I have a confession to make. It's one I've made before on this blog and something I don't mind reminding people of time and again. It's also important to remind myself repeatedly because I learned a lot from this big mistake I made as an NQT.
When I started teaching, I was obsessed with ability groups.
How were groups organised?
In my NQT year, I had ability groups for maths, writing and reading so pupils moved between different tables for these lessons. At first, these groups remained the same for half a term then they were changed based on assessments. Children would be disheartened and parents would enquire if their child went from Rectangles to Circles. Equally, celebrations were had when they went 'up' from Rowling to Blyton.
Very soon, I decided this wasn't working and that my groups should be more flexible. For the next year, I changed maths groups each week, abandoned writing groups and kept reading groups the same; after all, it's impossible to do guided reading with 5 different books with flexible groups. The move from Guided Reading to whole-class reading lessons allowed me to abandon reading groups.
Why change the strategy?
Although it felt like I was doing some really important things, in reality having ability groups was damaging for many reasons. Without realising it, I was cultivating an ethos of fixed mindsets. The children knew where they stood in the class and equally that was where they stood in my mind - very little movement or opportunities for them to go beyond where I'd placed them. Their tasks and activities were set at the right level for their table and they completed them. However there was no real personalised challenge. I was putting a ceiling on children's learning.
Also, the children and their parents were acutely focused on the groups rather than the learning of the subject. This had negative consequences on children's self esteem in return for no learning gains. Having to change ability groups every week or six weeks meant I was creating unnecessary workload for myself. Within a week of being at my new school, I had completely abandoned all ability groups.
How does it work now?
Children sit at mixed ability tables for all subjects. Sometimes I specify who children sit next to in the groups and, occasionally, I've insisted they sit boy/girl/boy/girl; although this is for behavioural reasons. As I've mentioned in previous posts, we plan our lessons in a top-down format. We consider what will stretch our children who come to the lesson with the highest starting point and then plan to support the rest of the class to aim as high as they can within the same learning objective. Instead of prescribing which level of support children have, they are able to choose what they would like to complete. This means that all children are challenged and there is a greater motivation for them because they have had an element of choice.
I often use my three-tiered tray set to help organise this but sometimes the options for the activity are just displayed on the board or discussed as a class. If there are resources to support children to aim high (word lists, writing frames, 100 squares etc), they are placed in the trays corresponding to their level of difficulty. Children know where they can go for more support or more challenge and, as much as possible, I try to ensure children can aim higher throughout the lesson if they are confident.
When children are completing activities, I use my time in a variety of ways. Firstly, I could be using my little Ikea stool to move around the class and support various children as and when they require some help. Early on in the year, children learn to ask for help when they know they're stuck rather than expect me to come straight to them. This is especially important for the children with the lower starting points. In ability groups, they are often very used to having adult support immediately. In mixed ability groups, they must become more in control of their learning and understanding, particularly recognising when they are stuck.
Secondly, I could be targeting specific children who I have recognised that may require support in the lesson. I would aim for them, using my trusty stool, and ensure I address any misconceptions or questions. Alternatively, I may have decided to work with a specific group - it could be children who struggled in the last lesson, pupils completing the hardest task which requires further input or announcing my help for children to come and go as they please. In my classroom, I have a small carpet area which I use for these quick interventions. Sometimes children bring their book and a pencil; other times they bring a whiteboard and a pen. My aim in these times is to ensure children become confident enough to return to their working place as soon as possible but sometimes children choose work with me on the carpet for the whole lesson. Providing they are challenging themselves and working hard, I am happy for them to complete the activity wherever.
Their tables are named after Superheros and the groups are called their Super Groups. Every 3 or 4 weeks (half of a half term) they change Super Groups and they can earn Super Group points for behaviour, effort, reading at home, getting diaries signed, games etc. The winning team at the end of the time gets a prize - a box of heroes (get it?!) - to share.
Every lesson is different and there is certainly no formula I use to manage mixed-ability groupings. I organise lessons based on the learning taking place and what I know about the children. There are some patterns within different subject areas and, having used mixed-ability groups for a while now, it is second nature to ensure all children will be appropriately challenged. At times, this requires changing the course of a child's learning mid lesson - and those are certainly the most exciting lessons!