For this assignment, I set out to investigate how grouping pupils by ability might affect them, both in terms of their academic attainment, and in terms of non-academic outcomes like motivation, self-esteem, and a sense of self-efficacy. The debate seemed relatively polarised, with proponents of ability grouping arguing that it offered teachers the ability to differentiate work more effectively for increased progress, whilst opponents argued that it negatively impacted on progress and pupils’ mindsets.
Crucial to my reading was the work of Carol Dweck (2000), who argues that there are two core views on learning – a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Pupils with the former mindset view intelligence as changeable, and thus seek challenges which enable them to build their knowledge and skills progressively. Learners with the latter mindset view intelligence as a fixed entity, inherent in each individual, and thus prefer to avoid challenges which put them at risk of failing, and showing their perceived lack of intelligence.
Carol Dweck’s (2000) theories are key to the issue of grouping by ability, as learners who feel labelled may be more liable to develop a fixed mindset. Further reading seemed to support this notion, with multiple studies showing that mixed-ability grouping promoted higher optimism, self-efficacy and self-esteem amongst learners. Case studies of individual schools showed how moving towards mixed-ability grouping could have transformative impacts on learners’ self-perceptions.
Another key element of my research was on the progress and attainment resulting from different grouping practices. Most of my reading suggested that ability grouping had minimal or even negative effects on attainment. A key finding by Ireson, Hallam, and Hurley (2005) was that learners of a similar ability, placed into different sets, would attain differently as a result. In mathematics in particular, learners of similar abilities benefitted considerably from being placed into higher sets. Additionally, researchers suggested that teachers often altered their practice to suit the perceived ability of their groups, often in ways which limited the creativity and challenge available to learners.
That said, my investigations in my main placement school led me to believe that it is possible to successfully use grouping by ability. Learners moved relatively freely between sets, and were clearly developing a growth mindset as a result of whole-school policies to promote these views. Whilst it was true that learners could be limited in their academic choices by the set they were placed in, and some students showed an awareness of the self-esteem issues which ability grouping might provoke, the school worked hard to avoid these pitfalls.
Ultimately, it was clear from my research that mixed-ability grouping was an ideal scenario, which could lead to significantly more positive outcomes amongst learners, when coupled with effective pedagogy. However, it was also clear that, when underpinned by targeted and tailored strategies, ability grouping did not necessarily have to be harmful to pupils – it was still possible for them to develop a growth mindset, and a positive view of their capacity to learn, whilst grouped by abilities.
Dweck, C. (2000) Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development Hove: Brunner/Mazel
Irseon, J., Hallam, S. and Hurley, C. (2005) ‘What are the effects of ability grouping on GCSE attainment?’ in British Educational Research Journal 31 (4): 443–458