 700 teenagers in the US. How well does that research transpose to a NZ system with fluid groupings and a primary school environment?

I started to this partly where the argument against ability groups is coming from? From an American perspective and system which is entirely different to ours?
So, my questions is .....why? Why do we seem to be on a track towards removing ability groups and instead running 'clinics' based on rich task activities?

For most teachers in New Zealand these days, our groups are so fluid and flexible it's hardly worth writing children's names up in groups anywhere anyway. What a wonderful thing for students to see....that they are all moving groups all the time based on their needs and their progress. If we want to develop a growth mindset in students then surely showing them fluid grouping and the opportunity of changing groups based on progress is one way to do that?

I am already hearing that when teachers run 'clinics' (not a huge fan of that term either to be honest) some students are attending a lot of we really think they don't 'get' that they're needing extra help? Isn't that the same messaging as having them in an ability group in many ways?

Where are the rich tasks coming from? Figure it out and NZ Maths do have some fantastic problem solving tasks but it seems to me that there are either not enough of them or they are not structured with enough support for the teacher....if rich tasks really are going to become the bread and butter of an effective maths programme then surely we need robust resources out there with the key concepts behind a rich task clearly outlined. Possible misconceptions and potential student responses should also be included so that teachers are aware of what to look for. I wonder whether this is being taught at the teaching training's quite a talent to be able to pick up on gaps/skills levels/understanding within a mixed ability group and with a rich task as the context.

I love the idea of using rich tasks and mixed ability groups but I'm not so sold on the idea of throwing out ability grouping as we know it.. I always think it's important to question new ideas and play a bit of devil's my last blog and podcast education we can tend to cling a little bit too tightly to new ideas and lose sight of the bigger picture. Maybe I just need convincing and there may be schools and teachers out there that feel they have things nailed. At this point my feeling is that there's a place for both kinds of grouping and by grasping too tightly onto a new idea we just may throw the baby out with the bath water.


  1. I'm currently on this journey, so it's very topical. I began the year without maths groups to help address maths anxiety in students. I use rich, often hands on, projects or open problems that challenge all students. I have no desire to go back to ability grouping, but wonder how I could have a targeted approach to known gaps in student's knowledge. Workshops seems to have one approach. I've noticed that students I would have boxed in the low group based on data have surged a head to being above average. "Fluid" Ability groups are rare. The group you start in, is the group you'll stay in (bar 3 or 4 kids).

    1. Thanks Aaron. I have to disagree regarding the fluidity of groupings these days - although that's only based on the experience of myself and my colleagues. At primary level, the basics and particularly foundational knowledge is essential...problem solving and strategic work requires knowledge. Where students have gaps in their understanding of e.g. place value or number order these would be perfect opportunities for workshops (a way nicer term than clinics)...these would essentially be ability groups...but temporary and based on a targeted need (the best kind of ability grouping). I love how rich tasks and problem solving allows for students who would usually be considered 'behind' to shine and have that feeling of triumph and motivation. I love the discussion and communication that arises. I am more questioning the wisdom of leaving 'clinics' up to to whether particular gaps (especially basic knowledge) will arise when you could just as easily plan for and provide workshops (or temporary ability groups) to meet those needs deliberately.