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Impact of Mixed Ability Classrooms in Catholic School

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 4616 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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“A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers”(Taylor, P.1). In this chapter, my purpose is to convey what knowledge and ideas have been established by others in my research field. I would discuss the literature which would help me answer my research questions:

What is the impact of Mixed Ability Classrooms in a Catholic School since its implementation in 2005?

Did low achievers ability grouping strategy of GCS have a significant impact on academic school achievement?

Could Mixed Ability Classrooms and Ability Classrooms continue to coexist in the future?

The literature reviews what international body has found on Mixed Ability and Ability Grouping and how it has impacted since implementation, as well as its implications in Mauritius especially for GCS.

This chapter is schematically structured as follows:

Mixed Ability – Mauritian definition v/s others

Mixed Ability – Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategies which could be applicable but are not used in the Mauritian context

Mixed Ability – Disadvantages

Ability Grouping – Definition and which one is adapted to GCS. The pros and cons of Ability


Ability Grouping v/s – Conclusions of other literatures on the correlation existing between grouping

School achievement and achievement

2 Mixed Ability

Mixed Ability is first defined before its implication in the Mauritian context is considered. Mckeon (2004) defines Mixed Ability Classroom as a group consisting of able, average, and children with learning difficulties in the same class. (cited in Bremner, 2008, p.2). Ireson and Hallam (2001) reinforce the idea of Mixed Ability classrooms as those catering for diverse “learning styles” and “preferences”. (cited in Bremner, 2008, p.2). These two definitions are consistent with what is found in the Mauritian context.

In 2005, the BEC changed the corporate aim of all Mauritian Catholic Schools in adopting the Mixed Ability Policy. This was translated by a change in the intake criteria of these schools for Form 1 students. Admission criteria, under BEC aegis, for Form 1 students since 2005 are as follows:

Aggregate of 15 to 20 units at the Certificate of Primary Education

Zoning: The Secondary School where application is lodged should be in the same zone as the

Primary School attended

Social Cases: on Humanitarian grounds

Individual results in English, Mathematics, Science, French or History/Geography (in that order) will be used for candidates with the same aggregate

Aptitude tests/Interviews/Random selection if there are too many successful applications

(Source: BEC, 2003)

Thus the Form 1 classrooms in Catholic Schools had a diverse group of students since 2005. This situation harmonises itself with the Catholic Education mission which is to:

“humanise education, pedagogies, methods, means for students, teachers, parents to be more human…A human education is a collaborative and creative approach to learning” (Bishop Piat, Le Mauricien, Jan. 2006).

Mixed ability classes in catholic schools of Mauritius therefore are made up of low, middle and high achievers within the same classroom. This concept is acknowledged by Dauguet (2007) that in Mauritius

“Mixed Ability is related to performance-based groupings” (p.58)

and Merven (2005)

“where students with different academic levels will be in the same classroom” (p.36).

It is understood that Mixed Ability is related to differentiation since “diversity means differences” (Tileston, 2004, p.13). The concept of differentiation can be defined as

“meeting the individual needs of each learner, of customising instruction to help students learn” (Fogarty, 2005, p.2). .

Rose (2009) compared a Mixed Ability Class with an elevator.

The class is a lift, and everyone needs to get into the lift. Some will get on while others have to be dragged in. Some will travel to the top while others may stop at the 3rd floor, others may only reach the first floor but everyone would have travelled successfully somewhere. (English Teaching Professional, p. 3).

This story is in line with Mixed Ability philosophy where every student can leave the classroom feeling that they have been challenged and that they have achieved something. Teaching, Learning and Assessments are ingredients used as tools to make a Mixed Ability class effective.

2.1 Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategies in Mixed Ability Classrooms

GCS Mixed Ability Classrooms have features which are characteristics of both the differentiated classroom as well as the traditional one. (Appendix..). In my study I aim to find out whether Mixed Ability Classrooms at GCS were consistent with what is said on the topic in the international literature. Thus Teaching, Learning and Assessment strategies which are used currently under Mixed Ability Policy would provide material for comparative analysis in my research.

