To group or not to group? Ability grouping of mathematics learners.

Celizma Lotz discusses the practice, within schools, to group learners according to their mathematics ability. She questions whether the practice is done according to reliable means and the impact it has on the motivation of learners grouped in the “lower set”. She highlights the responsibility and challenges that teachers face to do this in a way that keeps learners motivated and growing in confidence

Mathematics teachers are often considered to be cut from the same cloth. They are described by many as inflexible, analytical, and having a deep hatred for extra-mural activities, to name but a few (what feels like) accusations. However, this is not my experience after teaching at various schools. Mathematics teachers think and view the world very differently to those accusations, but we are an interesting bunch, that’s for sure.

One of the issues that many mathematics teachers seem to disagree upon is whether students have a fixed mathematical ability or not and whether all students have the potential to succeed in mathematics through good teaching and perseverance, or not. This issue is not the topic at hand, however, it is closely related to the topic of ‘ability’ grouping in mathematics.

Illustration by Celizma Lotz

Supporting students in their learning of mathematics has led many school leaderships to the point of deciding whether to group students into classes where students have the same academic ability (ability grouping). Therefore, assessment scores determine whether students should be in a particular class. This practice is also called streaming, tracking, or attainment grouping. I will be using the term attainment grouping instead of ability grouping. The alternative to attainment grouping is to randomly assign students with different assessment scores together (mixed attainment grouping). It is my experience that some schools persevere with either mixed attainment grouping or attainment grouping because “they have always done it that way”, possibly without revisiting the advantages and disadvantages of both. As with all things, there are people for and against the grouping of students based on perceived academic ‘ability’.

As a high school mathematics teacher, I have taught at schools that practice attainment grouping and schools that practices mixed attainment grouping. 

In my experience, many teachers do not favour mixed attainment classes due to the workload and planning to incorporate differentiation. It can also happen that teachers who prefer mixed attainment classes often just ‘pitches’ to the middle, and the pace is determined by the work schedule. I have found that many parents favour attainment grouping because their child will get ‘pitched’ at the right level. However, they don’t always realize that teachers with the least experience and teachers who are not even Mathematics teachers are sometimes allocated to the ‘lower’ sets. Supporting students with possible gaps in their knowledge but with the potential to grasp new concepts, after those gaps have been filled, should not be considered less important than teaching the ‘upper’ set. I have taught classes where these students, considerend in the ‘lower’ set, made comments such as: “I like being in the bottom set, so I don’t feel stupid to ask questions”. The sad truth is that they are experiencing “feeling stupid” when they are in classes with students of mixed attainment. This makes me feel sad as a mathematics teacher.

I have a few concerns about the practice of grouping learners like: How reliable is the  instrument that categorises our students so? Isn’t it perhaps as unreliable as a mark at the end of the year that supposedly indicates how much a student has learnt that year? Also, I wonder if attainment ability grouping not only fosters fixed mindsets about learning but even encourages a fixed mindset?

Reflecting on this topic, I believe the damage done to the mindset of students in attainment grouping classes outweighs the speculated advantages of attainment grouping. This includes the low expectation that students in the ‘lower’ set experience. Students are very much aware when they are considered to be the ‘bottom of the barrel’.  I fear that the risk of them giving up before they have even started might be too great. I believe, very firmly, that most people thrive when there are high expectations of what they can do. My humble opinion is thus, grouping students according to a perceived ability, is not creating an environment where students sense a high expectation.

Illustration by Celizma Lotz

In conclusion, I believe, the challenge lies with the teacher to teach conceptually, build students’ confidence, teach learners the importance of productive struggle, and celebrating their accomplishments with them, no matter how big or how small. As mathematics teachers, we need to nurture and care for our students, whichever the ‘set’. There are so many things that I do not yet know and so many things that I will never understand, but what I do know is that teaching mathematics, and doing so well, is not for the faint hearted.

Celizma Lotz

Mathematics teacher Ballito

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