The debate over whether children should be taught in sets or mixed ability groups can divide staff rooms like mud-laden trenches.
Research evidence suggests that students with prior low attainment do better in mixed ability groups, but it can be daunting to plan lessons when you are faced with a class list that ranges from the very top to the very bottom of the ability scale.
Planning a lesson for a very mixed group does not mean creating stacks of differentiated worksheets or taking “All, Most, Some” learning objectives to new heights.
Instead, consider the following:
- Stave off stereotypes
To teach a group with a wide range of prior attainment, we need to first confront our instinctive stereotyping of students and plan accordingly, checking our biases along the way. The fact that a child is quiet and well-behaved can too often mask a whole raft of learning issues; whereas one instance of bad behaviour from a naughty child can falsely distort our view of their intelligence.
- Get them to take a pre-test
Basing our understanding of a child’s abilities purely on the data that we have received leads to false assumptions. But regular low-stakes tests can really get underneath the differences in ability. Plan a quiz for students to take in the lesson before you start teaching a new topic to find out what they truly know about it.
- Flexible grouping within lessons
It is too easy to shunt low attainers onto the not-so-subtle ‘special’ table and then arrange the rest of the class based around that. Our students’ prior knowledge can prove so variable that any grouping that occurs within class, including seating plans, can prove woefully fixed and cumbersome. Instead, we need to adapt groupings flexibly and regularly.
- Co-plan with a teaching assistant
Your time might be squeezed, but if you are lucky enough to have a TA in your classroom, try to create opportunities to co-plan. Doing this can help you to build time into lessons for you to work more with the students who need the most support, while the TA works with more able students.
- Focus on asking great questions
When a class has students with varied starting points, it is essential to elicit lots of high quality talk to tease our misconceptions and ensure that they understand. Try using the ABC feedback model, in which you ask students to agree with; build upon; or challenge the answers of others. This provides scaffolding for their responses.
- Aim for an 80 per cent success rate
Students don’t always “get it”, no matter what the class grouping. In very mixed ability groups, we can easily crack on, leaving individuals behind. Plan to end lessons with a rough indicator of how many students have understood what they need to learn. If 80 per cent of students “got it”, then assume that you can move on in the next lesson. Any less than that and you should re-plan and reteach the topic.
Alex Quigley is an English teacher and director of the research school at Huntington School in York. He is the author of The Confident Teacher.
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