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Tomlinson (1999) suggested that an educator in a differentiated classroom would use as their planning basis, the students’ differences. The learners on the other hand would be guided to make learning choices based on their interests. In this context the learners would be provided with an array of learning profiles such as readiness, interest and their attitude to learning which would shape instruction. In a mixed ability classroom there is the possibility that students help their co-learners in difficulty as well as their teachers in finding solutions to problems. Furthermore students work with the educator to institute embracing whole-class as well as individual learning aims.

In the same line of thought, the Mixed Ability approach expressed by Harris and Snow (2004) would make students become more effective learners and the use of learner-centred strategies would give them the choice of content as well as learning style. (cited in Bremner, 2008). Bremner (2008) acknowledged that Mixed Ability Classroom success depends on students learning as an individual rather than having a whole class teaching.

The teacher in developing its teaching strategies would focus on multiple forms of intelligences found in diverse classroom as stipulated by Tomlinson (1999). She further advocated that in this context educators will make use of many instructional arrangements as well as multiple teaching materials or resources. Thus this would lead to multiple perspectives on ideas and events. In this way, the teacher/facilitator enhances student’s skills in view of making independent learners. The GCS educators in the study were concerned about the lack of resources. The scarce resources could be circumvented (Bremner 2008) by Educators teaching learners to be effective. This should be done by setting achievable goals, by making use of available tools and keeping those in good running conditions, and by managing effectively their time allocated for work.

To reinforce the key factors which would make a Mixed Ability Class successful, Moutou (2006) advocated that resource person should have a well planned and organised lesson plan. The teacher should make provision to cater for individualised needs. In order to accommodate various students’ needs, it should be supported by multi tasks for one lesson. This scenario is more challenging for the teacher dealing with multi level class than a single level class. Similarly, this view is consistent with GCS educators who found Mixed Ability Classrooms challenging. This challenging attitude is reflected by the following quote from Hubbard, Jones, Thornton and Wheeler:

“Teacher’s attitude, their willingness to create, a sense of community in class, and a genuine desire to help, there can be progress at all levels” (1983, p.318, cited in Moutou, 2006, p.1).

This challenging attitude is contrasted with teacher centred approach where teaching emphasis is on text book context and very few activities thus breeding poor lessons. This situation is further reinforced by insufficient collaboration in groups as well as inadequate differentiated tasks in class. (HM Inspectors of Education cited in Bremner 2008).

GCS Educators have been challenged by the new policy to seek new ways of teaching and to make use of available materials. Thus, training and resources are important tools to make a Mixed Ability class effective. This links well with what Corbel (1989) said:

“Professional development occurs naturally in Mixed Ability Classes. These are classes that compel us to find better ways of setting up routine tasks. They are the classes that make us think, create and grow as a teacher”. (p.4).

Learning, teaching and assessments are part of the student life. Thus, Tomlinson (1999) advanced that a classroom assessment is “ongoing and diagnostic” (p.16). He further acknowledged that various types of assignments should be used in Mixed Ability Classrooms. To be in harmony with a learner’s need time flexibility should not be a constraint.

Differentiated/Mixed Ability instruction and assessment work together (Tomlinson 1999, Chapman and King 2005). Marzano (2000) suggested aims of assessment and instruction as follows:

“Assessment should focus on student’s use of knowledge and complex reasoning rather than their recall of low level information”

“Instruction must reflect the best of what we know about how learning occurs.” (cited in Chapman and King, 2005, p.)

Fullan (1998) reflects the above in stipulating that “assessment has to drive the educational change agenda around learning and student achievement” (cited in Chapman and King, 2005, p.). Assessment is therefore part of instruction and has to be ongoing and embracing the learning process. Its aim is to provide teachers with information on students’ profiles: “skills, interests and learning strategy”(Tomlinson, 1999, p.). Teachers in differentiated classroom (Tomlinson 1999) saw assessment not as a tool that come at the end of a chapter or unit where it examined what has been learned rather it views assessment as a way of changing instruction strategy. Differentiated assessment should be used to collect information on the students’: “needs, skills, prior knowledge, way and speed at which they process new learning, and of demonstrating progress” (Chapman and King (2005) p.).

