Fixed-ability thinking in the classroom hinders learning and can define what a child believes they are capable of.
These are key take-aways from the book Learning without Limits, published in 2012 and co-written by Dame Alison Peacock, and the work of the project of the same name run by the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education. Between them, they have helped reignite debate amongst educators in recent years around the impact of determinist beliefs about children’s ability.
However, you don’t need to look far to find examples that prove this labelling of children according to their perceived ability is still rife in schools. Lesson planning makes explicit differentiation of activities and resources for so-called ‘low-ability’, ‘core’ and ‘more able’ groups. In some classrooms, children are seated according to ability – a physical manifestation of fixed-ability thinking that does nothing to open up educational opportunity to all.
This results in what Italian educationalist Loris Malaguzzi termed ‘prophetic pedagogy’. If the child is told that they are of ‘low ability’ and is exposed only to the sort of learning, discussion and resources deemed appropriate for children of ‘low ability’, their potential to succeed is not only capped by the expectations of those around them but is also stunted by their own developing perception of what they are capable of.
And this is not just a question of semantics. Some schools have banned staff from talking about ‘low ability’, ‘core’ or ‘more able’ pupils. But staffroom conversation falls back upon a new shorthand – ‘lower attaining’, ‘those at risk of falling behind’ – that still embodies the same preconceptions.
Writing in the TES at the start of the school year, education commentator Nancy Gedge, highlighted the benefits to all children of inclusive classroom practises that seek to promote collaboration and the collective learning of children irrespective of educational need. And you need only spend a short time in a classroom of a school that has abandoned ability grouping and allowed children to self-select the appropriate level of challenge in their learning to see how learning and progress flourish.
Digital learning environments such as Google Classroom offer huge potential to level the playing field for all learners while giving teachers control of formative assessment tools that enable them to monitor understanding and progress, and set next-steps for each child. Here are three quick ways you can use Google Classroom to move beyond fixed-ability thinking:
1. Use Stream to promote collaborative leaning
Allow all children to learn from each other in Stream. Use a video with high-quality audio or an animation with a useful audio commentary as the basis for discussion rather than a text. By reducing the reading load of the resource, more of your students will be able to access the content independently and participate in the discussion.
2. Provide a range of different resources
Make available to all learners a range of resources in different formats (video, audio, text, animation) but with the same educational content and let them self-select the resource they are more confident using. If you make these available before a lesson or before you start a unit of learning, students can use the resources as a pre-study tool to give them the foundations they will need to participate in learning in the physical classroom.
3. Allow the child to select the right level of challenge
Instead of setting different tasks or activities for different ‘ability groups’, set one activity for all with different levels of challenge built in for children to select. Google Classroom allows you to give personalised feedback to individual children, which can include targeted questions to further their learning and set next steps. Using a formative assessment tool such as StudyBee, which can be used to assign customised learning objectives to every Google Classroom assignment, helps you to stay on top of this highly personalised dialogue with your students about their learning.
Download a free trial today and see how StudyBee could transform your interaction with your students.