Challenging the Argument for Homogeneous Classrooms

In our November post, Transforming Education”, we discussed several issues associated with the U.S. education system. Two respondents (both former teachers) to the post had some very interesting comments (I’ve included them below followed by my observations). The first respondent, Seth Leslie said:

I’ve always been a proponent of heterogeneous groupings in classrooms, but I’d be the first to admit that pulling it off in a way that benefits all learners is a huge challenge.  It takes a very skilled teacher, excellent curriculum and the right materials to make this work well.  But when it does work well, it’s awesome, and the relational/socio-emotional learning that occurs alongside of the content learning is super important in an increasingly collaborative and interconnected workplace.  It’s just so hard to do this well!

 One other point – no mention of teacher quality in your article.  This is also a factor that contributes significantly to student outcomes – as much or more than class size and family circumstances.

Technology seems to offer some interesting opportunities to schools and learning, but my experience tells me that too much effort goes into selling goods to schools, and not enough effort goes into ensuring that teachers are well trained and well supported in utilizing the technology effectively.  I’d love to tell you about my personal experience with my son Zach, who is in the second year of the 1-to-1 iPad program at his school.  In short, I’m not a fan (and I love technology!)

 Very interesting read, though, and your points make a lot of sense.  It’s frustrating that we as Americans produce so much to be proud of, yet we can’t seem to solve education.”

Although he is a proponent of heterogeneous grouping, he does acknowledge how hard it is to make it work. I, on the other hand, am against it because I believe the obstacles to it working outweigh the small number of cases where a great teacher might be successful in making it work. He also points out that teacher quality can be an issue.  I believe that this stems from not budgeting enough dollars to education, including teacher salaries. Finally, he has had poor experience with the use of technology in the classroom. I agree that this issue has yet to be solved. Simply putting technology into a classroom without integrating it into the learning experience and providing the training necessary for teachers won’t lead to success.

The second teacher that responded, Tatum Omari, is now the lead for Education.com learning products, an Azure portfolio company. She is also a supporter of heterogeneous grouping. Her comments follow.

“Hetero vs. Homogeneous grouping is definitely a complex topic. It can be incredibly hard to do well. Those that are able to pull it off well are usually teachers who have years of experience under their belt. The problem with implementation involves many factors, including the high rate of teacher turnover, and the fact that they don’t quite have time to build the necessary experience to master approaching classroom instruction that facilitates heterogeneous grouping. This requires instruction that utilizes whole group tasks that have low floors and high ceilings. Being able to consistently provide your classroom with tasks that are this rich and promote deep understanding because of their ability to be extended so easily takes quite a bit of skill. That said, to abandon it completely is problematic as there is much research to support that it is not only a worthy endeavor, but one that will be critical to the U.S. elevating our educational system, and our students, back to a place that is competitive with that of the achievements of other countries and our students back to a place that is competitive with that of the achievements of other countries.

The most successful countries, in terms of academic achievement, including Finland, Japan, and Korea, all teach to heterogeneous classrooms and do not practice ability-based grouping. This is because they prize the development of cooperative group achievement over that of the individual. As a result, all of their students experience a far more elevated degree of achievement. There are also some key negative consequences to ability-based grouping which include:

  • Lower expectations from teachers regarding the abilities of students that are placed in groups believed to have lower abilities. Research has shown that randomly distributed students of varying levels scored higher when their teachers believed them to be a group with a higher level of ability. In contrast, another randomized group scored lower when the teacher was led to believe that the students had a lower level of academic ability.
  • Less masterful teaching practices. When teachers are given the ability to use ability-based tracking and teach their students in homogeneous groups, they are less likely to provide all of their students with the type of rich tasks that provide low floors and high ceilings. That means that while the high group may periodically gain access to higher level tasks, the teacher instruction overall is aimed at the middle of the class and there the high students actually miss out on encountering that type of deeper learning throughout the day. In some cases that higher group will only work with the teacher 1-2 times per week which means they are bored a fair bit during the rest of instruction.
  • There can be borderline casualty students, assessed just below the entry requirement for the more advanced groups. This means students who are assessed at one point below what is required to be included in the high group, could be excluded permanently from the opportunity for the rest of their educational career.
  • The development of a fixed mindset by both higher and lower achieving students. Surprisingly the adoption of a fixed mindset can be just as detrimental for a high achiever as that of a low achiever. If the high achiever sees themselves fixed at “smart” they can develop anxiety which leads them to ask fewer questions so as to never appear to not understand or “not smart”. This keeps them from developing a flexible mindset where it is ok to problem-solve out loud and in a group.
  • Missed resources in terms of what students can learn from working and problem-solving together in a group. Often times high achieving students who are offered instruction in mixed ability groups score much higher than those instructed in homogeneous groups because their thinking is stretched when working in groups and looking at problems through different perspectives. The act of observing a fellow students possible wrong assumption, and then helping them to clarify, can help them grasp the concept on a much deeper level, as they are forced to take abstract mathematical concepts, and translate them into oral language which can be very difficult.

While, like Seth, Tatum makes strong arguments (many drawn from the book by Jo Boaler: “What’s Math Got To Do With It?”) that heterogeneous grouping can be beneficial under the right circumstances, I continue to believe that it does not work well in the US for the reasons she points out at the beginning of her comments: inadequate training, teacher turnover, insufficient resources, etc. However, I believe it is worthwhile to provide readers with these alternate points of view (and a reference that expounds on it) from very thoughtful teachers who themselves I’m convinced could make it work to the benefit of students. It seems to me from an aspirational view, heterogeneous grouping is ideal but not from a practical point of view given current U.S. classroom conditions.

Soundbytes:

  • Recently, a number of former players have stated that the lack of adequate defense is the reason behind Curry’s success. Personally, I think defense is actually stronger today than in the past but regardless, the best way of judging any player is by comparing him to his peers. At Curry’s current pace he will score over 50% more 3s in a season than anyone besides him has ever done. The prior record holder before Curry, Ray Allen scored 41.2% of his 3s in his record setting year. Stephen Curry is hitting 46.8% of his 3s this year despite taking more shots per game (which for most would lower their shooting percentage). To put this in perspective, at Allen’s percentage made, he would have scored 34 fewer 3s on the same number of shots Curry has taken this season to date. This equates to 102 less points And Allen was widely considered the best 3 point shooter ever prior to Curry! If we compared Curry to the league average 3-point shooting percentage for the season to date of 35.7%, then the difference becomes about 67 extra 3s made on the 3 point shots he has taken through 56 games played or an extra 201 points vs the league average (which equates to 286 points for the full season). I believe there are few record holders in any era that have such a large discrepancy vs peers (today’s NY times sited Wayne Gretzky and Babe Ruth as similar in producing outsize increases in a major record).

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