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When sifting through the literature it is observed that varied means of assessment directs learning and instruction. In this context Formative Assessment which is ongoing before, during and after instruction provides feedback on effective student learning (Chapman and King, 2005). Diagnostic assessments, as acknowledged by Dryer (2008) are done during the learning process. They tried to detect learning difficulties in students and this has to be attended to. Assessments, as defined by Dryer (2008) occur at the end of the ‘learning cycle or phase and measures achievement’ are called Summative. The results (p.17) are used as acknowledged by Chapman and King (2005) as ‘evidence for a grade, for reporting to parents, to identify award recipients or to make placement decisions’ (p.). Differentiated Assessments are contrasted with traditional assessment still in use in Mauritian schools.

Puhl (1997) reflects on traditional assessment which has as purpose summative tests that forces learners to study. Traditional assessment focus in on memorisation and teacher centred strategy and encourages instruction as a product. The resulting feedback on summative tests is final and usually these tests are written work. Mauritius, whose examining body is external – UCLES, is a proponent of summative examinations. As it is an island and depends on export and imports for its survival, it has to compete. This overall competition brings forward an elitist society where Education follows the trend. The Mauritian education system allows for ‘star or national’ schools where the best performing student is recruited, laureates (top ranked students at Higher School Certificate who benefits from a scholarship), and the parallel education – wide tuition based. All this encouraged the elitist system to proliferate. As only final score counts in such system, summative examinations are adopted throughout the Mauritian school system.

Although since the 70’s in England, and under the different Education Mauritian policy papers, Mixed Ability philosophy has been encouraged, such classrooms have encountered problems. Salli-copur (2005) reported that it is difficult for a teacher even for a small group to follow each learner. Due to individual differences students react differently to text book which can be enjoyable for some and boring for others. There is also the fact that, students who feel confident voice out their answers quicker and more often than the shy ones. GCS Mixed Ability Classrooms are large. As a result of complaints from GCS Educators encountering difficulties in managing and instructing Mixed Ability Classrooms, Low Achievers Ability Classroom was formed.

2.2 Ability Grouping

As a result of Mixed Ability Policy implemented in the Catholic School under investigation in the research, the low achievers ability grouping was formed and used as a strategy to promote learning and strengthen academic achievement.

As stipulated by George (1988) the ability grouping practice at GCS is aimed at:

increasing academic standards compared to what it was in a mixed ability environment,

the students which could embrace a good feeling/attitude towards schools and also in their input as a learner,

reinforcing teachers’ effectiveness.

In perusing through the literature, it was discovered that the ability grouping is also known as: setting, banding, streaming, tracking. This is reflected in the following quote:

“The controversy of arranging students in classes by achievement levels, called ‘setting’ or ‘streaming’ in Scotland and ‘tracking’ or ‘ability grouping’ in the United States is over 100 years old”. (Gamoran, 2002).

Thus ability grouping is defined as:

“Ability grouping is the practice of dividing students for instruction on the basis of their perceived capacities for learning” (Balanced View, 2002, Vol 6, No.2).

The Balanced View (2002) makes the distinction between “within class grouping” and “between class grouping”. The former group separates students of same ability into smaller groups while the latter allocate students to different classes based on achievement. GCS has adopted the later system. Smith and Sutherland (2003) offered a rationale for ability grouping in the sense that teachers would feel not only more at ease with a smaller range of ability but also it could be a way of separating students with behaviour problems. Such a class would motivate students and learners to learn better than in a Mixed Ability one and thus have a chance in improving their results. (cited in the Journal of Research in Special Education Needs, 2003).

GCS criteria for Ability Grouping would be consistent with Barker-Lunn (1970) idea that

“Teachers, faced with a Mixed Ability class, will group the pupils according to their abilities; in other words, they will solve the problems presented to them by the unstreamed school by streaming within the class” (Cited in Kelly, 1978, p.96). Kelly (1978) further added that there is a direct correlation between achievement and grouping. The students with same working pace and past achievements would be grouped together.

