Last year and this year, I've been experimented with no ability groups in both Writing and Mathematics. I've gone through ups and downs in this process. One thing that needs to be clear that having no ability groups does NOT mean that you don't differentiate. It just means that ALL tasks are accessible to ALL students and expectations are high for everyone. In my mind there is no acceptable target for meeting standards that is below 100%. In reality, you might not meet that, but that should absolutely be the goal. By teaching to levels, students don't always have the chance to make accelerated progress to catch up and the task can seem extremely daunting.
Earlier this year, I was involved in a Facebook conversation about mixed ability groups in Reading. I was getting a bit overwhelmed at the work I was putting in to try and make my reading program work, so I thought over the last holidays: Why not try something new? Can I mix ability groups in Reading and get better results? So I thought about what I had read and looked at some learning tools the school has in place currently and came up with a plan.
What it Looks Like Now
During week 1 of this term, I spent some time, developing a language of questions with my students. We talked about SOLO taxonomy as well as Bloom's Taxonomy (I am aware of the criticism against Bloom's but I still think it has some value). We worked through coming up with (or at least deciding on the level of) questions for our shared book.
At the end of the week, I picked 6 novels from the reading room and gave a brief introduction. Students choose their 1st, 2nd and 3rd preferences for the books and I put them into groups based solely on their choices.
During week 2, students first read the book with their group. They then filled out a chart with questions based on SOLO. With me, we discussed what happened, the questions (and answers) they came up with and we used a SOLO map to describe one of the characters, using evidence to support our claims. Students also spent some time filming their reading, as well as a cloze activity. One of the days, I asked the students to come up with a create question (Bloom's - this is my main use of it) and they had to make, write or do something. Observing this was interesting. The students were all 'in' the book. They were interacting with it in ways that I couldn't structure.
Reasons for Change:
I don't think I'm an unreasonable or reckless person. As I wrote previously, I think we need to be careful of not focusing on doing the wrong thing right, but rather doing the right thing, even if it's not perfect. I have reasons for making these changes and they are not simply because it's easier (it's not, for the record), I want to cause trouble (trouble is a byproduct of trying to change and do the right thing) or I'm defiant (only to people who are being oppressive). Here are some of the main thinking points I had to guide me:
Over the course of my career, I've noticed that many students are disengaged, not only with reading and writing, but with school in general. Most of what we have students read are not necessarily things they find interesting. Yes, many of the school readers attempt to be interesting, but you can't force a student to want to read something. I think back to my days in school. When I HAD to read books, it was much harder than when I had a choice. I would read tons in my summer. University was a killer. All the readings, and though useful, they were not a choice, so I was not very motivated to read them - and I'd describe myself as an avid reader. I wanted to give my students more control over what they read. Though this choice is limited by the books we have, at least they got to choose something.
Quality of Texts
Most of the books we read with students are not books anyone would take out of a library. They are either short stores that aren't particularly well written or they are short information texts. I know most libraries have these kinds of books, but I don't think I've ever seen a child near them (I guess this is also part of student choice). I wanted to read good books with the students that they would not only enjoy, but that had some sort of structure to them.
Depth of Understanding
I really wanted to incorporate SOLO into my reading program. I think it is a great tool to get students thinking about what they're reading. Could I have used this in the way I previously did Reading? Certainly, but this way of running a reading program allows for more continued discussion and helps manage the mixed ability groupings.
Sense of Accomplishment, Growth Mindset
I want to give students the opportunity to do something that lots of other teachers would say they can't do. My question to them would be: why not? I'm there to support those readers whose levels might not be as high as the others (and for the record, a number is just that, a number, it does not tell nearly the whole story). If a student wants to try a difficult book, I want them to try it and not be phased. If they struggle, then that opens up the desire to improve. We have been fostering a growth mindset in our class lately and this is an extension of that. You can do it, don't listen to the naysayers.
Differentiated, but in a different way
Not differentiating learning wouldn't be good practice. No matter where you aimed your teaching, students would be getting bored because they either were being challenged too much or not enough. This way, students have different ways of challenging themselves with the same material. They support each other, but not in the way the "more able" students are tutoring the "less able" students. With fast readers developing questions (which helps their understanding and gives them responsibility) as well as creative tasks which they can do they get a challenge (Can you think like a teacher? Can you be creative in your questioning? Can you ask questions that you need to find out) while at the same time supporting the slower readers, who have a great set of student generated questions to help their understanding. With my guidance as well, students get a chance to answer those higher level questions and get answers that they may not have thought of. Plus, the oral language that can come out of these groups has proven in other subjects and areas to be quite rich.
Related Article and Videos
The following article from Mindshift, discusses some ideas of how to motivate students in reading and writing. It identifies some key ideas that should be addressed: Autonomy (choice), Relatedness (can they discuss this in a non high stakes way with peers and adults), Interest and Value (to goals, lives) and Competence. Competence is very important. If a student does not feel competent in something, it will be hard for them to enjoy it. How I am addressing that is with the SOLO maps as well as the questioning and differentiated support from me and their peers. The others seem to match up quite well with the other things I have explained above.
This video, while focused on Math, explains a lot of the reasons (backed up by research) for not ability grouping, which is relevant across all subjects. Note that this does not mean you do not differentiate, but you do so in a different way (by support, for example).
This second video, from John Hattie, goes on to explain that tracking has a 0 effect for teaching. He then explains an idea that I've had (and used as justification for not ability grouping): that students, particularly (but not limited to) in Mathematics, are not given the chance to change tracks (groups) because they are not given the content (or strategies) that 'higher' tracks receive. How could they possibly bridge the gap?
First Week Observations
I'm noticing students seem more excited (How do you quantify that? Being on task?) and are seen in tight-knit groups discussing the work. Several groups have jumped ahead (awesome!) to fill out the SOLO map without me and we were able to discuss this in more depth. One group I work with was very good at finding evidence within the book and some students who would have been classed as "low" were able to explain their answers coherently. Another student, when asked why he felt that one character was bossy was able to articulate that he just had a feeling. We discussed how we could find evidence for this, but I was impressed with how he articulated himself and wasn't worried that I would be upset with his answer. It was a good moment.
I also liked how I had shared the documents as a group rather than make a copy for each student. This took the emphasis off of individual responses (because, really, what's the point of all of them writing it down). The groups I worked with were very good at sharing these jobs.
The creative activities created what I would call chaos, but the good kind of chaos. Students were "in" the books, thinking about how the books related to their lives. They were being creative and making things. But most of all they were focused on what they were doing. Besides one student, every child knew what to do and was doing it.
Where to Next
Obviously I'm not perfect and neither is this reading program. As I've been getting things up and running, it has been hard to find time to focus on specific children (though I have managed to work with target students at times). I need to make sure that I am spending more time with target students to check their understanding. This could be as simple as them sitting beside me when we discuss the book, or just sitting down with them to listen to them read their pages. Time constraints, as always, are an issue. Perhaps dialling back the amount work to be done (e.g. cloze and filming) would be beneficial for students.
The noise is obviously an issue, which makes it hard for me to work with a group when it's too loud. Part of this could be solved by using our breakout room (sadly, not in existence until I move classrooms in a few weeks) for either my group sessions OR for the loud activities (our Makerspace/Lego).
I will need to read up a bit more on how to make this work, but at the moment, I think the most important criteria is being met: students are enjoying reading time and are actually reading during that time. From here on, it will be a series of tweaks (which, depending on time) may or may not be fully documented here.