Mixed-ability classes: How do we teach when the kids are all so different?

A teacher’s take on the ‘setting’ vs ‘mixed-ability’ debate, and the trouble with differentiation…

A parent, following spending the morning in class as a helper during a reading session, asked me, “Wow, do you find it hard to teach with all of the kids being at such different levels? Some of them are really coming along wonderfully. It’s still a slow process for a handful though. “

A post I read a while ago by JackTeacher88, got me thinking about the way classes are structured in most Australian Primary Schools. The setting vs mixed-ability debate isn’t one I’ve ever paid much notice to, because ‘streaming’/’setting’ or like-ability classes are not common in local schools – In fact, I’ve never heard of it occurring in any of my local Primary Schools. Whilst some High Schools set their classes up so that, for example, all of the struggling math students are in the same class, all of the highly-able students are grouped together, and so on, I can’t think of examples in which this happens at the junior level. Sure, there are many instances in which students work in like-ability groups. This happens in my class when I wish for students to work with like-minded students, to enable appropriate levels of support and challenge and sometimes simply for ease of differentiation. In the year level I teach, we also sometimes group children from across the cohort, such as in spelling where we might decide to have students work with students from other classes working on the same spelling feature, for targeted instruction. Some schools offer ‘gifted and talented’ programs or programs such as ‘group literacy support’, but these students would also be part of a regular grade.

So then, back to that parent’s question, how do we teach when the kids are all so different?

Herein lies the trouble many have with ‘differentiation.’ Does differentiation tell us that we need to plan, within the same lesson, different learning intentions, different tasks, gather different resources and orchestrate a different learning experience for each student, or each group of students? That does sound like an awful lot of work!

This blog post, also by JackTeacher88, points out a flawed model of ‘differentiation’, seen certainly when I was at school myself (hopefully not much any more!). That model saw all kids start out with the easiest level of work, the simplest task or set of problems, and as they finished, they simply got more work which gradually increased in difficulty. This meant that by the end of the lesson or spread across a unit, the struggling students would be left fumbling their way through their “dumb kid work”, whilst the highly-able students will have progressed through to work appropriate for their challenge level, leaving the rest of the class somewhere in the middle.

What’s worse, that aforementioned model of differentiation, or no differentiation at all? That is, just pitching the lesson, resources, content and task for the ‘middle kids’, whilst letting the strugglers flounder in the hope that they’ll finally learn something, and leaving those requiring more challenge or extension to go through the motion or completing the work that they find too easy, resulting in boredom. The Telegraph published this article which describes mixed-ability classes as letting down the brightest students; those being ‘held back’ by the fact that the teacher needs to teach the rest of the class ‘easier’ work – “schools fail to stretch the brightest and weakest students by placing them in mixed ability lessons”.

Well, I once heard that differentiation is easiest when it isn’t necessary! That is, if all students are at the same level, the teacher can plan one lesson, with one learning intention and the same content, resources and task which will be perfect for all students. Right?

Honestly, I’ve only ever taught mixed-ability classes, so don’t feel like I’m in a position to pass judgement either way. Are there any teacher bloggers reading this that feel strongly one way or the other? Do any of you teach only like-ability classes?

If mixed-ability classes are the norm, what are we to do? Go with that ‘challenge-gradually-increasing’ model, the ‘pitch-for-the-middle-students’ model, adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach? Of course I’m being simplistic and teachers have a wide range of strategies for ensuring all students get the support and challenge they deserve, but you do get the point I’m trying to make. Might things just be better for all involved if classes were in fact full of students ‘at the same level’?

Teachling <WordPress> < Twitter>

4 thoughts on “Mixed-ability classes: How do we teach when the kids are all so different?

  1. Not intelligence, but its direction and its multifunctionality creates the richness of life. Happiness, stimulating positive emotions, eliminating negative is multifunctional moving in one direction. Admiring the life around us, shows us his positive thoughts, actions and systems. A child who accomplishes all tasks well can explain to others how he does it. A child to the best looking and ask them for advice is fusion of intelligence in the same time. Tell the child what he does well, do not say what he is doing wrong, but mention the benefits if he does otherwise it is intelligence of expression in one direction and gives energy, strength and confidence to all. Intelligence fuses the best: Love happiness, health, value, warmth of life, energy, power to hand out for the multiplication of its growth and excellent care all around. Intelligence enjoy the differences in children because the fusion of the best of them is bigger than the intelligence of himself.

  2. I’ve always laughed when people roll their eyes at composite classes and claim that their child will be taught down dimply because of the large range of abilities within a mixed class…. The reality is even in a straight level class the range of abilities to be catered for often spans from students working 2years below the actual level to 2 yesrs above the level anyway…teaching to the middle is not an option! In saying that I do believe many teachers still don’t his and hope for the best

    • At my school, the grades (except Foundation) were all multi-age- 1&2, 3&4, 5&6. The principal has just recently changed this a couple of years ago, purely because we were sick of parents complaining just like you said- “I don’t want my Grade 2 child doing Grade 1 work” etc. You’re right though, I have just as much variance in academic ability in my current Grade 1 class as I used to in my 1&2 class! Plus, I actually enjoy the variance (do you agree?) and the way it adds to the discussions, sets up for mixed-ability pairings and allows for each child to unlock their own potential, etc. Like you said, some teachers still just ‘teach for the middle’, but on a whole I think teachers do well to differentiate in mixed classes.

  3. This is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. I am usually a proponent of heterogenous grouping of students, though I do think that there are times when we do need to make sure that we need to target a specific group of learners who are all at the same place. I think teaching elementary school is a real advantage in these types of situations, because we teach all of the subjects and there are always opportunities to see kids in terms of their composite strengths and weaknesses — as opposed to a high school class, where there is only one subject and a student theoretically could be behind in most of its facets. I tend to use heterogenous grouping as the norm — in terms of my “advanced” kids in a particular topic, I see it making them far more humble and gives them an opportunity to serve as a tutor or helper, which in turn deepens their own learning in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

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