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Raising the bar with flexible grouping


Professor Christine Rubie-Davies, a leading researcher in the field of teacher expectations, is based at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work. In this blog Christine challenges the practice of grouping students by ability, arguing that it constrains learning. Instead Christine recommends that teachers use flexible forms of grouping to ensure that all students are challenged and engaged.  

Image sourced from The University of Auckland

The problems with ability grouping

New Zealand has a tradition of ability grouping, both within classes and across classes but ability grouping is a key factor in creating an inequitable education system. Our country has one of the highest disparities between our highest and lowest achievers, and we ability-group at a higher rate than any other OECD country. Finland has one of the lowest gaps between its highest and lowest achievers. Ability grouping in any form is not allowed in Finland.

Students who are placed in ability groups learn different things depending on what group they are in. Students in high ability groups are often given stimulating, challenging, and engaging activities whereas students in low ability groups are given repetitive, skill-based, and low level tasks. Put simply, students in these different groups learn more or less because they are getting more or less opportunity to learn.

Grouping of students and the planning of learning experiences is underpinned by teachers’ expectations and values. Research shows that if you come from a low socio-economic background or are Māori or Pasifika, you are much more likely than your peers to end up in a lower group than you should be. Although teachers believe that students often change groups, the evidence shows that this is rare.

A further problem with ability grouping is its psychological and emotional impact on students. Students who are continually placed in low ability groups experience a gradual erosion of self-belief; they become disaffected with education and leave as soon as they are able to.

The high expectations principle in The New Zealand Curriculum states that the curriculum supports and empowers all students to learn and achieve personal excellence, regardless of their individual circumstances.

The impact of ability grouping negates this statement and instead puts limits on students’ learning.

Flexible forms of grouping = high level learning for all

High expectation teachers use flexible forms of grouping instead of grouping students by ability. Sometimes they’ll group students socially. Sometimes they will have mixed ability grouping. Sometimes they’ll pair students with someone who is not at the same achievement level and sometimes they’ll have whole class activities.

High expectation teachers still identify students who need support with particular skills and will pull them into a group for targeted teaching. What is different is that these groups are not fixed and they change on a daily basis.

The thinking behind flexible grouping is that all students should be given high level learning opportunities that empower them to be successful. Student engagement in stimulating activities is critical for motivation, achievement, and progress.

Research shows that when supposed low ability students are placed with their high achieving peers, within one year they are achieving at similar levels, sometimes even overtaking them. When students are given more advanced opportunities to learn, they can make more progress than might previously have been thought possible.

Flexible grouping in action

A key characteristic of flexible grouping is that students are offered choices in activities. While there will be levels in the activities on offer they won’t be obvious to the students.

For example, in a reading programme the teacher might create a theme box based on “outer space” and in that theme box they would place lots of books about planets, space travel, moons, and stars. Some books would be easier to read than others to cater for a range of different reading levels.

The difference in this approach is that students choose what they want to read.

The teacher isn’t insisting that students read something only at their level.

Students don’t typically choose things that are too hard because they get frustrated and they don’t choose things that are too easy because they get bored. They often choose texts or activities that offer challenge and extension. This is where we see rapid growth.

Teacher expectations matter

Teachers who hold high expectations for their learners help to create an equitable education system. The more teachers expect, the bigger the gains.

The following passage from the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian exemplifies the power of high expectations:

“... I’d always been the lowest Indian on the reservation totem pole - I wasn’t expected to be good so I wasn’t. But, Reardan, my coach and the other players wanted me to be good. They needed me to be good. They expected me to be good. And so I became good. I wanted to live up to expectations. I guess that’s what it comes down to. The power of expectations. And as they expected more of me I expected more of myself and it just grew and grew until I was scoring twelve points a game.”

We need more high expectation teachers in our schools. Teachers who provide high level learning opportunities that empower every student to be successful. Flexible grouping is one way that teachers can begin to raise the bar in education.

Reflective questions

  • Has this blog affirmed or challenged your thinking about ability grouping?
  • Has this blog affirmed or challenged your thinking about flexible grouping?
  • What changes might you introduce to your classroom in response to what you have read?

You might like:

How should we group students in primary maths classroom?
This blog explores the disadvantages of ability grouping in mathematics and explains how mixed ability grouping can address wider equity issues.

Growth mindset spotlight
Use our fourth spotlight to explore growth mindset and find strategies to help you build a culture of growth mindset in your own classrooms. Find short videos, group activities, and opportunities for personal reflection.

The Teacher Expectation Project
This article from Education Review explains the research by Professor Christine Rubie-Davies around teacher expectations. It describes the impact that grouping students, class climate, and goal setting can have on achievement.

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