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Sunday, July 19, 2009

To group, or not to group

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (yes, Saturday!!) of this week, I attended a professional development class. I was pretty disappointed that I really didn't get much out of it, other than a headache from walking between 104 degrees outside and 59 degrees inside AND a chance to read lots of my book during the lengthy and frequent downtimes.

But one of the things that was discussed was a bit puzzling to me, so I wanted to throw it up here (not in the vomit sense) for debate. The issue was of Ability Grouping.

The speaker was obviously against ability grouping. He said that in the past, some people have put the high kids together in one class and the lower kids together in another class. In this situation, the low kids tend to learn a lot and the high kids learn a lot, but the gap between their knowledge grows even wider. Whereas in a mixed-ability group, the high kids will pull the lower kids up, and so the knowledge gap is decreased.

What I'm wondering is, is our goal here really to shrink the knowledge gap, or is our goal to teach every kid as much as possible? And is it really better to have a smaller gap at the end of the year, where the high kids have increased, let's say, 10% and the low kids have increased, let's say, 30%, OR is it better at the end of the year to have high kids that have increased by 50% and low kids that have increased by 50%?

Several years ago, my partner and I did group our kids as such. I felt that it was successful because I could go at a different pace with each group, and not feel like anyone was being left behind. However, I can also see the merits of letting the high kids become more "teacherly" in helping the lower kids.

Any thoughts?


Wendy Mueller said...

As an elementary and middle school teacher for the last 13 years, I am very much pro-ability grouping. Those who say the narrowing of the statistical knowledge gap is more important than the growth of knowledge of individual students is a political statistician, not an educator.

And for the higher level kids who get charged with modeling, tutoring, scaffolding, and whatever terms are current for "unpaid teaching assistant", the novelty wears off quickly and resentment builds as they realize their own learning is being sacrificed on the alter of "narrowing the knowledge gap".

Wendy Mueller said...

Make that "altar"! I should have previewed and edited before posting!

M said...

This is an ongoing fight I have with other teachers at our school. They keep telling me how the smart kids bring up the other kids, but no consideration is given to how the brighter kids are learning. The well-worn saying is that the smart kids will learn regardless (so, so tired of that).

Mrs. Bluebird said...

I tend to ability group and our schedule also tends to do it for me - kids taking advanced classes tend to be clumped together due to when those classes are offered, and the same for sped classes. In any case, when it comes to science labs, I love to ability group so that I can work with my lower kids knowing that my more advanced kids can handle everything just fine. I've found that the brighter kids really hate to be the unpaid teacher for the lower kids and many of the lower kids stop working because the more advanced kids will do the work for them (until they get pissed off and everyone stops working).

My building created two new positions (yet unfilled) for inclusion social studies and science teachers. That means at least one of these classes will be full of lower ability kids but will also have (we hope) two teachers to help them.

Mamie said...

My thoughts on grouping are well-explained here:

(Note: I am the author of the piece that this link takes you too.)

PLEASE don;t burden your high-ability students with being "more teacherly" or with being "tutors" - that is NOT their role in school; they are there to LEARN NEW MATERIAL, not do our job for us.

Christy said...

I tend to agree with the previous commenters. As an actual teacher, who still works in the classroom (as opposed to the staff development people who generally became "experts" in their field some time close to the neolithic age) I have struggled with how to group kids many times. There have been, especially this last year, many MANY times that I wished that the kids were grouped into CLASSES differently. There were definitely times that an activity that would have worked GREAT could not be done due to the maturity level or abilities of a small number od kids in a particular class period.

On the flip side, in my particular circumstances, sometimes it is beneficial to group kids the PC way - for example when doing something as a jigsaw. I try to mix it up as best I can, depending on the assignment and how frustrated I am with that particular group of kids - pathetic, I know, but sometimes... sigh.

As a whole, however, I think that grouping kids based on ability makes a lot of sense. There is an old saying - steel sharpens steel - and I think that is true for my upper level learners. They tend to get more out of an assignment when they are grouped with kids that they know will do the work they are asked to do and that they can count on for correct answers.

This is a great topic that should be addressed more often.

Ric Murry said...

I think teachers are fooling themselves if they think "higher level" students will bring up the "lower level" students to reduce a gap between them.

I also believe this is an issue than is under-discussed, under-debated, and under-understood (is that a word?).

More detail at my blog.

I am also entered the conversation at Successful Teaching.

Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Anonymous said...

I worked for years in a school where students were grouped from first grade. I taught third grade and hated the grouping practices. The students could never seem to get out of the group they were in. The so called top group (and their parents) got such an attitude that they became obnoxious.

I'm all for grouping if it is flexible. Some children in the early years take time to get going but then take off. These children need to be able to move.

One year I taught the third level class in third grade. Our gifted program began in grade four at the time. Entrance to the program was automatic if you got a certain score on the districtwide test. If you got a score only a few points off on the districtwide test you could take another test to see if you made the cut.
A few students from the top class were discussing and bragging how they were going to take the retest and how great it was. My third group student told them that she didn't have to take the retest and was already in the program. The top group students came running to me tattling that my student was lying about going to gifted.
The look of disbelief on their faces when I told them my student was correct was priceless. They could not believe my student was in already and they had to take the retest.

My student was a very quiet girl who in K and grade one probably faded into the woodwork. She got placed in that group and just went along with the flow. And since the groups tended to stay together from year to year she moved with the group. Until she tested into gifted and they finally changed her group.

