From ‘fixed-ability thinking’ to ‘learning without limits’

Sarah Bragg reports on a seminar hosted by the Education Research Centre and the School of Education at the University of Brighton on Jan 8th 2015, with Dr Rachel Marks (UoB) and Dame Alison Peacock.

Snails, hedgehogs, meerkats, zebras, snow leopards.

Circles, triangles, squares, hexagons, dodecagons.

Mopeds, cars, ferraris, helicopters. 

Now here’s a difficult question: from the lists above, which labels do you think might designate groups of schoolchildren considered ‘high ability’, and which ‘low ability’? I’ll have to hurry you…

They are all actual examples, taken from Rachel Marks’s doctoral research into the effects of streaming and setting practices in primary maths teaching, and of ‘fixed ability thinking’ more widely – the idea that some people are ‘born clever’ or ‘smart’, and others… well, they just aren’t.

We have learned to be suspicious about claims about ‘IQ’ or ‘intelligence’, but ‘ability’ appears to be reconstituting the same beliefs in an as-yet less widely challenged form. And maths is one of the subjects where the language of ‘ability’ is most entrenched – it is seen as just common sense that one either can or cannot do it ‘naturally’.

Perhaps one of the biggest myths teachers uphold is that children don’t know what these labels – and the values they imply – mean, which adds insult to injury. Rachel’s evidence suggested that they not only (of course) understand this all too well, but also internalize the identities they are given at such young ages. ‘I can’t do this, I’m a moped’ a six year old child told Rachel (note: not even ‘I’m in the moped group’).

Does it matter? Well, 88% of all those children placed in streams or sets, as they now are on government recommendation from four and a half, will remain in those same groupings until they leave school. And there are social justice outcomes, with students taught under equitable structures more likely to enter higher status careers. Rachel’s research showed the costs even for children designated ‘more able’: they worried about getting things wrong, defined success in terms of speed and quantity of work completed rather than depth of thinking, and competed against each other rather than collaborated.

So there is good reason for challenging the language and practices of ‘ability’.

How one might go about doing so was Alison Peacock’s contribution to the seminar. She discussed the approach taken at the Wroxham School in Herts, which has gone from being in Special Measures when she assumed the headship, to successive ‘outstanding’ Ofsted judgements. It has done so through a commitment to ‘learning without limits’ and going beyond ability assumptions. 

Alison discussed particular classroom pedagogies that attempt to enact these principles, such as ‘Choice and Challenge’ (where children select from a range of maths tasks according to their confidence levels and interests, pushing themselves while working collaboratively with others); or children writing and presenting their own ‘school reports’ to teachers and parents, reflecting on the resources they need to access to help them develop and pursue their passions.

But she also made clear that these specifics are underpinned by a different culture, in which everyone – including all staff, not only teachers – are valued members of a school community, all voices are listened to, and key questions are about how children ‘surprise’ their teachers, rather than how they fare against predetermined outcomes.

By contrast, many of the teachers who attend her training courses, when asked to talk about the children in their classes without reference to ability or ‘achievement’ levels, find that they have nothing to say. They don’t really ‘know’ their students beyond what they can assess. What an indictment of our testing- and labelling-obsessed culture.

The seminar was filmed and will shortly be available to view. Contact Liz Briggs if you would like an email notification of this:

Click here Report on Beyond fixed ability thinking seminar at University of Brighton on Jan 8th 2015 for a Word file of Sarah’s report which includes some useful references.



One thought on “From ‘fixed-ability thinking’ to ‘learning without limits’

  1. In junior school, in 1969-73, I was placed in the B stream, because, when I started in the first year of juniors I wasn’t too great at spelling. I then stayed in the B stream for all four years of junior school, doing ‘Beta Maths’ and remedial literacy. In the last year of juniors we did the 11+; I failed it. All the B stream children failed the 11+ as far as I can remember. When the A stream children did 11+ preparation work the B stream children were allowed to bring in toys and games from home to play with. I then went to a secondary modern; streaming by school type! However, it was a good secondary modern on the whole, full of committed young teachers working there because they wanted to remedy the effects of social disadvantage – and many of them clearly disapproved of selection. These teachers helped me to overcome the chronically low self-esteem that I had developed in my junior school years. But even there, when I had my careers interview in 1978 and said that I wanted to go to university, the careers advisor said that it might be better if I thought of something more realistic! I did get to university, after I had moved to a comprehensive sixth form college, because my secondary modern didn’t offer the A levels that I needed to go to university. I did a PGCE after my first degree, and then did two masters degrees. I hope this is corroborative evidence – even though it is from decades ago – that early streaming by ability really is completely nonsensical.


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