With the increasingly common trend to move (back) to mixed ability teaching, perhaps it is time to reconsider how we can maximise the progress all students make when part of these ‘multiability’ classrooms. The evidence on this is clear, mixed ability works….. but it works best when we move away from the traditional classroom set up and instead mix in a bit of large-scale cooperative learning.
Now, don’t roll your eyes, this is not Kagan again. This is Kagan 2.0 / Kagan on steroids / Kagan as a game changer….. it is ………wait for it…….a group work/ individual work/cooperative learning/backward teaching mash up (I need to work on the name). This snappily named technique (or variations of it) has a proven track record in pedagogical research by Robert Slavin and Johnson and Johnson, as well as many others, for significantly improving the achievement of low ability students, developing the soft skills of all students, and creating a more positive learning environment that engages everyone. Basically, it makes a happy classroom, with (hopefully) a happy teacher at the helm.
So, what does a group work / individual work / cooperative learning / backward teaching mash up actually look like in the classroom?
How to do it
- Put your students in mixed groups of (ideally) 4. It should be mixed in all possible aspects – ethnicity, ability, gender, handedness, football team they support etc. etc.
- Assign each student in each group a number. This is for answering questions and carrying out split tasks, but you can do it so that all high ability students get a number 3, lower ability a 2 and so on.
- Lessons are structured to contain mixtures of group work and individual work and students earn points for their groups as they do the work. NB: This bit differs from Kagan, which states that competition is bad, but Slavin states intergroup competition creates better results.
- Points are earned for how well students work together, not on their ability. The score sheet sits in the middle of the group and you or other adults in the room can go around and award points throughout the course of the lesson. An example score sheet can be seen in figure 1. Students can use the score sheet for the entire topic, filling a row in each lesson. Bonus points can be used to encourage students to complete homework, bring equipment, or whatever weakness you think the class needs to improve upon.An example lessonStudents read some information cards about the nitrogen cycle and then have to work together to try and fill in a diagram from the clues they have been given. You casually saunter around the room, awarding points when you see excellent group work going on and basking in the glory of your own ability as an inspirer of young minds. You question the students about their answers and then go through the nitrogen cycle with them, correcting any mistakes in their understanding from the group work. You then given them a set of questions to answer, of increasing difficulty that they then do individually. Again, you roam, awarding points when all groups are doing the required activity. Finish by getting them to check their answers with other members of the group. At the end of the lesson announce the team with the most points and give them a round of applause. Sorted.
Why bother with it?
As I previously stated, the evidence of using these techniques is strong, but it does take effort to implement. So what exactly are the benefits?
- You will see a complete turnaround in the engagement of certain students. Suddenly, a student that is normally completely lacking in motivation and interest will be there and will be keen to be involved. It is a lovely thing to witnesses!
- Certain individuals will be stopped from dominating the lesson. You know the types I mean, the ones that know it all and stand out of their seats with their hands outstretched, waiting to be picked. They might not like it at first but it is an important lesson for them none the less!
- Your lessons will be a lot less focused on you and instead you will be able to spend more time getting to know your students. This is more important than ever when in mixed ability groups as you really need to know who is likely to be struggling.
- Lower ability students will be less likely to feel out of their depth but still improve because they are not suffering from being labelled as a ‘bottom set student’.
Words of caution
- Don’t reward students with over materialistic and elaborate rewards. No one will learn any decent life lessons if they get a shiny new bike every time they do something that they are actually just expected to do. Have a trophy display on the wall with the current winners’ names in giant letters above it, make everyone else in the room give them a round of applause, let them have a go in a lucky dip where they might win some chocolate or they might win a new pen! Make it fun, let them feel valued, but don’t go over the top.
- Students don’t always explain it better to their peers than we do. If they did, we wouldn’t be needed. Always make sure there is a time where you are clarifying the content with them.
- You have to consciously build in activities that push higher ability students. This is not difficult, but everyone panics that only lower ability students improve in mixed ability classes so it is best to cover your back! Although, it should be highlighted that it must be harder to monitor the progress in high ability students in these sort of research studies because A grade students can’t really improve by much, there aren’t enough letters!
- Reward as a group but sanction as individuals. You don’t want people being outcast because they have caused the group to be punished. Never take points away from groups.
There will be some topics throughout the year, and some classes, that are more suitable to doing this technique with than others. It can also take a bit of getting used to, and a bit of effort in planning at the start but, the benefits can cause a true revolution in your classroom. Give it a go, what is the worst that can happen? If you want any more information or fancy seeing how I do it with my groups, just get in touch!