Ability grouping of students is one of the oldest and most controversial issues in elementary and secondary schools. In theory, ability grouping increases student achievement by reducing the disparity in student ability levels, and this increases the likelihood that teachers can provide instruction that is neither too easy nor too hard for most students (Hollifield J. 19870).
I do believe that ability grouping is a good teaching method. It makes it easier and more effective and efficient for the educator to work with groups when he/she knows their exact needs and he/she knows they all have the same abilities. To analyze that I did a little research.
I found out that Robert E. Slavin (1986) researched and found that some forms of grouping can increase student achievement:
On the other hand, Wheelock supports that ability grouping does not enhance academic achievement and in addition, is harmful to kids. Anne Wheelock says that:
It is true that if that takes place, most of the times, the "most able" or "fast" learners generally read whole books, go to the library frequently, do independent research, enjoy more choices, have additional access to the computer, go on extra field trips, have opportunities to collaborate on projects with community members, have a mentor, and so on. On the other hand,"slower" learners tend to read from the basal, do worksheets, have fewer choices,and so on.
But what do students say about ability grouping? Rick, a former student that experienced ability grouping says: " The higher group, you see, always had so much stuff to do and I never saw those kids out to recess because they had to stay in and finish what they had started. Now the lower group was not the group to be in either. Even as young as first grade, I knew what it meant to be in the lower group and how those kids were thought of as "lower" than the rest of us. This is the problem with labeling and grouping."
The argument in favor of ability grouping is that it allows teachers to challenge high-achievers, while providing remediation, repetition and review for low-achievers (Slavin, 1987). Proponents of ability grouping claim that in mixed ability classrooms teachers have to teach to the average level, which bores the high-achievers and is too fast paced for the low achievers, thereby creating an ineffective educational environment for most of the children in the class.
The arguments against ability grouping usually focus on its negative impact on low-achievers, who, when separated from their high-achieving peers, suffer the double blow of losing the positive example of their peers and suffering lowered-expectations from their teachers (Slavin, 1987). In addition, some researchers believe that low-achieving groups are likely to receive lower quality instruction than high-achieving groups, further increasing the achievement gap.
I believe that the base of this debate is that ability grouping gets confused with tracking. Tracking is a permanent approach where students are assessed and placed into specific classrooms with peers of similar ability, because of its demonstrated negative effect for many students. Ability grouping, on the other hand, is the instruction of students within heterogeneous classrooms that recognize and accommodate individual student differences in learning style, ability, and interests (NASP). There is a very thin line between those two instructional methods but it is very important not to cross it. Last but not least, it is good to know that he National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) supports ability grouping but opposes the use of tracking.
I find it a struggle in my math class to accomodate and modify assignments to best suit my students, while still giving them the rigor they are going to be faced with when the State Testing is being assessed.
Most of my classes are inclusion classes (special education and regular education students together). I find it challenging as there are so many levels of ability in one classroom. You want to make the students feel successful, but you also want to keep the challenge in the learning process as well.
I find that the best way to help students in this area is to become more of a moderator and let the students discuss and learn through collaborative learning. It is amazing how different even the struggling students react to learning from their peers, versus learning from the teacher. It is important though to change groups/partners regularly so that students cannot necessarily pick out the lower students versus the higher students when grouping by ability. I often will switch between grouping by ability, providing mixed abilities in each group, and sometimes just picking groups randomly so students do not always see the trend of grouping.
Another strategy is providing enrichment opportunities to those that are performing well on the concepts, and that way it provides the challenge they need. During this time, you can provide the reteaching opportunities for those that struggle without missing new concepts.
I also provide multiple assignments or ways for students to represent the problems in math class. For instance I might ask some students to draw pictures, other students to use the manipulatives, etc. This variety helps to apply to the learning styles of the students, and can really benefit how different needs can still address the same concepts.
Where I have a struggle is in providing learning and collaborative opportunities in my classroom. Since I teach in an ILC setting my students are secluded from those students in the general education setting. In the ILC I have very few students and the peer to peer teaching and collaboration opportunities, especially those from advanced students, are few and far between. As I review and learn more about technology for classroom use I feel that things like google docs will allow those opportunities to develop for my students. In doing this I will be able to continue to address behavioral needs while giving students the opportunity to work with peers on projects from different settings. This will definitely enhance their learning.
On the other hand, I have also taught in larger settings and have had to develop methods to accommodate and modify for my special education students without calling attention to them. I have found success in using different versions of the same assignments for all students while making sure that certain students get a modified version to scaffold their learning, while advanced students get an enhanced version to provide the needed challenge. Another idea I have used is to have a menu board where students can select from a number of items to achieve a total number of points for a given assignment or assessment. Sometimes allowing total freedom of choice while other times making them choose an item from each category to show mastery of specific skills. Students enjoy the choice since they are all different and the choice allows them to pick tasks that best fit their comfort zones and learning styles.
I would love to hear any other ways people are using technology in the classroom to accommodate, modify and enhance learning for all students in any settings.
Force yourself to call on and talk to every student, every day. I have every student's name on an index card. Each class period I go through the whole deck at least once. I interact with every student and assess their progress at the same time. I make sure I go through key questions with the students. You end up with a much better idea of student ability and character which is vital when meeting with guidance, parents, and administration. Doing this has given me a clearer idea of where students are coming short on a daily basis. Perhaps the student that always knows the answer doesn't...what gives? Also, as is said in every methods class: circulate. Get around the room.
I use a similar technique in my classroom. I have a bucket I use for attendance. Each child's name is on a clothes pin and they put their name in the bucket when they come in to the classroom. I then use the bucket throughout the day to call on students, or to have students come to the smart board. I can't rely on calling on students based on raising their hands because I would find myself calling on the same students over and over again. This is a way that I can guarantee that I talk to and hear from each student.
I also do the index card idea to ensure I call on more than the students that just raise their hand. I do, however, always put the name of students I call back into the pile. In my math class, I found that students, once called on, tuned out because they knew their name was already called and they didn't have to worry any more.
I also use the cards to set up random groups (and sometimes not so random). There are times when I want groups to be mixed, and others I want them based on abilities, or skills that each student presents. I have previously ordered my deck of cards in a predetermined order so it appeared random to the students, but really, the groups have already been placed. This way students do not automatically start to think "why did she put us together to work on this?" and try to figure out the method to my grouping strategy.