So I guess what I say is group but be flexible. Don't lock kids into groups. Move them if they should be moved.

Tracy said...

It would seem to me the gap is unimportant. The goal is to advance every student and improve the test score of each. The higher percentage that increase those scores and knowledge the more successful the program. Gap or not.

Anonymous said...

Coming directly out of a fairly left-wing teacher education program, I have had it drilled into me that ability grouping is terrible practice. However, after having read all these comments by experienced teachers, I can see the difference between theory and practice!

My main concern was that students in lower ability groupings would be aware of the grouping, and be made to feel like they were being labeled as the "dumb" kids. That cannot be a positive feeling, and in most cases won't serve to increase their motivation. I think, as "anonymous" noted above, that ability grouping can be positive within a classroom, as long as it is used flexibly, in order to minimize students being labeled as being part of "smart/dumb" groups. Easier said than done I realize, but hopefully something to work towards! :)

HungryHydrologist said...

In my experience at the high school level, grouping both by ability and mixing can be beneficial. While I do see the frustration in that higher learners get stuck with the teaching and do not learn new material, I found that when they taught or re-explained the material, they had a deeper understanding of it. Mixed ability grouping allows for the lower kids to get a second view of the material and for the upper kids to think about the material in a new way (how can I present this material so that Jimmy understands?) The upper level kids have to use higher-level thinking skills, so they ARE still learning. In math and physics, this worked really well for me because the high-level kids would discover new patterns they hadn't seen before. So I think in the right situation, both types of groups can be valuable- just don't use the same one all of the time!

Mister Teacher said...

Thanks for all of the great comments! It certainly would appear that ability grouping is not quite the "black hole" not-to-be-discussed topic that some training leaders would have us believe!

Tracy, you summed it up exactly the way I feel.

And I totally agree that nobody should be locked into a certain group. But it surely does make it easier to teach and impart knowledge when everyone is learning at the same pace. Some kids just learn slower than others, but those high kids shouldn't necessarily be slowed down or halted.

Mamacita (The REAL one) said...

Why do so many teachers care so much about there being a wide gap between the bright kids and the "other" kids? Back in the day, the bright kids were treasured and the gaps were held in esteem! 12-year-olds went to Harvard IF they were ready; they were not held back in seventh grade waiting because five kids still couldn't "get it." Ability grouping? I'm all for it!

I spent 8 years in elementary and middle school sitting out in the hall tutoring other kids and I resent it to this very day. My own kids were treated this same way until I went to school and raised bloody hell about my children being used as unpaid aides instead of being allowed to learn and advance and WIDEN THE DAMN GAP.

Opinionated much, ya think? Nah. I'm just tired of the public schools catering to the lowest common denominator and ignoring - and even deliberately holding back- the cream. Unacceptable. Absolutely and 100% unethical.

Wendy Mueller said...

Mamacita, I totally agree with you! Unfortunately, the administrators and the federal government through the highly-beloved (not so much) NCLB act find the gap, especially when is occurs between different racial or socioeconomic groups, to be a horrible thing that must die at all costs. Even at the cost of our best and brightest. :(

Anonymous said...

I think that's where flexible grouping can be the most beneficial. I have found that sometimes it just works better to have a group of high kids where I can teach them at their level and low students who are all pushing to gain comprehension together. Other times I need experts and learners. Still other times, I group by ability based on a skill and find that some of the struggling learners from the last group are the new experts.

To me, it is important to be careful with social boundaries and self esteem, but it is more important that the students learn everything that they can and I think there are sensitive ways of doing that.

Melissa B. said...

I guess the thought behind mixing it up is that the smart kids will pull the slow kids along. More of a "real-world" scenario because, after all, the kids won't all be working in the "smart group" when they're adults. But Wendy is correct, especially when the kids reach high school. The faster kids do push the slower kids, but they also realize that those with learning deficits are keeping them back.

Unknown said...

My own two children, who are bright hated not being ability grouped. They were sick having to tutor (and neither grew up to be a teacher) the slower kids and bored besides. As one said, "we can't learn anything new till Heather gets it and Heather never gets it".
I teach a pull out G/T program and it's a joy - the kids get it and love getting it.

William Gripentrog said...

I guess I am in the minority. One of the reasons I haven't posted. I have been on the beneficial end of grouping. Teaching peers isn't tutoring. It is a strategy to build deeper understanding. You don't really know the material until you can teach it to someone else. I also agree that the ability to learn is really a function of the prior knowledge.
However, that isn't the point. The whole class waiting for one child isn't the fault of heterogeneous grouping, that is poor teaching. Teachers can and do differentiate instruction within the class.
Now my favorite class to teach is my title algebra class. However this only comes after 6 weeks of spending a significant amount of time teaching students that they are not in the dummy math class.
I also enjoy teaching my accelerated class, but they are the most needy and laziest students that I have. When one of my other classes asks what the difference between the accelerated class and the other class, my reply has always been that they think they are smarter.
My view changed a number of years ago when I was talking to a parent and the conversation turned towards their schooling. "I thought I was smart until I went to seventh grade and the smart kids went to Latin and I went to English."
Finally, if we want to encourage the students to are academically gifted to achieve to their highest ability, then we need to encourage all students to achieve their highest ability. If you only accelerated 30 students (or 50 or 100 etc) in some lower grade, then you are setting the max for that group. Students drop of this group and they are not replaced (at least not a on a one to one ratio.) Challenge all of your students by expecting the most from all of the students.