When we ‘set’ students according to ability, we are giving them a powerful – and potentially toxic – message, warns Laura Allen…
Encouraging confidence, equality and determination within the classroom are, of course, fundamental to teaching. However, we seem to be getting this all wrong.
Carol Dweck’s idea of growth mind-set revolves around the idea of growing our minds in order to develop self-esteem and belief that hard work and dedicated will equal success, not talent alone. Yet how can we be encouraging students to view themselves as equal to their peers, when we then ‘set’ them? As teachers and educational establishments, it seems we are sending mixed messages to the students. It is not possible to encourage students to develop their self-esteem and idea that hard work prevails, when they are then labelled and branded with a number, which they see as a glass ceiling to their ability. Setting only enables students to believe that those with a ‘better’ number above their heads will succeed and completely contradicts the ideas and beliefs we try to develop: hard work, not talent alone, equals success.
I have been lucky enough to experience teaching of both mixed ability and setting; it is clear, without doubt, to see which has the most advantages. To view themselves as equal to their peers is an integral part of not only school, but society too. As adults, we aren’t ‘set’ to our ability within our workplace, yes, there is a hierarchy but that comes from hard work and dedication to the job (the key areas we are trying to teach). I am sure, even adults would find the idea of being labelled demeaning and a dent to our confidence – imagine this at 11 years old.
Each to their own
Mixed ability proves we are moving with the times. Gone are the days (at the moment) of grammar schools and university only being for a place for the rich, therefore schools need to reflect this. Society as an entity is mixed ability and wouldn’t it be amazing for any student when they become an adult to be able to talk to anyone of any walk of life?
Traditionally by ‘setting’, the disadvantaged and PP pupils are usually weaker and therefore in the bottom sets and for some of these students, that can mean being with the same people for five years. They are then ostracised from mixing with students from different backgrounds, from having the intellectual debates, questions and even talking to a more ‘advantaged’ student.
One of the saddest things I’ve ever heard whilst on teacher training, was a top set student say how pleased they were they didn’t have to ever mix with the ‘type’ of student found in the bottom set. We have already created this ideology within our schools, yet want them to think differently when in society. School is a society and should reflect the ideal.
Equality of aspiration
I have hundreds of anecdotes of seeing mixed ability teaching work. Hundreds of students benefiting from a system that is different and challenging even for us as teachers; that builds upon improvement rather than how intelligent you are; hundreds of students believing, for once, they can achieve anything they put their mind to; hundreds of lower ability students being able to grow their minds and converse over the most challenging of ideas. It just works. The sooner we see this, and implement this in schools, the better for all.
It seems our nation is always afraid of becoming ‘arrogant’ and find the idea of self-belief a little unnerving. It is such a shame. The impact we could have upon society would be staggering, if only we changed our attitudes to our ability, confidence and determination, which needs to begin with school.
Teaching a growth mind-set through mixed ability creates motivation and productivity in the worlds of business, education, and sports. It enhances relationships. And when you teach mixed ability, you will see how.
About The Author
Laura Allen is second in charge of a highly successful English department in Hampshire. Her opinions are solely her own.
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