Our notion of ability can be disabling

8th October 2010 at 01:00

Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas are right to draw attention to the way a changed context reveals a changed child ("Why myths of brightness need to be left in the shade", October 1).

Labelling pupils by so-called "ability" - all-pervasive in our school system - works powerfully to prevent changes to the educative context. "Ability" in the sense now so widely used and understood in schools masks the pupil rather than render her more truly recognised.

No pupil possesses a measure of "ability" changelessly transferable from situation to situation and readily sampled by a test. The current system constructs this measure, which works to efface a more subtle and thorough understanding.

Namely, that what exists is what a pupil does, says or makes manifest in given circumstances under certain conditions at a certain time, and which is not fully knowable in advance. Perhaps not known at all, but disclosed surprisingly in the situation met and the activity undertaken. Not some quantum of "ability", then, but "abilities", and always in specific contexts and within individual histories ever subject to revision and never congruent with the personhood of the student. There are classrooms where such a view holds sway. They call into question the practice of "ability" thinking and the structures it scaffolds.

Patrick Yarker, Visiting fellow, School of Education and Lifelong Learning, University of East Anglia, Norwich.

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