Are set classes mixed ability?

When talking about setting, mixed ability and which is more desirable I often hear people say “I’ve never taught a set class that wasn’t mixed ability” (or words to that effect).

I was thinking about whether or not this is the case.

It seems to me that in order to establish the veracity of that statement we must first clearly define “setting” and “mixed ability”.

I define setting as “grouping students for their lessons in a subject according to their ability in the subject”.

I define mixed ability as “grouping students for their lessons in a subject with no regard to their ability in the subject other than ensuring each class has a wide spectrum of abilities.

It seems to me that when people talk about mixed ability teaching (particularly those that are in favour of it) they switch between two ideas of what mixed ability teaching is to suit whatever point they are trying to make.

Definition 1: A mixed ability group is a group where the spread of abilities in the group is broadly representative of the spread of abilities within the school. The number of high, middle and low achievers in the class is roughly representative of the numbers in the whole cohort.

Definition 2: A group containing pupils of more than 1 ability.

Discussions about setting AS OPPOSED TO MIXED ABILITY seem to suffer when someone advocates setting and is confronted with “I’ve never taught a set class that wasn’t mixed ability” for the simple reason that this is indisputably true if we are using a rather literal definition of “mixed ability” and highly unlikely to be true if we are using “mixed ability” understood as a counterpoint to “setting”.

I taught mixed ability classes for many years using SMILE. As pupils were doing individualised learning it was manageable but it took a lot of admin and involved very little whole class teaching. It had its strengths and weaknesses.

As SMILE was fazed out and textbooks brought in mixed ability teaching in Maths became increasingly unmanageable. Whole class teaching was demanded, but where do you pitch your lesson to a Year 11 class that has pupils getting an A* and pupils who can’t count in the same room? Most of our department found the textbooks of limited use given the broad range of abilities in each class. There simply too diverse a range of needs and abilities in the class to make using Higher or Foundation textbooks workable. As a result many topics were taught through project based learning or discovery learning and differentiated by outcome.

What I learned from having to do that is that in Maths some topics are VERY difficult to teach through project based learning or discovery learning. I also learned that having to come up with decent projects and activities that the entire spectrum of abilities from P levels to A* can access and learn from is REALLY difficult in Maths.

More recently I have taught a mixed ability year 7 class. The range of abilities was from P levels to level 6. As whole class teaching was expected at this point this largely meant giving the P level pupils something to do while I explained the main task to most of the class. Then I would explain to the lower ability pupils what I wanted them to do (either a different task entirely or a more scaffolded version of the main task). Then I would check that the more able pupils understood the main task and if I felt they would not benefit from doing the main task I would give them an extension task to do. There would often be several different lessons going on in the same room which I found difficult to manage and quite draining.

What was clearly to me was that whether the class was set or mixed ability made little difference to the amount of progress pupils made. It did make a big difference to my workload.

The table below outlines some of the main pros and cons of setting and mixed ability in my experience. When I say textbooks or SMILE/SMP I mean the main resource used but by no means the only one.

Setting Mixed ability
Textbooks and whole class teaching Pros:

  • Exposition easier to pitch
  • Easier to resource
  • Differentiation is simpler

 

Cons:

  • Pupils in lower sets can have low expectations of themselves
  • Pupils in higher sets can underachieve due to arrogance
Pros:

  • More able pupils were able to help their peers sometimes if weaker pupils did not understand something

 

Cons:

  • Very difficult to pitch explanations
  • Very difficult to have challenging accessible work for all students
  • Difficult to spend the right length of time on a topic
  • More able pupils spent too much of the learning time explaining things to other pupils.
SMILE/SMP

And groupwork

Pros:

  • Easy to administer
  • Easy to pitch lessons at the right level
  • Easy to find good resources
  • Tasks are designed for pupils to work independently. Pupils get used to doing so and often become more resilient

 

Cons:

  • High photocopying bill or lots of group work as not enough copies of most tasks for 1 between 2
  • Good knowledge of the SMILE or SMP system (or SOW written by someone with that knowledge) is essential as not all the tasks are good.
Pros:

  • Whole class explanations rarely needed
  • Pupils with poor attendance can access lessons without needing to cover what they missed
  • Pupils mark a lot of their own work
  • Tasks are designed for pupils to work independently. Pupils get used to doing so and often become more resilient

Cons:

  • Mountains of admin
  • Pupils always have an excuse to be out of their seat.
  • More difficult to get work out of pupils lacking motivation.
  • Sometimes pupils had to wait a long time for help because every pupil is doing a different task.

 

In my opinion if Maths is going to be taught in a mixed ability group (definition 1 of mixed ability) then there needs to either be some sort of individualised learning scheme (SMILE, SMP or something similar) or there needs to be a very tight and well organised scheme of work that revolves around open-ended tasks and project based learning.

If we are debating the merits of mixed ability classes AS OPPOSED TO SETTING then there is no way we can argue that set classes are mixed ability.

When I was in Year 10 and 11 there were people in my Maths class who were struggling with counting and number bonds in the same room as students who went on to study Maths at university. That’s a mixed ability class. My last top set Year 11 didn’t have anyone working at less than an A grade in it. That really isn’t…

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