Saturday, May 30, 2009

Teaching to get the best out of a child: is streaming or mixed ability the best way?

How best to teach children is a question which few people agree on - even though parents, teachers and children would benefit from a definitive answer. One issue which does keep cropping up is whether to set children by ability or to teach them all together. This is a topic on which there is strong disagreement.

On Women's Hour last week, Professor Jo Boaler talked about how she is in favour of mixed ability teaching for her subject, maths. She then followed this up, summing up her thoughts in a letter to the Times where she stated: "The highest maths-achieving countries in the world — countries as diverse as Finland and Japan — teach all students to high levels and communicate to all students that they can do well in maths. In England we do the opposite and assign young children to low groups, which we know they never get out of. We then lament the fact that millions of school children leave school unable to use basic mathematics. Teachers may tell you that it is better to divide children into different levels in order to teach them well, but the reality is that it is easier for teachers to divide and label children in such ways."

I spoke to Professor Boaler this morning to confirm whether she believed in mixed ability teaching for all subjects. She said she did, and is passionate on this subject, particularly when it comes to primary aged pupils. Younger children, she says, should never be grouped by ability. It just turns the ones put into lower ability groups, off learning.

It's ironic that the day I heard Professor Boaler speak on Women's Hour was the same one when I met up with Shadow Schools Minister Nick Gibb. He strongly disagrees with mixed ability teaching, suggesting that even in primary schools "there is some benefit in having separate classes for early literacy and potentially for maths." When it comes to secondary school, he thinks that every subject should be streamed. He also believes that this will help all children. "We believe that every academic subject - including history and geography - should be set by ability in comprehensive schools in each year group," he said.

Mr Gibb refers to research, particularly by Kulik, to back up his point. He also says that the key is to tailor the curriculum to the ability level and that when this happens, there are huge increases in educational attainment amongst the more able pupils and no falls in achievement lower down. He even argues that you see a small RISE in self esteem amongst the least able children and a small fall in self esteem amongst the most able children.

"I also believe that the better and more experienced teachers should be asked to teach the least able sets, which should also have smaller class sizes," he says. "In this way, not only are these children given the space and time to learn they will also have very able teachers. Much research on setting highlights the fact that the lower sets often have the weakest teachers. This is an indictment of the schools involved in the research rather than an objective critique of setting."

It's a fascinating argument. Many private schools use setting and streaming, and so did a lot of state schools in the 70s. It then went out of fashion, but has been used more often in recent years. Many parents of brighter pupils are strongly in favour, as they want to see their children "stretched". How best to do this is a moot point.

I think that people's views on setting depend hugely on which set they were in at school. Those in the bottom sets often argue that it made them feel stupid, and inclined to give up on a subject. Research has suggested that those in the lower sets do lose out in terms of self-esteem, while those in the higher sets benefit. Meanwhile those in the top sets often say they felt inspired to carry on achieving, and were pushed by being surrounded by very able peers.

Both these responses are interesting because they suggest that setting might be good for more able children, and not for the less able. However, Nick Gibb argues that all children benefit from being separated according to ability, as long as they are taught well, and as long as the sets are "fluid." Meanwhile Professor Boaler argues that mixed ability teaching benefits all, including the brightest, as long as it is done properly.

"It's not okay to expect all children to do the same work in these mixed ability groups," she adds. "They need to work at different levels, which is hard for the teacher, but means that achievement levels go up massively."

There has, of course, been a great deal of research into this issue. "Complex instruction" which mixes children of all abilities so that they can help each other, has recently been reported to be a success. Professor Boaler is the woman pioneering this in the UK, and found her experiences of it in the US to be a fair and impressive way of teaching. But the subject is still controversial, and as with so many issues, there seems to be research to prove each side....


