Struggling teachers often complain about the level of some of their students, and request that the weakest are grouped together in specific classes to address their specific needs. This solution has been experimented an incredible amount of times and thouroughly studied, but the results are confusing. The literature about the efficiency of ability-based organization remains unclear, because it’s impossible to find a straight and logical answer to this question. Statistical studies miss the point, if they intend to find a general answer. Any decision made on this matter is necessarily a trade-off between contradictory objectives and requires the evaluation of a complex situation. To appreciate the disparities of the students of even a single class and make the best decision about it, we have to consider a large variety of factors: the school system as a whole, public opinion on academic achievement and students’ rights, the conditions for class repetition, the existence of extra-classes for weak students and son on. Besides, on all those factors, the question isn’t if, but how much.
Inequalites are unavoidable
In France, when teachers complain about the difficulty to teach to classes with mixed abilities, the answer of the bureaucracy is generally to say that homogenous classes don’t exist. Thank you so much! Such an answer is true, but totally unacceptable from a teacher’s point of view. It’s like a medic saying to a patient that perfect health doesn’t exist. No matter how true this statement is, if you are sick with ebola, that’s certainly not what you want to hear. If you have caught a flue, you may rejoice to build up your immunitary defences. Maybe… You need a precise diagnosis, before you decide which medication you take. The dose makes the poison. What is a necessity for a sick man is a poison for an healthy kid.
No doubt that, in every class, there is a significant gap between the best and the weakest students. The question is if you can handle that gap or if it is too wide. If it’s reasonnable, a good teacher can use it at his advantage. But if it’s not, he has to try and reduce it, in order to make a decent lesson.
One must also be aware that disparities are natural, there are not the result of a specific system, although some systems may influence them.
Moreover, and it goes against the prejudices of many people, an efficient school system tends to widen the gap instead of reducing it, at least if I mean by “efficient” a school system that makes each student realize his full potential. It’s called the Matthew effect, from the Gospel of Matthew, “for to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”. Advantages tends to cumulate. If you’re a quick learner, you’ll learn much more during you’re entire life, and each new piece of knowledge makes your learning easier. If you are retarded from the beginning, each difficulty tends to cumulate with the others. A failure is a cause for another failure. This effect is very deeply rooted in human nature, or I should say in nature itself, for it exists also amongst animals. No school system will ever produce equality, unless we renounce to teach. And even so, there would be the imput of social origins and family education. Equality at school means giving equal opportunities to all students at the beginning, but no teacher can promise the same success to every student.
Different kinds of competition
If we want to be just, the question is to know if every student has a real chance to improve his skills through education, not if they are performing equally. One should not compare too much with others, but with what one was previously. A reasonnable dose of competition can be an incentive, as long as you’re not ridiculously weaker than your competitors. Compete in your own category.
Certain styles of teaching artificially and unnecessary increase the gap between the good and the weak students, because they introduce competition prematurily. It’s like competing for a group match or for the knock-out phase. It’s noticeable in language teaching, especially during oral activities. In many classes, the lesson functions as a de facto competition for speech turn. Students are supposed to raise their hands in order to answer the questions of the teacher. They’re supposed to participate spontaneously. The result is, logically, that the course goes on with only 4 or 5 active students, and maybe 10 or 15 serious observers. The others do very little or even misbehave. It’s mechanical, and doesn’t depend on the average skill of the students, except maybe for the size of the misbehaving group. Only the fastest get the opportunity to open their mouth. Winner takes all. The initial advantage of the most confident student means that he’ll learn better and is more likely to be the fastest on further occasions. It’s probably one of the reasons why the language teachers are amongst those who complain the most about mixed abilities.
There are other factors that make disparities difficult to handle. The major issue is prerequisites. These don’t affect all the subjects equally. It’s probably in mathematics that the problem is the most difficult. Students who are bad at maths tend to remain bad for the entire life, whereas the oustanding ones can be detected very early. On the other end of the spectrum, there are subjects like history or literature. A student can fail miserabily at an exam about the Napoleonic Wars, because he despises his teacher or doesn’t like fancy uniforms or whatever. It doesn’t prevent him from performing very well about WWII. The former is not an absolute prerequisite to understand the latter. You don’t need to know Plato or the Germanic mythology in order to understand Tolkien, even though it could be interesting. That knowledge would open a new level of understanding, but is not necessary at all.
