Task 8 – how bad do you want it?

Posted by Martha on Jun 2, 2016

I’ve always found setting kids in maths kind of bizarre. At my school we didn’t have sets for P.E. or History & Geography, so why for maths? There wasn’t even any attempt to try and hide the fact that there were sets. It was ‘you’re in class 10Ma5 because you’re the worst and you’re in 10Ma1 because you’re the best’?! AND it always seemed that the best, most enthusiastic teachers taught the top sets and the less enthusiastic (to put it politely) teachers taught the bottoms sets – I think it was setting those kids up to fail, as they definitely had the fixed mindset of ‘I can’t do maths’ and would instantly disengage. The problem with maths is that some students find it hard, boring and pointless (especially those set 5 kids) so as a teacher I’d like to find ways to make it more interesting and relevant to the kids to help engage them. The plasticity and adaptability of the brain is fascinating and if we can help students to realise that there isn’t a maths gene and the way to improve is to try hard and practice, we could boost those bottom set classroom environments.

Mixed ability teaching would, I think, mean more work for the teachers. They would have to differentiate the learning and come up with ways to help the pupils help each other. Group tasks where by the higher ability students are helping the lower ability students would be beneficial for everyone – don’t they say if you can teach something yourself you’ll have a better understanding of it? And I’m sure peer encouragement could work wonders. I think we do have to accept that some kids will be better at maths than others, not just from natural ability but because they find it more interesting and are motivated to do well. Another barrier is the foundation and higher GCSE – how would we teach A* students and C & below students in the same class? There would also be a back lash from parents (of the top set students) if schools started to introduce mixed ability teaching in maths. Another problem is the possibility of behavioural problems being disruptive to the learning but proper behaviour management should be able to solve that (hopefully!). If, like Jo Boalers says, it isn’t detrimental to top set students but is beneficial to bottom set students couldn’t we make it work?

What I’ve taken from this weeks think piece is that when I am teaching a bottom set class it’s going to be important to motivate and encourage them to have a growth mind set and help them realise that they CAN do maths 🙂 — I realise this is by no means going to be an easy task and will take time to build up, I guess I’ll just have to wait until I’m in the classroom and see how it pans out … 


  1. Charli
    7 June 2016

    I completely agree that lower setted children can be pushed aside and made to feel like they are bad at maths and that is that. I think it’s our responsiblity to make sure that the “less enthusiastic” teachers aren’t always placed with these bottoms sets. My school has trialed the opposite over past couple of years to try to combat this and placed their most successful teachers with the bottom sets to give them a boost- seems to have worked. I think that setting makes sense but I have bad experiences of mixed ability sets.

  2. pepsmccrea
    7 June 2016

    Agree that there are challenges with learning to teach mixed ability if all you’re used to is setting. But I wonder if it’s just a familiarity thing. Good to see you thinking carefully about how you’ll approach lower ability students, but is it not just as important to do the same for more able students?

  3. Ray
    8 June 2016

    I think that teachers who are used to setting might find it harder to adapt to mixed ability teaching than those of us who are just starting out. We’ve observed lessons for low ability groups where no one seems to want to be there, including the teacher. In mixed ability groups there will be some people who want to learn and any poor behaviour might be diluted.

  4. Fintan Donnellan
    8 June 2016

    You say that teachers teaching mixed ability classes would have to differentiate the learning for the classes, but with set classes, teachers don’t have to do that. However, even with set classes, the reality is that there is a spectrum of abilities. So, if teachers were to teach mixed ability classes, the only difference would be that that spectrum is wider. Regardless of whether a school has sets, a teacher should not view their class as being all the same ability.

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