Changing teachers’ minds on grouping by ‘ability’: control, competence and confidence

Wright, Phil (2023) Changing teachers’ minds on grouping by ‘ability’: control, competence and confidence. In: Teacher Education Advancement Network (TEAN) Annual Conference, 11-12 May 2023, Manchester, UK. (Unpublished)

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Within the primary school fixed ability grouping is an increasingly prevalent approach to raising academic attainment (Marks, 2014; Francis et al. 2017). The normative language of ability, implicit theories inculcated through accountability mechanisms and pressure to prove competence through adherence to commonly accepted practice can arguably constrain the development of our praxis (Kemmis, 2008) in the classroom. Decades of research (Jackson, 1964; Lacey, 1970, Ball, 1981; Boaler, 1997; McGillicuddy & Devine, 2018) however highlight how fixed ability grouping perpetuates social reproduction and inhibits both social mobility - a Department for Education (2016) interpretation of social justice – and children’s learning capacity (Hart et al. 2004). This study draws on critical theory (Habermas, 1984) and adopts principles from critical pedagogy (Freire, 1972) to engage teachers in consideration of fixed ability grouping and its reported effects. It sought to provide research-based continuing professional development (CPD), offer teachers time and space to explore alternatives to fixed ability grouping, supporting professional dialogue, and developing praxis over time. Teachers self-selected onto the project and engaged with two sessions of CPD focussed on Pedagogy for Transformability (Hart et al. 2004), which is based on core principles of Trust, Co-agency and Everybody. The teachers then explored new practices in their classroom for roughly two months before sharing their observations, reflections, challenges and successes through focus group discussion. Reflecting on the contributions of their peers and potential next steps for their practice, they completed this cycle two more times, culminating in a final semi-structured interview. The final interview encouraged participants to consider the effects of their adjusted practices on both them and the children. The analysis framework for the transcribed data was structured around Kemmis’ (2009) ‘doings, sayings and relatings’. The presentation of the data derived three core themes: control, competence and confidence. The interplay between these themes is discussed. Teachers noted that by removing fixed ability grouping and giving children choice within their learning, children became more active and successful. The teachers understood that the process started with them – adjusting how they described learners, framed learning tasks, trusted and guided the children to make effective choices and establish a culture where all contributions were valued. The study highlights the importance of creating practice architectures which promote ‘activist professionalism’ (Sachs, 2016) to establish teacher agency within the accountability framework.

Boaler, J. (2005) 'The 'Psychological Prisons' from which they never escaped: the role of ability grouping in reproducing social class inequalities', FORUM 47(2 & 3): 135-143.
Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Pepper, D., Taylor, B. and Travers, M. (2017b) 'Exploring the relative lack of impact of research on 'ability grouping' in England: a discourse analytic account', Cambridge Journal of Education 47(1): 1-17.
Freire, P. (1972 & 1993) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin.
Hart, S., Dixon, A., Drummond, M.J, & McIntyre, D. (2004) Learning Without Limits. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Kemmis, S. (2010b) 'What is to be done? The place of action research', Educational Action Research 18(4): 417-427.
Sachs, J. (2016) Teacher professionalism: why are we still talking about it? Teachers and Teaching, 22(4): 413-425.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Departments: Institute of Education > Initial Teacher Education
Depositing User: Anna Lupton
Date Deposited: 12 Jun 2023 09:00
Last Modified: 13 Jan 2024 15:01


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