A few subjects are prerequisites for other subjects as well. We could call them archsubjects. For instance reading, writing, maths or grammar can hinder severely all the learning process in science, geography, history. But the reverse is not true.
Some subjects have a intricated internal logic. I mean that you have to learn every step before you achieve great performance. Before you can play an instrument effectively, you have to learn music theory.
Adapting the lesson to the abilities of the students is the core of the teacher’s job. If it was not the case, it would be easier and far less expensive to replace teachers with videos or even books.
The true question for an educator is to decide wether the gap between the best and the worst is too big to handle or not. Mixed-abilities classes can be considered as an opportunity, if the teaching style implies some form of collaboration between the students, and if the lesson doesn’t imply too many prerequisites, and if the gap itself is not too wide, and if competition is not a major objective (may it be a competition inside or ouside the class). All those conditions are necessary.
It’s logically impossible to set up a general policy on this matter. It’s essential that the school system allows people to make important decisions at the lower level, in this case the school. Indeed, decisions must be based on circonstantial knowledge, that only those at the bottom of the hierarchy possess. That’s precisely why a project like NGS is valuable. Autonomy is a major key to solve the issue of mixed abilities.
What kind of actions should we consider?
There are several levels where you can try and solve this issue.
Traditionally, at least in the school systems inspired by France (but no longer in France today), repetition was the first mean to avoid too much disparities in a class. A severe selection process was implemented. It has become controversial, but it served many purposes quite effectively.
Let’s begin with the reproaches. Repetition is said to discourage the students who are labelled as bad students. It takes away an important part of their lives. “Losing” one year is certainly not a pleasant thing. It’s obviously expensive. Those are serious issues, but not redhibitory. Repetition also fails to equalize the level between the good students and the repeaters. I don’t want to be too technical, but the latter argument relies mostly on a fallacy, as there is no chance that any solution will make them perfectly equal. The efficiency of repetition in grade 1 should not be measured by the success rate at the baccalauréat (but this is the methodology chosen in France to denounce repetitions). Correlation is not causation, and the studies compares children who are much more different from what they say (basically they compare those who are slightly below the passing rate with those who are slightly above, not considering the very bad and the very good students.
The advantages are obvious. You don’t ask students to do something above their capability, which is the case if you oblige them to follow all the middle-school curriculum, while they’re not able to read. You make sure that the pupils have the prerequisites for the next school year (if your criteria are correct). You avoid too much disparity in a given class, thanks to the selection process. Those who don’t pass are given more time to learn. If their pride isn’t too much hurt, they can consider repetition as a opportunity. Sometimes, good students in high school demand to repeat the last grade in order to get admission to a better university. I believe in second chances, but they are so only if you consider them to be so. Never tell to a student that repetition is an ineffective system. It would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
By leveling, I mean organizing the students into groups of similar abilities at the same grade. For instance grade 7 A takes the best students, while 7 B takes the weakest, all the students being the same age.
It can be a solution in certain classes, but it comes with a bunch of undesirable side-effects.
In France, it is sometimes seen as a solution to compensate for the abolition of class repetition, which I consider very unwise.
Leveling can solve the problem of mixity. The good students get the opportunity to realize their potential. It isn’t to be neglected. If classroom management has become a nightmare, because we cannot find relevant activities for all the students, maybe leveling must be chosen to save at least those who want to learn.
But it isn’t satisfying. The group of weaker students will immediately be labeled as bad, or even as a “trash class”. You may try to hide it behind a pretty denomination, sooner or later someone will utter the offensive words. The children and the families are not easily fooled. Besides, the weaker class doesn’t get more teaching time. It means that the pupils have almost no chance at all to reduce the gap. They’ll go at a slower pace, and that’s it! On those two issues, leveling is much worse than repetition. At least repetition gives you a chance. Of course, if you repeat a class, you look older than your classmates, and they may think that you’re not the brightest guy. But teachers believe that you can improve your skills, if you are given more time. Or maybe the repetition was just an accident. Being in the bad class is a trap.
If leveling concerns only specific subjects, the labeling effect is reduced or negated. We have the group of the best English speakers, and those who can barely utter a word. It’s rather easy to admit that not all the students can be good in English, or that some children have had the opportunity to learn that language at home. There is no shame in being a “beginner”. However, you can’t remain a beginner for too long. It doesn’t solve the problem of a slower pace and a leveling system based on specific subjects can become a logistical nightmare. You begin with English, and then what? Maths? Grammar? Science? It is to be decided wisely, after a close examination of the circonstances.
