In-depth study

11th October 1996 at 01:00
In his letter in the September 27 issue of The TES, Mr R Hogan dismissed the results of my three-year research study on mathematical learning and setting because it was not based upon a large one-to-one scale "statistical sample". In doing so he revealed a number of important misconceptions about research and about setting.

Mr Hogan refused to acknowledge that a study based upon 300 students in "only two schools" could produce worthwhile insights into students' learning. In any research study there is always a tension between breadth and depth.

Many educational researchers in the past 10 years have chosen not to use large-scale samples because these are often not sensitive enough to record the many influences upon student learning. Classrooms are complex and varied environments. Understanding the learning of children is not like finding out which brand of cat food people prefer.

For this reason in-depth studies are often more informative than large statistical samples that often offer breadth at the expense of the depth that is needed to understand learning.

The recent review of 29 large-scale statistical studies of students around the world showed that the mean attainment levels of students taught in "homogeneous" ability groups were no different (for "high ability" students) or worse (for "low ability" students) than students taught in mixed-ability groups.

The influence of social class over setting decisions has been established by a range of research studies (large and small scale) conducted over many years. My research study reinforced these findings by showing that it can be very difficult for teachers to dissociate the language students use and the way they talk, dress and behave from their potential "ability" when making setting decisions.

Mr Hogan and his colleague conclude that I am obviously "not a mathematician" because my study was focused upon two schools. For the record, I am a mathematics teacher, lecturer and researcher in mathematics education, with experience of both large and small one-to-one scale educational research studies.

There was no suggestion in my report that all students were disadvantaged by setting. What my study showed was that in a school that was not unusual, significant numbers of low one-to-one set students were demotivated by the limits put upon their attainment and some high set students were not suited to "top set" learning environments.

Dr JO BOALER King's College London SE1

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