23 SES 11 A, Ability Grouping
In New Zealand primary schools students often work in ‘ability’ groups of various kinds. But whereas both internationally and in New Zealand there have been long-standing debates about the effects of ability grouping (e.g., Wilkinson et al. 1999) in recent years there has been very limited New Zealand research in this area (Hornby, Witte, & Mitchell, 2011, Hornby & Witte, 2014). There seems to be a widespread view amongst New Zealand teachers and policymakers that ability grouping is unproblematic and without significant costs for students. This paper reports qualitative research from a study of six diverse New Zealand primary schools that unsettles this perception and contributes to the international picture. The research was part of the RAINS project, a study of the introduction of National Standards into New Zealand schools (Thrupp 2013, Thrupp & Easter 2013). The paper draws on interviews with teachers and students and some classroom observation. It illustrates the complex nature of ‘ability’ grouping occurring in New Zealand classrooms and some likely causes and impacts of such grouping. Children were typically working in groups for at least half of the school day although this varied from school to school and from teacher to teacher. There were ‘ability’ groups for reading, writing and mathematics and for other activities too. Usually there was in-class grouping with some kind of rotation, for instance a group with the teacher, one with a teacher aide, and some groups working independently. In some schools grouping involved students moving between teaching classes as well. There were many other kinds of differentiation also going on also with children being helped as individuals or in small groups and participating in particular programmes and interventions. The organisation of all of this group work and differentiation was often very impressive. Interviews with teachers suggested they often thought that children might be seeing through their attempts to hide ‘ability’ group levels but that they also did not think grouping was causing harm to children’s view of themselves as learners. But interviews with children showed that they were highly aware of the status hierarchies amongst groups and all too ready to position themselves and their peers in relation to those hierarchies. The research further suggested that National Standards were bringing a new intensity to ‘ability’ grouping. In this way the paper will also speak to the influence of policy on ‘ability’ grouping practices within classrooms and schools.
Hornby, G., Witte, C. and Mitchell, D. (2011) Policies and practices of ability grouping in New Zealand intermediate schools. Support for Learning 26(3): 92-96. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9604.2011.01485.x. Hornby, G. & Witte, C. (2014) Ability Grouping in New Zealand High Schools: Are Practices Evidence-Based?, Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 58:2, 90-95 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1045988X.2013.782531 Thrupp, M. (2013). National Standards for student achievement: Is New Zealand’s idiosyncratic approach any better? Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 36(2), 99–110. Thrupp, M., & Easter, A. (2013). ‘Tell me about your school’: Researching local responses to New Zealand’s National Standards policy. Assessment Matters, 5, 94–115. Wilkinson, I. Hattie, J, Parr, J. Townsend, M., Thrupp, M., Lauder H., & Robinson, T. (1999). Influence of peer effects on learning outcomes: a review of the literature. (Final report to the Ministry of Education, Wellington). Auckland, NZ: School of Education, University of Auckland.
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