Mixed ability or similar ability?

When planning group activities for my class, I often wonder whether students will learn best in a mixed-ability group or among classmates whose abilities are like their own. Because the best group depends on several variables, like each individual student and the nature and purpose of the activity, I generally mix it up: some activities are done in mixed-ability groupings, some are done in similar-ability groupings. Recently, however, the idea of similar-ability math classes has been suggested at my school and a colleague from another school, @sedalzell6, recently posted her thoughts about streaming. This got me thinking about my own opinion on the matter.

To me, the most appealing benefits of similar-ability classes are:

  • it is easier to meet the needs of all the students in each class
  • it is easier to provide advanced work for those who are interested in pursuing math beyond high school.

Of course there are also benefits to having mixed-ability classes:

  • students are better able to see their own strengths and weaknesses when working with classmates who have different abilities
  • there are more opportunities for students to help each other and learn from each other

Since it is hard to weigh the advantages of one option against the other, I started thinking about what would be required in each option, rather than the benefits of each option. Initially my list was divided into two columns: one for mixed-ability and one for similar-ability classes, but there was so much overlap, that I combined the two columns into a single list:

  • Monitor student progress using valid and reliable assessments
  • Communicate student achievement using clear criteria that describe what students can do and what they need to work on next
  • Differentiate instruction for ability and learning style
  • Establish routines for respectful and effective collaboration between students
  • Engage students “low floor-high ceiling tasks” and/or multi-dimensional tasks that appeal to multiple learning styles and abilities

These are all good things to do whether you have mixed- or similar-ability classes, and crucial to student-centred learning, regardless of how wide (or narrow) the range of needs in your class. While it is always a challenge to differentiate instruction, grouping students by ability does not eliminate the need to do so. Students will continue to learn at different paces and in different ways.

As much as I expected my pro-con analysis to lead me to a more decisive opinion, I am still undecided; however, as I think about what good teaching looks like, the issue of mixed-ability vs. similar-ability is looking more and more like a false dichotomy.

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