My experience in education, as detailed in my previous blog, has been somewhat colourful and has involved being educated in both state and private schools. Each had their benefits and drawbacks, with one notable difference being mixed ability classes. Due to my previous experiences of both mixed ability classes and set classes, and the previous research in the area, I will argue that mixed ability sets are damaging to the learning of both high achievers and low achievers, and that schools need to abandon this way of teaching students.
In secondary school, we had only one subject in which we were set based on grades: mathematics. For all other subjects we were placed with peers of varying abilities, whereby all of the work assigned was exactly the same. When I moved to private school, we were placed in sets for mathematics, english, science, history, geography, languages, and IT. As a result, all of the material that we were studying was appropriate for our abilities, and no student was left to feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed by the work given. This raises the fundamental question of why this luxury seems to be exclusive for those who attend private schools?
The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, supports the argument of abolishing mixed ability classes, stating that they are ‘a curse’ on bright pupils, whose lessons are tailored towards average and low-skilled pupils (Paton, 2012).
The research in this area provides extremely mixed results, with many claiming that mixed ability classes disadvantage students and many others claiming that students flourish in comparison to set classes. For example, Lavy, Silva, and Weinhardt (2009) found significant negative peer effects when high and average performing students were placed in the same classes as peers at the bottom of the ability distribution. Additionally, they found little evidence that average and high achieving peers affect lower achieving students. This suggests that neither academically bright or academically challenged students benefit from mixed ability classes.
However, Boaler, an advocate for mixed ability classes, and her colleagues Wiliam and Brown (2000) stated that set classes had hugely negative impacts on student performance. They reported that students in lower sets were denied the opportunity to learn and that students in the top sets were required to learn at a place that was incompatible with comprehension. Additionally, they found that the same teachers applied a restrictive amount of approaches when teaching set groups in comparison to mixed ability groups. Almost all of the students who were placed in ‘setted groups’ were unhappy in that group.
In spite of this, Kulik and Kulik (1992) conducted a meta-analysis finding that students do benefit from grouping based on ability and that there is no significant evidence that students in the lower sets are harmed emotionally or academically.
This discrepancy in findings in studies looking at the same concept of mixed ability classes is troubling and demonstrates the need for more truly unbiased research in the area. Unfortunately, much of the research in education is currently funded by the government, thus meaning that research findings may be tailored to suit the needs of the funding body (Burkhardt & Schoenfeld, 2003). Now I am not for one second accusing these researchers of academic misconduct however, the way in which students are interviewed and teachers instructed on sets can be the pure reason for the discrepancies in findings. Additionally, all of these studies employ different methods of teaching and interviewing students; it is therefore likely that different results may actually be a result of different teaching methods.
Clearly, this is a difficult one to call – which is better – mixed ability or set classes? I would personally argue that set classes are more effective for students, and reject the claim made by some supporters of mixed-classes that it demoralises students. Based on the previous research, I feel that set classes are the way forward in education, but that teachers should be encouraged to teach students in low sets with the same quality and enthusiasm as students in high sets.
Boaler, J., Wiliam, D, & Brown, M. (2000). Students’ experiences of ability grouping – disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure. British Educational Research Journal, 26(5), 61-648
Burkhardt, H., & Schoenfeld, A. H. (2003). Improving educational research: Toward a more useful, more influential, and better-funded enterprise. Educational Researcher, 32(9), 3-14
Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. C. (1992). Meta-analytic findings on grouping programs. Gifted Child Quarterly, 36(2), 7-77
Lavy, V., Silva, O., & Weinhardt, F. (2009). The good, the bad, and the average: Evidence on the scale and nature of ability peer effects in schools. The National Bureau of Economic Research, 121(18), 1-46
Paton, G. (2012, 09, 20). Ofsted: Mixed-ability classes ‘a curse’ on bright pupils. The Telegraph. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9553764/Ofsted-mixed-ability-classes-a-curse-on-bright-pupils.html