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Questions about 'ability' in the classroom

(83 Posts)
Cortina Wed 16-Feb-11 10:52:18

Do educators assume that 'ability' in the class room follows an approximate bell sized distribution? Within the classroom there will roughly three groups of children the below average, average and above average.?

The average around which ability groups are based being approximately the middle of the class. NC targets are then set for each group depending on whether the group is above average, average or below average?

In a literacy lesson, for example, the highest group will get to write a poem with a free choice of words in a similar style to the one studied, the middle group will write a few paragraphs on something around the general theme with much vocab given to them, the bottom group given a few sentences as regards what was happening in the lesson.

You can see the flaws in this system, it's possible that someone talented might be in the bottom group but due to poor evaluation and lack of opportunity to excel will never be seen to be as able as his peers in the top group.

In a good school, with a good teacher this is unlikely?

The bottom group are unlikely to excel in KS2 if this is the set up even if capable? Do some able children 'fall through the net' in this sort of scenario? What about a large class etc?

I'm always struck reading through posts here and elsewhere that parents seem to think 'ability' is fairly static. The forums are shot through with opinions about a child's static academic ability. John is 'able' at maths but less 'able' at english, one child just isn't academic and so on, there's a feeling that there's little room for John to smash anyone's expectations especially as he gets older.

littlebylittle Wed 16-Feb-11 11:34:56

I think you ask some interesting questions. In my ten years as a primary school teacher, I used assessment at the beginning of the year to initially decide on ability groups in various areas of, usually, maths and English. Whilst there are some national ideas and expectations of roughly what Children will be likely to be able to do at a certain stage, no good teacher sets work without knowing what the individuals in that particular class can do. This assessment is ongoing and daily- I would adjust the work slightly when I had marked the work and seen how the children has coped with the lesson that day. In order to manage the wide range of abilities at any one time in a class, I would group the children so that I could direct work effectively that would challenge but not overwhelm them. But because I was always monitoring their progress, I could see when Children were making faster or slower progress and move them between groups. Some children stayed in the same group all year, some didn't. But that was because the work in that group challenged them, or didn't not because of a static idea if their 'ability'. So I don't know if that answers some of your queries, but the bottom line was I assume nothing about the ability of a group of children, and use assessment to continually inform what they might need to learn next. I would have thought that this is standard good practice, it was in the schools I've worked in.

littlebylittle Wed 16-Feb-11 11:45:29

You also talk about how a literacy lesson, for example might be differentiated. It could be that activities like the ones you describe would be set but this would be because I'd assessed that that was the kind of work that would best move the charente forward. And often, the children would work on the same task whatever their group and the differentiation would be how much support they received to complete it. It's not as simple as saying some children wouldn't get the chance to get to the same level because they didn't get the same work. A child is not going to progress simply by being given difficult work- if it's beyond what they are capable of at that time it won't help them progress at all. But good teachers have high but appropriate expectations of what their pupils can achieve. Also, you talk about the bottom group not being able to succeed even if they are capable. I guess what I've said about ongoing assessment should help with that. I would never describe a group as 'bottom' anyway, but the groups are decided by knowing what those children can do and so a child that's capable of more won't end up in that group. Are you worried about this happening to your child? It does happen that a child does differently at home and school for various reasons and I would see your child's teacher if you think that's the case. It was with my daughter and the school sorted it out.

littlebylittle Wed 16-Feb-11 11:46:11

Don't know where Charente came from - meant children!

littlebylittle Wed 16-Feb-11 11:51:16

Sorry, this has really got me going! The main thing I want to emphasise is that groups within my classes always came from assessing individuals and forming them into groups. This idea of having arbitrary groups to put children into isn't something I recognise and almost the opposite way round. I didn't decide the level of the work and fit the children into it as best I could, even though there are schemes of work for year groups, which guide planning, I had to adjust and amend according to the actual children I had.

IndigoBell Wed 16-Feb-11 11:59:15

No, teachers don't assume their classroom fits a bell shaped curve.

And they don't assume ability is static.

