Teaching Mixed-Ability Classes – Differentiated Instruction

If one was to ask teachers around the world, “What is the most challenging task s/he faces as an educator?”- Two answers could be expected; the first would have to do with motivating and increasing the desire of students to learn. The second would have to do with teaching a mixed-ability class.

Changes in Class Structures

With the type of movement that we are experiencing in terms of worldwide restructuring and relocation of populations across the globe, one can imagine how teaching diverse groups of students pose difficulties to teachers who are not trained to handle such situations. To add to this factor, we have also realized and recognized the fluidity of intelligence, and that no one is dull or bright forever, just because a test says so. In other words, intellectual capacities can be shaped and increased with supportive and stimulating designs of learning environments. Hence, it is commonplace to have classes that are mixed-ability in nature, simply because education is not viewed as trite as it used to be anymore.

A World of Mixed-ability Humans

While mixed-ability classes are good representation of actual work environments and life settings in the real-world, tailoring lessons for them is a definite challenge! On one hand, we want students to have a taste of what it feels like to learn with individuals possessing a wide range of abilities, strengths, and learning preferences. Yet on the other hand, we have to accommodate the needs of every member of such a group in each and every lesson, without compromising the satisfaction and maximum learning of individual students.

The Evil of Similar-Ability Grouping

In the past, schools managed to deliberately produce poor students by similar-ability grouping, sometimes called streaming (in the British system). During my high school years, I realized that the best students of the school belonged to the science stream and the poor ones belonged, almost in an ostracized manner, to the arts stream. I also realized that students in the arts stream were assigned teachers who were least committed and possessed low level of teacher efficacy. These teachers did not believe that they could make a significant difference in the lives of students, especially the ones labeled as poor performers. The smart teachers were assigned to the smart students. The not-so-smart teachers were assigned to the poor students. What happened in terms of achievement is almost predictable. My school, like many other schools became subjected to the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy over and over again. Good students continued to do better and poor students continued to struggle and fail. This did not happen because students (on either side of the streams) lacked the ability or aptitude. It happened because of the law of nature that states, we get only what we expect of others (in Social Psychology, this is known as the Pygmalion Effect).

The Advantage of Mixed-Ability Grouping

In a mixed-ability class, although students’ ability and aptitude range from very low, low, average, high, to very high level, they are able to nurture each others’ self-esteem and pull each other up to a similar standard of performance. But some may say that this is not necessarily good for the high achiever because it will hold him/her back. This is a wrong notion. On the contrary, numerous research in peer-tutoring reveal that students learn the best and retain more knowledge (close to 98%) when they teach another peer (It Takes a Learner to Teach a Learner, 2007). It also allows every member of the mixed-ability group to realize that every individual, regardless of his/her level of ability and/or aptitude is gifted and talented in some special way. They learn early in life to harness and celebrate the colorful blend of human potential, without discriminating and superficially appraising each other.

Differentiated Instruction

How do teachers design lessons to meet all the varying needs of a mixed-ability group of students? The following are simple procedures and pedagogical approaches that would enable teachers to effectively teach in mixed-ability classes (Engaging Teaching Methods, 2007):

  1. Do away with lockstep teaching, where all of the students work on the same activity at the same time. This is practically achievable because many schools are now adopting the 25-students-per-class size limit. Where the difference in the abilities is less extreme, a lesson could be introduced to all in the same manner. However, the worksheets and additional exercises are sub-divided according to students’ ability levels (autonomous work). High performers obviously get to go in-depth and do additional exercises and reading, while the struggling ones are intensively supported by the teacher or their high-performing classmates. The use of computers and on-line materials are highly recommended to enable the teacher acquire and make use of a wide range of learning tools for this purpose.
  2. In groups where students are widely differing levels, teachers could completely use different lessons for different students. Each student works through a course at his/her own level while the teacher circulates, monitors, and gives help, explanation and practice as necessary. The only difficulty with this approach is the need for teachers to prepare multiple lessons for every period taught, which could be a tedious task.
  3. Use co-operative teaching methods that would enable students to take responsibility for different sections of a lesson. In cooperative learning, heterogeneous student groups are given the opportunity to work together to discuss, synthesize, and conceptualize knowledge in their own words. Some highly recommended co-operative teaching methods are: The Jig-saw, the Inside-outside Circle, Pair-of-pairs, Think-Pair-Share, Numbered Heads Together, and Team Games Tournament.
  4. The K-W-L (What do I already know? What I want to know? What have I learned?) teaching method is ideal to involve the entire class; identify previous knowledge, bring all students to a common platform of understanding on a given topic, and then continue learning more about the same. The strength of this method lies in its ability to benefit every student with varied learning needs at the same time. It also enables students to connect their existing schema (understanding of a concept) to the present and future learning.
  5. Group investigation or problem-based learning – this is another method of teaching that enables students with differing abilities and aptitude to work together toward accomplishing a complex learning task. Since the success of the individual members of a group is dependent on the success of the whole group, they usually help each other and learn together. While individual accountability is established by assigning individual-specific/specialized roles, the members are responsible for each others’ accomplishment. While many worry that this method might cause a good student a great amount of stress because he/she would end up doing all the work, an effective system and set of procedures could overcome this apprehensive outlook. If a teacher could identify ways to discourage lethargy and social loafing (free-riding), this approach allows students with differing abilities to achieve their greatest potential as young researchers and scholars!

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