#3 in the Teaching Problem –> Solution Series
The Problem: How do I teach a class with a very wide range of ability?
This challenge is expressed in multiple ways, for teachers in a range of contexts. To some extent every class is a ‘mixed ability’ class and we also need to be very careful about fixed notions of ability. Ideas about level of attainment, competence, fluency, prior knowledge, or confidence – are all in the mix. However we define it, the mix is a very real issue and can be difficult to deal with when students are very far apart.
This is certainly not an easy situation with neat and obvious answers; a combination of approaches will be needed. The specifics depend on the extent of the divergence and the nature of the subject but, once you know the class in question, the issues are predictable and can be planned for.
Map the curriculum territory:
Make sure every student actively accesses the resources that give them the content overview so they can see where they are in the learning journey, including what they’ve done and what where they are going. Don’t allow worries that the weaker students won’t understand all of it, stop you from issuing these materials – don’t hold anyone back from seeing the big picture.
Establish a ladder of difficulty
Plan tasks that can be engaged with at different difficulty levels. For example, at a higher level in quality-based process like writing or composition, the task might require more independent thinking, integrate more themes and involve more examples/motifs and could be done without support. The same task could be completed with more help, in shorter sections, with more prompts, with a focus on one idea at a time before linking them together. Students can work side by side with varying level of support. Don’t pretend this isn’t happening and always leave the possibility open for less confident students to take the more challenging path or to offer more help to anyone finding it too difficult.
Develop tiered sets of practice questions and tasks
In a difficulty model subject like maths or physics, where there’s a continuing gradient of additional difficulty in the questions you set, prepare a surplus of questions for students to practice at each step as they progress up the ladder of difficulty (think of fractions problems or algebraic equations). In a mixed class you need to flex which questions each student does according to their success rate and this is hard if the resources limit you. So, prepare larger question sets with multiple paths through – some students might jump up the difficulty ladder rapidly; others will find a step where they need to spend more time – so there must be plenty of practice wherever they are. If the questions are bundled together, then you can be more flexible in how you guide them or how they guide themselves.
Design and deploy scaffolds
Prepare a range of structured resources and routines that can support students to complete a task with help but that can later be removed. Make it explicit: they can practice with help until they are ready to have a go without help. With a wide range of ability, being creative with scaffolds will be essential. This can include:
- knowledge organisers, phrase and word lists; sentence builders
- structure guides for specific forms of writing : sentence/paragraph starters;
- partially completed answers or compositions for students to finish
- models to emulate; patterns to follow; detailed step by step instructions
- ready made, partially completed tables or graphs
With scaffolds ready and available, you can engage a range of students in the same general task, keeping them focused on common goals whilst allowing them all to succeed with different levels of support. At intervals you can then take scaffolds away to see how people get on, avoiding anyone developing an over-reliance on receiving help.
Use inclusive questioning
In a mixed attaining class, make sure every single student is included in questioning and checks for understanding. Use the full repertoire of techniques – cold calling, whiteboards, think pair share – to support students thinking, rehearsing and providing the teacher with information about their level of understanding. Probe the top end and build confidence for the lower end. But don’t let anyone dominate or opt out.
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Use both mixed groupings and ability groupings.
Both types of grouping are useful but can also be problematic if they are used exclusively.
- Mixed groups: support all students to engage in rich language and knowledge and offers some leadership role to the top end students, gaining from explaining ideas to others. The pitfall is that the lower end students can just piggyback on the work of others unless this explicitly controlled -eg with cold calling.
- Ability groups: this gives students an opportunity to exchange knowledge with similar peers which evens out the roles and challenge within the group. However, it can deny lower end students access to rich language and the ‘recycling ignorance’ issue is ever present.
Solution; alternate between these two general group types or mix groups more fluidly, more often,
Use Thresholds and Pathways.
This idea is where you set everyone on a common path to reach a minimum goal successfully before allowing them to go off more independently. Eg in science, everyone has to make the same three electrical circuits successfully, recording the diagram and observations before they can try making circuits of their own design in a systematic way, having demonstrated that they have the knowledge to do this well without getting confused.
Rather than allow the group to work at its own pace for a long period such that students diverge significantly within a task or topic, introduce regular whole class reviews or stock takes to explore common concepts, challenges, ideas and the range of outcomes. This ensures everyone feels united by a common endeavour even if some are getting more help than others or taking longer to get to the end.
Tend the garden
This metaphor suggests that teaching a mixed group is like tending a garden with a variety of specimens. You want to create strong common conditions so that everyone is thriving but you know that, over time, you have to give focused attention to individuals; you can’t focus on everyone at once – it’s just unrealistic. At various times you might need to provide more push and challenge to most confident – checking in on their independent practice or teaching higher level concepts; at others you might get everyone working independently while you reteach material to a small group or give them more precise individual feedback.
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The biggest challenge is that many teachers I work with don’t have the time (some don’t have the required knowledge?) to create such resources?
I have found that teachers can’t discriminate easy and difficult questions nor tasks – even when they know their students quite well?
I think inclusive questioning & all differentiation strategies are totally what’s needed – again the barriers are time and knowledge?
After many years in classrooms & working with students – many teachers are now so overwhelmed and overworked after COVID – while your recommendations are evidence-based and totally worthwhile – the effort needed is beyond most teachers?