Archive for November, 2010

International perspectives…

November 18, 2010

The part-time Masters course I’m following is called “International Perspectives on Mathematics Education”, and so a lot of our reading and discussions focus on the way maths is taught throughout the world. One of the course requirements is for all students to present on an aspect of maths education that interests them, drawing on their own experience, and to lead the group in discussion on that topic.

Last night was my turn, and I chose the topic “Grouping by Ability”. I started by outlining my own experiences as a learner – I was educated in Lincolnshire where there are still grammar schools, but my dad chose not to enter me for the 11+ and instead I went to the rural comprehensive school just up the road. The grammar schools tended to cream off the top, so it wasn’t a true comprehensive. Thinking back, in Year 10 and 11 we were in mixed ability groups for our option subjects and it was only English, Maths and Science where we were setted. The top Maths set ended up with a wide variety of grades anyway; only a small handful (four or five of us maybe?) were entered for the Higher paper at GCSE and the rest of Set 1 sat the Intermediate paper. In explaining all of this background to the rest of the students on the Masters course, I trotted out a little mantra of mine that I used to remind myself of regularly, whether teaching a “mixed ability” or “setted” group:

Every classroom is a mixed-ability classroom

The top set I found myself in as a learner was a mixed-ability classroom. My teacher had to work very hard to make sure there was an appropriate level of challenge for pupils like me who were very quick on the uptake and did lots of maths outside the classroom, while making sure there was appropriate support for people who took longer to come to grips with certain new concepts. She encouraged us to talk to each other and seek help within the classroom community rather than all lining up at her desk to ask her for help. These are the sort of strategies that teachers adopt through necessity when faced with learners working at a wide range of levels, but I think they are good teaching practices whatever the spread of achievement within a class. Of course my underlying philosophy of maths teaching is one where learners explore, conjecture and develop new understanding through collaboration with each other rather than one where the teacher imparts knowledge from the front, so this model of mixed-ability teaching doesn’t seem so alien to me as it might to others. The idea of having a set where everyone is “working at level 6” so the lesson is pitched at some pupil who is somewhere in the middle of whatever level 6 means, and those who are thinking above that level just have to slow down a bit, and those working below that level will have to follow on as best as they can – that seems like laziness to me. If we accept that we’re going to have to differentiate within whatever class we are faced with, why should the range over which we need to differentiate make that job any harder?

The most interesting part of my student-led seminar was the discussion which followed. Most of the cohort were educated overseas, and when I took them through my own experiences not just as a learner but also as a teacher in schools where setting was the norm, they were quite shocked. Unfortunately, the half-hour we had for me to present and for us to discuss wasn’t enough to get into the intricacies of other countries’ education systems, but I need to have a lot more conversation with my peers from overseas about how exams are structured and how lessons are taught to cater for a wide range of pupils. I have been so embedded in a system where grouping by ability is the norm that I find it very hard to imagine how it can be otherwise.

Were you educated in the UK? In a setted or mixed ability classroom? Or in an area with grammar schools? How did it affect your experiences of learning maths? Or perhaps you were educated somewhere where mixed ability teaching is the norm, and my experience is as alien to you as yours is to me – tell me about it in the comments!

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