Mix It Up

by Stacey

Separating students into groups based on ability may actually impede learning, according to a new study from the University of Sussex in England. Researchers followed 700 American teenagers for four years and found that children in mixed ability mathematics classes outperformed those grouped by ability, according to this press release issued by the university.

Students in mixed ability classes also were better behaved than those who were grouped by ability. “Children who are put into low sets in school quickly learn to view themselves as unsuccessful and develop anti-school values that lead into general anti-social behaviour,” said Jo Boaler, the lead researcher and a professor of education at Sussex.

The study, which analyzed the results of different methods of teaching math in three American high schools, found that an approach that involved students not being divided into ability groups, but being given a shared responsibility for each other’s learning, led to a significant improvement in the achievements of high and low achieving students. The approach had further benefits in that it taught students to take responsibility for each other and to regard that responsibility as an important part of life.

“Many parents support ability grouping because they think it is advantageous for high attaining children,” said Professor Boaler. “But my recent study of a new system of grouping in the US showed that the system benefited students at high and low levels and the high attaining students were the most advantaged by the mixed ability grouping, because they had opportunities to learn work in greater depth.”

Professor Boaler was also the author of an earlier study in England that found that mixed ability classes achieved at higher levels than those put into sets. Her earlier research is reported in her book, Experiencing School Mathematics. Her recent study, ‘Promoting “relational equity” and high mathematics achievement through an innovative mixed ability approach’, was presented at the British Educational Research Association’s annual conference earlier this month and is to be published in the British Educational Research Journal in the coming months.

Soon after I graduated from college I taught first grade in a Baltimore City public school for two years. It was a large school with five first grade classes. Because I was a first-year teacher, I got all the low-scoring students in my class. It was explained to me that having students who were all at the same level would make it simpler for me as a teacher.

It was not. Since none of my students understood what I was trying to teach them, they all goofed around instead. It was a behavior management disaster and I couldn’t wait for the school year to end. I’m sorry to say that I probably sent most of those children off to second grade with few reading skills.

The next year I had a great class with children of mixed abilities. It was like night and day. The smartest ones picked up on the material right away, the middle ones watched and listened and then caught on, and then me and all the other kids in the class could help the remaining few with the independent work. All my kids learned to read that year.

Now my son Sage goes to Montessori preschool where there are mixed-aged classrooms. His class has children ranging from three to six years old. The next class has six to nine year olds and so on. This allows the older students to teach and model for the younger ones. That helps them solidify what they have learned and it gives the little ones a chance to learn from someone who isn’t an adult.

So I say, mixed ability, mixed ages, whatever it is, mix those kids up!

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