The practice in GCS is analogous to what is described by Oakes (15 & 16 cited in Johnson (2002). The latter acknowledged that students can be grouped through the following criteria: achievement through tests performance, teachers’ perception of where to situate the students’ level of understanding and learning, and their prospects of what students intend to do after graduation. Thus, Oakes acknowledged that a homogeneous group would be consistent with the learners’ needs. Johnson (2002) further emphasised that to group learners with their peers who are in similar process of learning is a positive move. Ability grouping would therefore make “education efficient and effective for all students while recognising individual differences.” (Johnson, 2002, p 2).

Grouping according to ability is not new: Ireson and Hallam recount that:

“Historically, grouping in the UK had been based on measures of general ability or intelligence, such as verbal reasoning and cognitive abilities. During the 1960’s and 1970’s such test were used by many secondary schools to allocate pupils to streams on entry. Pupils were then taught in their streamed classes for all lessons” (1999, p.343-344).

GCS Ability grouping could turn out to be a discouraging strategy for the school if the disadvantages that are revealed in the literature become applicable to the school. Opponents of ability grouping as written in the Balanced View (2002) do not believe in its good effects as they prescribed that this type of grouping encouraged the channelling of “poor and minority students” to receive “lower quality instruction” thus contributing to enlarge the gap between the low and high achievers. (Vol 6, No.2). Other arguments advanced by Hollifield (1987) against ability grouping are, that “the practice creates classes or groups of low achievers who are deprived of the example and stimulation provided by high achievers. Labelling students according to ability and assigning them to low-achievement groups may also communicate self-fulfilling low expectations”.(p.1). This further links to Gamoran (1998) criticism that ability grouping creates ‘status hierarchy’ in the school system. To label students as being ‘incompetent’ or ‘less smart’ could create ‘inequities outside the classroom’ (cited in Johnson, 2002, p.2).

2.3 Ability Grouping v/s Achievement

Since one of my research questions is to find out the whether there is a significant impact between ability grouping and academic achievement, it is worth noting the different literature on the subject.

Slavin (1986) proceeded to a “Best Evidence Analysis”. To do so, he reviewed five comprehensive ability grouping plans in elementary schools. The grouping plans are: “ability grouped class assignment, regrouping for reading or mathematics, the Joplin Plan, non graded plans, and within-class ability grouping” (cited in Hollifield, 1987).

The “Ability Grouped Class Assignment” placed students in a classroom on an ability basis. The evidence found by Slavin (1986) showed that this type of grouping has no effect on student achievement in the elementary school. The “Regrouping for reading or mathematics” is only done during those two classes as for most of the day the students are in their mixed ability classrooms. This grouping has proved advantageous on student achievement. This has been enhanced by the fact that level and instruction pace had been adapted to achievement level. However, it must be noted that the above regrouping to be proven efficient, it should be catered for not more than two subjects. (cited in Hollifield, 1987).

The ‘Joplin Plan’ regrouped students across grade levels – for example high achieving fourth grades, average fifth graders, low achieving six grades form part of the fifty grade reading class. Slavin’s (1987) found strong evidence of such grouping increases reading achievement. This piece of information reflects what was said previously in the chapter, that the notion of high achievers stimulating low achievers when they are mixed into a classroom. (cited in Hollifield, 1987).

The ‘Non Graded Plan’ which channelled students into flexible groups based on performance, the subject curriculum is divided in such a way that students improve at their own pace. This plan has proved a positive relationship between grouping and achievement. Similarly ‘Within-Class Ability Grouping’ where students are grouped according to their ability in one classroom, evidence has shown a positive correlation between grouping and achievement. However, Slavin (1986), found out that the effects were slightly greater for low achievers than for middle or lower flyers. (cited in Hollifield, 1987).

Slavin (1986) concluded that schools and teachers should adopt methods that have proved its effectiveness where ability grouping is concerned. These methods include within-class ability grouping in Maths, Non graded plans in Reading, and the Joplin plan. If ability grouped class assignment use an alternative grouping where students are assigned on performance level then it can be used in ability grouping class. (cited in Hollifield, 1987).

Slavins’ (1986) recommendations for successful ability grouping and positive achievement level:

This type of grouping should be done only for some subjects while in other subjects the students should be in mixed ability classrooms. To teach a skill, for example, Reading, the use of grouping plans would reduce student heterogeneity’ ((cited in Hollifield, 1987). The same plan would not work if IQ or Achievement level is being tested. If the teacher formed small “within ability groups” this will help instruction better as the teacher will be able to give better support. (cited in Hollifield, 1987).

