Task 8 – A mixed bag. Is it as bad as it sounds?

Posted by Fintan on Jun 1, 2016

Angela Lee Duckworth’s talk had most of the same points as Matthew Syed’s. Simply having the ability to do something is not enough to be successful, but having something she calls ‘grit’, which basically means having a good work ethic. As Syed said in his talk, we view “natural talent” as the most important element of success, while at the same time, feeling embarrassed at having to work hard to achieve that same success. I’m not sure how yet, but I would like to get my students to be able to feel prouder of the work they put into something rather than the natural ease at which they might be able to do something. If I had two students of different ability in my class, one who struggles with a problem, but persists in trying to solve it and another student who can complete the same task in half the time, I would give the more able student an added challenge that makes him/her have to work as hard as the less able student. It’s a difficult thing to accept in this competitive day and age, but some people are simply just better than others at some things without necessarily having to work that hard to do so. However, instead of focusing on others’ abilities, the aim of a teacher should be to get a student to give their best and to let that be the standard by which they judge themselves. It may sound fanciful, but it should be the direction that the classroom moves towards and away from notions of talent/no talent.

Before reading Boaler’s article, I was against the idea of grouping students based on ability. I never believed that grouping lower ability students together into one class was of benefit to any of the students. Supposedly, these students would learn more from tasks more suited to their level. The research that Boaler cites dispels this idea. However, I long wondered about higher ability students. Would higher ability students perform as well in mixed ability classes as they would if grouped with just other higher ability students? Boaler appears to suggest that this is so, but I do find it hard to reconcile that with my experiences in Hastings. There are some students who don’t perform well in school due to behaviour issues, who can make the classroom a difficult learning space for others. I realize that my job as a teacher would be to manage this as best as possible, but are students who are there to learn really getting the most out of a lesson when in an environment like that? I’m not equating lower ability with badly behaved, but those students that do behave badly usually don’t do too well in school. I think lower and higher ability students can learn together in the same classroom, provided that all the students have roughly the same desire to learn. If disruptive students are included in the mix, how much class time is lost before they show the same focus as other students? At the same time, these students shouldn’t be excluded, as it would only reinforce their perception that they’re not good enough. These are the students for which the idea of ‘growth mindset’ is most important. They need to be able to believe that they can improve if they make an effort. As I said, I’m against the practice of grouping students based on ability, but despite the research Boaler mentions, I’m not sure mixed ability classes would be a completely smooth path.

2 Comments

  1. Martha
    2 June 2016

    I agree Fintan – there should be more emphasis on how much effort a student puts into a task and how to help them increase their effort. The level they’re working at should matter less, as long as they are trying their hardest. You know how I feel about setting from our train conversations to Hastings but I do understand that abolishing sets could cause some problems … are those problems as great as the ones we face with the bottom sets today? Who knows?!

  2. pepsmccrea
    7 June 2016

    Really interesting. There are so many factors to consider, but I wonder if a bit part of it is our unfamiliarity (and perhaps fear) of teaching mixed ability. If you asked a Finnish teacher about teaching sets I wonder if they’d have the same response…

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