Having taught in two selective schools in the UK, I have just started teaching in a non-selective school with mixed-attainment classes. So, my first foray back into Craig Barton’s podcast had to be listening to his interview of Helen Hindle.
To start, here are some of the advantages of mixed attainment teaching that Helen mentioned during the podcast:
- It removes the danger of lower expectations for pupils in lower sets and gives all pupils the opportunity to access the most challenging material.
- As mixed attainment teaching tends to improve the performance of lower-attaining pupils and setting tends to place pupils from lower socioeconomic groups in lower sets, Helen sees it as more socially just. I agree, although when Helen said, ‘we don’t segregate in the workplace’, I’m not so sure about this: you need a degree to become a teacher…
- Helen claimed that higher attaining students are more likely to seek out challenge and push themselves, not just be happy to find it easy.
- Pupils are less worried about asking silly questions, as they’re used to hearing comments with a wider range of sophistication.
I know that the research on setting is inconclusive, but most people seem to agree that bottom sets are bad for the pupils in them, so I definitely think that mixed-attainment classes are worth considering.
One of Helen’s key points is that a different approach is needed for mixed-attainment classes than that used with sets. She talked through three key parts of her sequence of lessons:
Showing the students a ‘learning journey’ with relevant questions helps pupils to choose material appropriate for them, and to see their progress clearly.
Inquiries help to build the teacher’s picture of pupils prior attainment, as well as giving a sense of the whole class staying together, even when many pupils are working on different tasks.
The tasks Helen uses are either self-selected from a variety of options or multiple entry point / low threshold, high ceiling.
Having never taught mixed attainment classes, I think it’s fair to say that Craig was a little sceptical of this approach and was playing devil’s advocate even more than usual! Here are some of his questions, and Helen’s responses.
What if pupils select inappropriate work?
Part of the teacher’s role is to check and redirect if necessary. Choosing appropriate tasks is a life skill that pupils need to gain.
What about a single top set / streaming / exam years / bottom set?
Top set: are you removing the extra challenge for the rest of the pupils? What about the fact that different pupils have different start points in different topics?
Isn’t it better for teacher to focus all their effort on explaining one idea?
Whole class explanations aren’t necessarily better. I would add that in a small group, the instruction can be better tailored to the individual pupils. Once the teacher has helped some higher-attaining pupils, they can disseminate this knowledge throughout the class and they will benefit from this. Lower attaining students could gain from listening to explanation of more advanced material (I’m a little dubious about this), or could be doing something different.
Is it harder work for the teacher?
It would be harder if you just used the same approach as you did for sets classes, but if you change your approach as suggested, it isn’t necessarily more difficult.
Don’t the highest and lowest attaining students get more support in sets?
Perhaps the top set, but pupils in bottom sets experience lower expectations and worse behaviour. In a class of twenty students all struggling, there is still only one teacher.
What about non-specialist maths teachers?
In Helen’s department, resources are planned collaboratively, which makes it easier for non-specialist maths teachers. This also sounds like something I would really enjoy being part of, though I also know plenty of teachers who would rather work independently.
Craig also asked Helen about her promotion of a growth mindset. I really liked a couple of things Helen said here:
Referring to how students are sometimes asked to use Red, Amber, Green to describe how they feel about the work they’re doing: “Green is the target, but amber is when you’re learning.”
And secondly, that she aims to: “change pupils perception of what constitutes success”. It made me think back to a discussion I had with Greg Ashman, in which he pointed me to research showing that learners are most motivated by success. If this is the case, then what constitutes success is very important.
I have two questions of my own:
In his podcast conversation with Craig, Dylan William encouraged keeping the class together, rather than spreading them out. This also seems to be the driving idea behind the ‘mastery’ approach and the focus of Craig’s research section on differentiation. Helen did make reference to this, through class discussion/inquiry and pupils explaining ideas to each other. However, it sounds like pupils are often working on different material, counter to this advice. I’d like to know of any studies / personal experience in which differentiation was successful and what made it effective?
Similarly to most schools that I’ve visited, it sounds like Helen’s scheme of work spends several weeks on one topic before moving on. I feel that this fails to allow for a sufficiently spiral curriculum, where each topic is revisited (and added to gradually) at least every year and mostly once or twice per term. So, will I have time within my short (3-4 hour) sequences to apply some of Helen’s ideas?
On my to do list: Look into the mixed attainment maths conference and spend some more time reading the mixed-attainment website.
Thanks Craig and Helen. As ever, it was enlightening.