Leveling should be considered as a very strong medication, not to be chosen if other solutions can be implemented.
This solution has some similarities with the previous one, but is much better. Choosing to learn mechanics instead of literature can be an opportunity. Professional schools are not necessarily trash schools, providing that they have a serious selection process and high expectations. The apparent hierarchy between the curricula is misleading. Technical studies can be a path of excellence.
However, it’s rarely a solution available at the level of a single school. The possibility has to be recognized in the legal school system. If the law decides that all the children must follow the same curriculum until the age of 16, there isn’t much to be done.
We have to consider the mere availability of professional training. Professional schools are generally very tight. If you have 25 places in a workshop, you don’t have 26. It’s relatively easy to add a chair for an extra student in a Khmer classroom. It’s not easy to add an extra machine in a workshop.
There is also a lot of work to do to improve the reputation of such classes. By changing the expectations of the students and their families, it’s possible to change the quality of the work significantly.
Giving more time to those who need it. There are few side-effects to this solution. No labeling issues, no definite inabilities. It addresses the issue of slower pace to a significant extend.
There are different ways to organize educational support: special classes in the evening, at home, intensive sessions during vacations and so on. In general, regularity is preferable. But for specific difficulties, short intensive sessions may be very effective, for instance for the introduction of a new exercise, such as philosophy essays.
It may be unpopular with some families, but not the majority of them. The extra classes can be a burden for the students, especially in a school that offers already a big amount of lessons. But it may be a great opportunity to regain confidence, if it’s not perceived as a punishment.
The only serious issue is the cost. The question is: “Who should pay?” Usually, it’s the families. They are quite willing to pay private lessons for the final preparation to a exam. It appears to be a profitable investment. But it’s often too late. You don’t solve problems about spelling or reading just three months before the bac II. Those issues should be dealt with as soon as possible, at the lower grades. But such a perspective can be frightening for the families: “Do we have to pay for 12 years?” In an ideal organization, I would recommend to organize free educational support at key points in the curriculum: grade 1, grade 7, grade 10. Reading is the most important. We should do whatever we can to make sure that all the students can read before they enter grade 2. Beware that free educational support is often demanded by families who don’t really need it. Very good students are likely to volunteer for extra classes, while the bad ones tend to avoid them.
Of course, risk of financial abuse from teachers is also to be taken into consideration. A teacher should never be allowed to make private classes with his own students. It would be a reward for bad behavior and incompetence.
Tutoring by peers
Tutoring by elder students or even classmates can help reduce the cost. However, commitment may be a problem. It requires strong encouragement from the school staff: dedicated hours, some kind of reward, recognition and assessment.
Tutoring in the classroom is an interesting idea. The best students are asked to help the worst, when they have finished their exercises. For the tutors, it’s an opportunity to understand the lesson even better, and to do something important. They can be proud to be chosen for such a task.
However, it can become unpleasant for them, if it is not a choice, or if the bad students are really too bad, or if there is any kind of ressentment or bad feeling between them. It happens that “bad” students have often other problems than just a lack of intellectual potential: families in disarray, physical and psychological wounds, violence and so on. You cannot expect from a 12-year old to have the same patience and the same commitment as an adult who is paid for it. In-the-classroom tutoring is also a source of disorder, especially if the classroom is small, like any kind of group work by the way. It’s essential that the teacher remains in control of the class.
Students who benefit for such a support tend to consider it as a right. If it is the case, it may slow down the learning process rather than speed it up. Helping someone to do exercises is always a difficult task. There is a temptation to do the exercises in his place, rather than with him. Even adults make that mistake. We must be sure that the good students will let the others try. For all those reasons, I would consider tutoring by pairs as a matter of opportunity rather than a systematic method.
Teaching styles: performance or hard work
It’s important to notice that some teaching styles are more affected by than the others by the gap between the abilities. Some are oriented toward performance, while others are oriented toward work. It isn’t obvious that the former are always better than the latter. There is room for Fiat as well as for Ferrari.
Creative activities, such as problem-solving, public speeches and so on, put a great emphasis on performance. The higher order of thinking are more difficult and more likely to discourage the weakest students.
Of course, we can’t just renounce them under the pretext of equality, or to facilitate the work of the teacher. Mediocrity is not our aim.
But it’s good to balance the creative activities with easier and more secure exercises, such as reading reports, memorization, drill and so on. By the way, those trivial exercises act as a preparation for the more challenging ones.