The literature has also revealed that low flyers made as much progress as high flyers when they are submitted to certain conditions. Gamoran (1993) explained that a US Catholic schools applied a strict academic syllabus in lower ability grouping where the same teachers taught in low and high levels, the academic curriculum stayed the same for both groups and verbal interactions and discussions form part of the teaching and learning strategy. All this factors combined had a positive effect on achievement level.

However, there have been studies where it has been found that ability grouping aggravate inequalities in achievement.

Kerckhoff (1986) (cited in Gamoran (2002), commented on the impact of setting v/s achievement inequality. The evidence that he used came from the National Child Development Survey (NCDS) (data collected comes from a 1958 British cohort over 20 years). Data collected are from England and Wales. Kerckhoff showed that students’ achievement level is greater in schools or classes which apply ability grouping while those students in mixed ability classes have decreased achievement level. However, low levels schools and classes fell far behind. Kerckhoff (1986) also explained that there is an average level of achievement growth when comparing Mixed Ability and Setting grouping schools. This is due to the fact that high achievers success is balanced against low achievers loss.

Inequalities in achievement could also be due to differentiated classroom instruction. In his article, Gamoran (2002) explained these findings from the studies of English classes in US secondary schools. The study revealed that higher level students who are channelled towards more academic courses with the support of experienced, qualified and prepared educators who cover teaching and learning materials challengingly and at a faster pace show higher level of achievement than the low achieving classroom. The low level of achievement for low level class was due to the disruptive behaviours of the students and where the teacher set written work rather than encouraging open ended questions and verbal interactions.

Ability Grouping fell in disfavour, according to Hallam, Ireson and Davies (2004), when ‘educational theory decided against ability grouping (setting and streaming) from the 70’s onwards’ (BERJ 2004, vol 30(4) pp 516-533). However over the last decade there has been a resurgence of this type of grouping. Its reappearance is commented as being the means which would help raising standards. Hallam, Ireson, and Davies (2004) recapitulated the reasons for which ability grouping fell in disfavour:

“Low self-esteem and social alienation of lower stream students

Inconclusive evidence for positive effects on attainment

A shift of educational focus towards equality of educational opportunity”

(BERJ 2004, vol 30(4) pp 516-533)

In my research study, students’ opinion on ability group has been sought. Hallam, Ireson and Davies (2004) admit that there has been few research on ability grouping (streaming, setting and within class grouping) where students voice out their perspectives. The research on ability grouping popularised the relationship between that type of grouping and academic, social and personal outcomes.

The article from Hallam, Ireson and Davies (2004) cited previous research which embraces Pupil’s perspective has drawn out the following explanations:

Streaming encourages both positive and negative attitudes towards school and higher achievers are pro streaming compared to lower flyers. Setting among mathematics students reveal that more students would like to move sets or join classes where mixed ability teaching is being done.

In primary schools, the students having higher status in mind would wish to be in higher ability grouping. However, most students would prefer to be given whole class work or individual work. Streaming emphasized the negative effects towards lower streams. It is further acknowledged that if pupils of below average are taught by teachers who are for streaming in a mixed ability environment, this has a negative impact on the student. This can take the form that those students do not have any friends and are rejected by their peers.

Mixed ability classes encourage social cohesion in the class.

It is appropriate at this stage to review the following statistics on ability grouping. George (1988) (cited in Crosby & Owens (1993) revealed that: “Educators and parents are in favour of tracking/ability grouping. 85% of the research says that tracking is not beneficial while 85% of schools continue to practice it.”(Solutions and Strategies,1995, (5) p.2). Furthermore George (1998) and Slavin (1991a) concluded that Ability Grouping research has not prompted any conclusive answers whether it be positive or negative (Cited in Crosby and Owens, 1993). This is what I intend to find out with the research question on significance of low achieving grouping with academic school achievement. I would like to find out whether it is consistent or in opposition with George and Slavin’s conclusions.


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