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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.