It isn’t shameful to do simple tasks. The students must be challenged regularily, but not all the time. Beware that speaking in public is challenging by itself. Free speech is very demanding for the majority of the teenagers. All of them can speak if they are questioned individually on simple matters. But not all of them are able to take the initiative in front of 30 classmates.
Teaching style: levels of performance
Some complex tasks can be executed at various levels of performance, especially written exercises, such as essays or stories. It may be interesting to organize the teaching around such activities, when it’s possible. I think they are underestimated in foreign languages. They involve analysis, creativity or even critical thinking.
Let’s take an example. “Write down a story about a murder.” The very same topic can be the starting point of a ten-lines article for a local newspaper, or of a full novel. It’s easy to assign different objectives (in quantity and quality) to different students in order to adapt the exercise to their capabilities.
The drawback is that complex written tasks require a lot of work for the teacher to correct the exercises. The learning process varies greatly depending on the instructions and the feedback provided by the teacher. It may be necessary to make the student write a second draft, so that they take the comments into consideration. However, the preparation time isn’t too important, because a topic of one sentence is enough for one hour of class or more. In general, it’s worth the effort.
Essays and other writing activities can be the core of the teaching in subjects like history, khmer (or native language), literature. But it isn’t applicable to all the subjects.
Teaching style: differentiated instructions
By this, we mean the fact of giving different instructions to students who learn in the same class, in order to adpat to their various needs and abilities. For instance the majority of the class will do the exercises 1 to 5, while John will only do the exercise 1 and 2 and Jenifer will do something completely different in order to review a previous lesson she hasn’t yet understood.
This method doesn’t reduce the gap. On the contrary! But it does adapt the teaching to the specific needs of the students. Ultimately, it may require to renounce the official curriculum for the weakest students, because they may miss the lesson about quadratic equation while they are trying to understand fractions. From a pedagogical point of view, I would not despise such a decision, because it may be the only choice available. But it can bring some institutional complications. This situation is highly probable, if we naively think that differenciated instructions can compensate for the absence of other remedies such as repetition or educational support. It’s not a magic trick.
Differenciated instructions take a lot of time for the teacher, unless he can rely on manuals with a lot of exercises of various difficulties.
It isn’t easy to implement in the classroom.
It depends on the subject.
It’s very problematic on subjects with a lot of intricated concepts, especially if the schedule is very tight, which is generally the case in secondary school.
It seems more relevant on subjects that don’t involve too many concepts, but requires a lot of training. It’s the idea behind methods such as Montessori’s. The pupils may have to listen collectively to new lessons, but most of the time they choose, supposedly freely, which exercises they’ll do. If they are already good with additions, they may read a short tale, or play with letters. They learn a lot by manipulating objects and by repeating games alone or in small groups. One must be aware that such methods are technical, require skilled teachers and possibly a lot of expensive material. If you want to differentiate, you need to have ready-to-use stuff in sufficient quantity. The activities must be intuitive enough so that the children can try by themselves without too much guidance from the teacher, although the teacher effectively spends most of his time providing guidance to some students. Auto-assessment is also to be considered, for the same reason: the teacher cannot be everywhere at the same time.
All in all, it means even more preparation for the teacher to do. It’s certainly not the kind of things that a teacher can improvise after a three-hours training session.
Are differentiated instructions fair? Well, it’s a question to take into consideration. If there is any kind of competition, or rewards based on academic performances, they would be an injustice. The students would rightfully complain and it could bring disorder. However, the majority of the students admit willingly that some of them are out of the competition or have different needs. In any case, those who are given special instructions shouldn’t be compared to the others.
Note: We must precise, to be honest, that there are other reasons to differentiate than just fixing the problem of mixed-abilities. For instance, differentiation is used to offer some freedom to the students. Thus, it can restore their motivation or open perspectives. It is also a way to engage them on significant group projects.
As the first lessons on a given subject are crucial, the teacher should take his time to do them properly. A great share of the gap between the students depends on the very first lessons. They contain notions that we use all the time.
For instance, in English, you need personal pronouns all the time. Hesitating when using them is a major hindrance. But hesitating about the name of a specific species of bird is easily forgivable and doesn’t really affect the fluency of a conversation. Obviously, every student must know the alphabet perfectly. The same goes for numbers.
It is not a waste of time to make sure that every pupil is performing well on basic skills, before to move on. On the other hand, you don’t need to wait for everybody, when it comes to the dates of major battles.