Australia: Reading syllabus hijacked by fringe groups as basics ignored

Unbelievable that the battle for phonics still has to be fought anywhere after all the evidence of its supetiority

THE nation's most respected remedial reading experts have criticised the National Curriculum Board for caving in to the demands of a fringe group of university academics and teachers who argue against a back-to-basics emphasis on phonics in teaching reading. The board, which is charged with writing the national guidelines on teaching from kindergarten to Year 12, has been accused of ignoring key players in drafting its latest advice on the shape of the proposed new English curriculum.

Researchers have told federal Education Minister Julia Gillard that the board, headed by chairman Barry McGaw, has failed to consider recommendations of the national inquiry into teaching literacy, which insists that the "explicit and systematic" teaching of the letter-sound relationships is required to learn to read.

The letter to Ms Gillard accuses professional associations representing English teachers and literacy educators of hijacking the national curriculum to remove the emphasis on the teaching of phonics as the essential first step in learning to read. The 20-plus signatories also say no recognised reading researcher or infant-years expert was consulted when the board produced the framing paper.

Among those unhappy with the position of the curriculum board - which will frame a national approach to English, maths, science and history teaching for all students by next year - are the researchers who sparked the national reading inquiry in 2004, including the Macquarie University group that developed the MULTILIT program being used with great success in indigenous communities.

The reading experts say they were locked out of the consultation process and no recognised expert was consulted "despite written requests, which included the names and contact details of recognised reading researchers".

"Any individual who can read themselves can claim to be a reading researcher, but the term 'recognised' reading researcher refers to those academics who have undertaken evidence-based research in the area of learning to read and write and how these skills are best taught," they say.

The letter says the teacher professional associations - the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, the Australian Literacy Educators Association and the Primary English Teachers Association - do not represent classroom teachers but are controlled by academics in university education faculties with little experience in teaching children to read.

All three organisations are members of the international Whole Language Umbrella group of reading and literacy associations run out of the US. "(They) have very limited membership among classroom teachers," the letter says. "According to their own published annual general reports, these associations are better known to politicians and the media than to classroom teachers and their membership base amongst classroom teachers is so low that their existence is threatened. "Executive positions on these associations are mostly held by academics from schools and faculties of education or by individuals with no expertise in basic research on learning to read and write and how these skills are best taught."

National Curriculum Board general manage Rob Randall defended the draft curriculum, saying the the research and findings of the national inquiry into teaching reading would be evident in the curriculum, which was yet to be written.

The framing paper was written by Sydney University education professor Peter Freebody, whose appointment was criticised for his association with the whole-language approach to teaching reading, which holds that phonics are not always necessary in learning to read.

The initial advice paper on English released by the curriculum board last October contains a half-page discussion about the teaching of reading in the early years of school under the subheading "beginnings and basics".

"The explicit and systematic teaching of sound-script correspondences is important, and not just for students who are in their first year or so of schooling, or for whom English is not a first language," it says.

"The explicit teaching of decoding, grammar, spelling and other aspects of the basic codes of written English will be an important and routine aspect of the national English curriculum. It should be planned, put into practice and consolidated as part of a program in English education, and it should be available to students throughout the school years."

In final advice to the curriculum writers released at the beginning of the month, reading is mentioned in the general context of literacy referring to "reading, writing, speaking, viewing and listening effectively in a range of contexts". "Many students when learning to read need systematic attention to fundamentals like phonological and phonemic awareness, and sound-letter correspondences as well as the development of skills in using semantic and syntactic clues to make meaning," the paper says.

The reading researchers argue the reference to the need to develop skills in using semantic and syntactic clues, such as the syntax of the sentence and the picture on the page, "invites confusion" and could be read as supporting the "debunked three-cueing system which confuses the skills needed for reading/decoding and the skills needed for comprehension".

The letter was sent to Ms Gillard and Professor McGaw, with copies to Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne, NCB director of operations Rose Naughton, Professor Freebody and the NSW representative on the NCB, Tom Alegounaris, who is the newly appointed president of the NSW Board of Studies.


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