Cortina Wed 16-Feb-11 12:25:54

Great to get clear explanations.

I would say it's unfortunately human nature to label for lots of reasons, often subconsciously & unwittingly. Once a child is seen as 'slow' this label is not usually rescinded. If he exceeds expectations this is often seen as a surge of effort rather than an increase in ability. A 'bright' child who does badly often has excuses made for them, falling in with a bad crowd etc. Yet spurts and dips are normal for every child.

I believe too if you treat children as if they are able and intelligent they become more so. Our ability groups haven't really changed since reception, they are fast becoming a self fulfilling prophecy.

I've noticed too with my son he tends to rise to the level of any group he's placed with & I am v ambitious for him.


I've noticed amongst my English friends especially that they tend to think IQ is fairly fixed. When that Amy Chua/ Chinese superior parenting article came out many said, her extreme methods aside, it was no wonder her daughters did well as they had IQs of 150. It was as if that was the main/only? factor in all they achieve.

meditrina Wed 16-Feb-11 12:32:07

ISWYM about the "halo" and "horns" effect, and the possibility of self-fulfilling prophecy.

From my perspective as a parent, though, teachers (especially in primary) are well attuned to this as a pitfall, and the detailed assessment criteria they have to use also supports observation/evidence based decision making on differentiation and progress.

I don't think the bell-curve applies in the classroom - the group size is too small to have a representative population.

cory Wed 16-Feb-11 12:42:18

Both my children have moved sets so ime it hasn't been all that static. A good teacher should be able to notice progress and give adequate support for a child to move up.

cory Wed 16-Feb-11 12:44:02

In fact, I have a very clear idea (supplied by two successive years of teachers) as to what ds would need to work on to move out of bottom sets- unfortunately, ds is totally refusing to cooperate, as he thinks it is massively unfair that he should have to work harder than anybody else. With an attitude like that he is unlikely to progress- but I am not sure it is the teacher's fault.

littlebylittle Wed 16-Feb-11 12:57:10

Have you spoken to the class teacher about this cortina? It helps to give examples of things he has done that show this concept of rising to the expectation placed on him. And as I mentioned earlier, it is really helpful to the teacher to know how children work outside the classroom, at home or in extra curricular activities.

littlebylittle Wed 16-Feb-11 13:00:36

Of course, when I'm assessing what a child can do, it's within the school and classroom environment. That's a wider issue of what learning environments and styles encourage children to give of their best and a lot of work is being done in schools because they recognise that children learn well in different ways.

littlebylittle Wed 16-Feb-11 13:03:25

Sorry for lots of posts! I notice cortina your school groups children by ability very early. Not IMO always a good thing as the further down the school you go, the more flux there in how children perform.

foxinsocks Wed 16-Feb-11 13:06:25

I do see a lot of people (parents) who seem to assume that ability is static i.e. that if they are at the top of the class in reception, they will be the whole way through the school

I have one child (a summer born) who was quite clearly not anywhere near the top of her class at the beginning of her school career. I was very worried about her as she seemed to struggle with a lot of things but every single one of her teachers told me they thought she would be a late bloomer and they had absolutely no worries about how she was doing and how well she would do in the future.

Of course, getting near the end of primary they were right and she has really started to blossom now. I look back on those teachers and think what wisdom and experience they had!

btw her teachers always told her this (told her not to worry too much and to keep on trying) and dd had to write a life motto for school the other day and wrote 'aim for the highest as you may surprise yourself' (and I truly believe this is from successive teachers telling her to keep on believing in herself!).

(hope none of that sounded smug, didn't mean it to be!)

Cortina Wed 16-Feb-11 13:18:38

Foxinsocks, you sound incredibly positive which will also have helped enormously. Glad to hear things have gone well .

Cortina Wed 16-Feb-11 13:25:40

Yes I have spoken to the teacher, but do worry about being 'pushy' like so many of us. He is doing well now and has moved up, one of two to do so in a large class. He is believed to be a touch above average, he is ahead of this I'd say in a couple of areas but we are now heading in the right direction.

