Teaching for potential….

Posted by Jane on Jun 2, 2016

As ever it seems, I enjoyed this week’s resource but I am finding it hard to come up with a simple sense of what I am being told.  I think that the messages that I am taking are:

  • the preparedness to dig in and learn,  accepting mistakes and things going wrong along the way, are really great attributes for students (and student teachers) and that such practice and failure will help your brain develop as your brain is plastic not fixed when it comes to learning
  • simply being told that you are clever is not great praise as it does not prepare you for when things go wrong, so your instincts are to remain in your comfort zone rather than try, fail, learn and try again….and this sense (potentially self-limiting) need to preserve the image of ‘being clever’ is something that particularly affects girls
  • setting for ‘abilty’ re-inforces two dynamics:
    • it confirms a postive status for being ‘clever’, so the kids on the top tables to not consider that they need to develop grit
    •  condemns the ‘lower’ sets to not being challenged so the plasticity in their brains does not develop and achieve to expectation not potential

I will return to the undoubtedly vexed issue of setting in a moment but before entering that debate…. I want to pause on Boaler’s thinking about  mistakes and failures being used as a way to futher learning.   I am getting increasingly interested in failure as a way of learning, and I can see from Boaler that she gives hints and tips on how to encourage teaching that values mistakes and failures.  My personal dilemma is that I can see all the good sense in this and how it relates to developing grit. But ultimately,  in secondary maths, the goal is to get the ‘right’ answers. So how to square this circle? How to say its great that you got something wrong and let’s all learn from it but then equally to say but you will be assessed on getting the right answers? Things for me to keep pondering on.

But back to setting. I am concious that I am answering this as a parent as well as a fledgling professional (but am trying to avoid bringing in wider societal arguments).  As a fledgling professional, and on reading the Boaler article, I can 100% accept what she is saying i.e. that mixed teaching produces good results for all and does not damage the results for the ‘more able’. So why does setting continue? One thing that I hadn’t really thought about before, but –  as a parent –  does resonate, is the fear that teaching in lower sets will not produce sufficient challenge, that the teacher will (conciously or unconciously) not expect so much and so create a vicous circle where learner’s (and their brains) are not stretched.  And on examination I do wonder if this is why (most) parents strive to get their kids in as higher set as possible perpetuating the sense that sets are a good thing that are in demand, rather than bad thing for the majority.


  1. Martha
    2 June 2016

    Really interesting article Jane! I hadn’t thought about the whole it’s okay to get the answer wrong but when it comes down to it you must get the answer right to get the marks. I guess it comes down to learning from your mistakes in the classroom and hopefully not making the same one in the exam! I also think a classroom environment where the students aren’t afraid to answer questions (and get the answer wrong) is better than the alternative

  2. pepsmccrea
    7 June 2016

    Yep, setting is a complex one. On the mistakes front, I think there are some interesting questions to be asked about this. Here’s a bit of an overly cutting analysis, but it might help you see some alternatives: https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2015/11/17/can-jo-boaler-grow-your-brain/

  3. ajf29
    8 June 2016

    Great piece Jane. Like you, and many others I agree that setting students by mathematical ability creates disadvantages for students at either end if the spectrum. In terms of the lower sets not being stretched enough (having researched further into setting) it seems it is the less experienced teachers who teach at this level – is this an area for change?

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