Is a pupil’s ability really fixed?

The idea that pupils have a fixed level of ability has a negative social, emotional and academic impact, writes Phil Wright. The primary head explains how he brought a culture of Learning Without Limits into his school and set about sharing the wide-ranging benefits across his multi-academy trust
6th March 2020, 12:04am
How To Get Over Our Fixation With Fixed Ability

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Is a pupil’s ability really fixed?

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/pupils-ability-really-fixed

No teacher or school leader can really believe that children have a given amount of ability from birth and that nothing can be done to affect that - if they did, surely that would make their role redundant or futile.

This was certainly my view even before I started to research work by Susan Hart et al (2004) at the University of Cambridge. They developed what became known as Learning Without Limits, a framework for learning that supports teaching approaches that try to overcome ideas of fixed ability by developing practices based on three principles: “trust”, “everybody” and “co-agency”.

In practical terms, this means that the children are trusted to actively engage in their learning; that learning is accessible to everybody and decisions about learning are made for the benefit of everybody; and that in the learning process, children are active and valued contributors to decisions made about their learning.

When I secured an interview for a primary school headship, I outlined how I was determined to implement these principles in a new setting. Fortunately, I got the job, and four years on, our own principles (trust, collaboration, choice and inclusion) are fully embedded, while fixed-ability grouping and interventions that remove children from the classroom have been abandoned. Armed with four years of improved statutory data, I set about developing a research project to share this principle-led pedagogy with others in our multi-academy trust.

Five schools of varying sizes and staffing demographics joined the project and from the outset, it was made clear that teachers would be the architects of their own expertise - they would not be told what to do, how to do things or be judged on whether their choices were successful.

Instead, the project would share the core principles of the Learning Without Limits framework and its intended impacts, and provide the time, space and freedom to explore how these principles might be enacted in a primary maths context, where fixed-ability grouping most regularly occurs.

We started the project with an Inset session explaining this framework and then a second session looked at academic papers on the social, emotional and academic impact of fixed-ability grouping and thinking on pupils.

Discussions around possible adjustments to current practices followed and teachers spent the next six to eight weeks exploring how they might develop practices based on the principles that underpin Learning Without Limits as outlined above.

This involved the teachers looking at how, once the core teaching had been shared, they might remove the barriers to learning caused by fixed-ability grouping and related thinking. They explored how they could present the children with choice over the type of challenge they engaged with (such as embedding their times-tables recall, recognising related facts or knowing how to apply these facts to solve a problem, in a session related to multiplication) and the resources they might use or the people they might work with, to practise, embed or extend what they are learning about.

We then met again and shared our experiences, adjusted our thinking again, made decisions about further adjustments and set off for another six to eight weeks of exploration. This cycle was completed once more over a five-month period.

Then, at the end of the project, the teachers were interviewed and their responses were interpreted, with the vast majority overwhelmingly positive on the social, emotional and academic impact on the children, as well as their own sense of professional identity and efficacy, too.

The four key areas where teachers reported adjustments to their previous practice were:

  1. Creating access to all learning for all children.
  2. Trusting and enabling children to make effective choices about their own learning.
  3. Reflecting carefully on the language they choose within the classroom.
  4. Encouraging collaborative learning.

These were small adjustments that teachers made, rather than any wholesale changes to practice, and the vast majority of these adjustments were essentially mindset changes about how children were seen as learners.

For example, teachers improved access to learning for all children by giving them choices about how they approached their own learning, as outlined above, by delivering responsive - rather than predetermined - intervention, and by facilitating improved relational interactions based upon a better understanding of the children as individual learners.

The most challenging element of practice to adjust to was almost universally reported as language - particularly in relation to how teachers described the tasks or challenges without framing learner identity. To address this challenge, the teachers developed their practice around questioning; held children accountable for the learning choices they were making, while valuing their voice within that; and modelled effective learning conversations to support children in their paired work.

The positive social and emotional impact on the children was also unequivocal, with an overt sense that learning in the classroom is for everybody, at whatever level. It was also reported that as a result of increased feelings of empowerment and self-worth, children demonstrated an improved attitude to learning by being more willing to take on challenges and an increased resilience when faced with difficulty. Responses also suggest that there was a proportionally better impact on girls and those currently attaining at a lower level, as agency and self-esteem were developed respectively.

The academic impact on the children was also reported as positive, in terms of children showing increased participation and accessing learning above the level teachers would previously have expected. Teachers suggested this was related to a sense of enhanced learner identity in the children and a willingness to make choices that challenge their prior perceptions of their ability.

All of this, of course, was not without its challenges. Participants had different degrees of experience and understanding while opening up professional practice to peers required trust and bravery. Trying to find quality time within the Inset programme set out for the term was also difficult but by being flexible we were able to make the date, time and location of sessions fit into crowded calendars, while the 5pm finish time was protected, for everyone’s benefit.

There is still work to be done in supporting the adoption of principle-led pedagogy that challenges notions of fixed or given ability within our education system, of course. But the more teachers have the space and capacity to share their practice and thinking, the more opportunity there will be for positive and sustainable change for the good of all children and educators.

Phil Wright is a headteacher with 10 years’ experience as a school leader in the UK and Malawi

For references, see tes.com

This article originally appeared in the 6 March 2020 issue under the headline “How to get over our fixation with fixed ability”

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