I have to say I believe he would still be on the bottom table and 3 book bands lower if not for my intervention and citing evidence etc.

foxinsocks Wed 16-Feb-11 13:28:36

what year is he in?

I think you have to back most teachers tbh unless you feel they are really awful and even then, I'm not sure what you can do if you think they are 'labelling' your child other than try and prove them wrong.

IndigoBell Wed 16-Feb-11 13:28:54

But Cortina you have been saying this for as long as I have been on the board - and everyone keeps telling you ability grouping is not done like that in their school.

So why don't you just move your kids? Your uneasiness is not going away. For some reason you think they've pigeon holed your child. Move, give him and you a fresh start.

But having endless philosophical debates with us on MN won't help your children at all....

Nor do I think for a moment that kids only learn what they're taught, and only do the work to the level they've been taught at. When the whole class is asked to write a story, everyone has a fair chance at writing a brilliant story - whatever 'table' they're on....

My son didn't want to go the top set for Maths because he didn't want that teacher, so he stayed with his own teacher. He still got the top mark in the class. The whole year group did the same test and he got right the answers he could do - not what he'd been taught.

Kids learn everywhere and all the time. There learning is never going to be restricted to what a teacher teaches them....

Feenie Wed 16-Feb-11 13:51:42

Indigobell is right, Cortina - you ask the same questions, and everyone tells you the same things, namely a)no, that doesn't happen in a good school, and b)your school sounds appalling, move your children!

Cortina Wed 16-Feb-11 14:25:25

Hi Feenie. I'm not sure that I am completely alone but I could be wrong? I know other schools that have seemingly static ability sets, the children that start ahead tend to stay ahead etc. Friends have similar concerns etc but this is largely anecdotal evidence I know.

I do have really high standards and because the psychology of ability etc really interests me I possibly read too deeply into things at times. When mistakes are made, my son is mistaken for another boy in the class, he is assessed at the wrong level etc I get concerned but perhaps these are not major issues and an on the ball parent will query? Our school is seen as being very good believe it or not. Our teacher is good too this year but has a lot on their plate for various reasons. I am one who 'slipped through the net' myself so I know it can happen when setting etc is too much of a blunt instrument etc. Hopefully things have improved since then. I am not complaining as such, things have improved thankfully, but remain interested in the topic.

wordfactory Wed 16-Feb-11 14:37:26

First, ability isn't static, nor is ability.

Yes, most schools recognise this and there is movement in sets.

However, you do have to guard against fixed views. We are all guilty of labeling our DC sporty, or creative, or clever. Teachers are only human of course.

wordfactory Wed 16-Feb-11 14:38:14

nor is achievement

ElinElin Wed 16-Feb-11 14:49:06

Cortina, I know how you feel. Hopefully it doesn't happen in most schools but I feel that it is happening in my dd school. I have written a thread about this and sorry if you guys have read it and I am repeating myself but this issue is really playing on my mind.
A) I think that it is too early to divide kids in to ability groups in reception. Their ability could change/improve on a weekly basis. One week they cannot read the next week they can. B) I am really concerned with my dd assessments by teacher. After xmas my dd was still getting pic books and when mentioned to teacher she said my dd cannot match character names with pics. My daughter had been able to do this since Sept. And if the teachers' argument was that she is not demonstrating it in school it is a bit of a coinsidence that the day after I said this to the teacher my dd gets a note saying' your child can now match the character.... and a reading book in her bag. And Indigobell, it is not always as easy as 'move your child'. My dd is nr 35 on the waiting list to the school I like. A place is not going to become available any time soon.

RMCW Wed 16-Feb-11 14:59:10

foxinsocks Thats so great smile

May I ask when you noticed a change in your dd's ability? My son is 7 (summer baby) and in year 3.

His old school had them in ability groups from reception - aged 4.5. Far too young IMO.

My gut feeling is that my ds1 will be like your dd.

Oh, and despite his year 2 teacher at his old school telling us how much he had improved he was not moved group.....I never knew any child move group in my 2 years there as a parent helper.

RMCW Wed 16-Feb-11 14:59:32

elin Look at other schools???????

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