Students disaffection polarization and the construction of failure

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Boaler, Dylan, and Brown, the authors, report on research conducted among eighth and ninth grade students grouped by ability in mathematics classes in six schools throughout the United Kingdom. They provide arguments, based on research through student questionnaires, student interviews, and actual classroom observations, that although the UK traditionally uses ability grouping among primary and secondary students, this form of teaching actually produces more negative outcomes for students than does heterogeneous grouping. Streamed schools, the "process by which students are segregated by 'ability' and taught in the same class for all subjects" (p.631), produced or perpetuated feelings of inferiority among students in lower ability groups, while at the same time linked underachievement to students in both low and high ability groups. This is substantiated through student interviews in which pairs of boys and girls from each ability group were questioned about their opinions of being moved from a mixed-ability classroom to an ability-grouped classroom.

Most students in the high ability groups complained that their teachers presented lessons too quickly allowing little or no time for student questions, and there was undue pressure for student success simply because students were in the high ability group. Teachers often taught above the students' ability level and provided little or no assistance. Conversely, students in the low ability groups stated that their lessons were too simple, sometimes merely copying text from the board, and assignments were menial and boring. Students recognized the fact that even the teachers demanded more of the high ability groups and expected nothing from the low ability groups. Even the teachers developed separate pedagogies based on the ability of the group they were teaching. High set teachers tended to vary teaching methods, although most were designed for high level students to complete with very little to no teacher assistance. Low set teachers resorted to the easiest means to an end, most often basic book work and copying from a blackboard, even amid student requests for more demanding assignments. Ultimately, based on their research, Boaler, Dylan, and Brown suggest that "students are constructed as successes or failures by the set in which they are placed" (p. 643).

As an educator, I can see how ability grouping might have some advantages, as long as the teacher's biases of student ability or inability are not used to predetermine their success or failure within the class. Teachers would still need to vary their assignments in order to reach all students and prevent boredom and lack of enthusiasm. On the other hand though, ability grouping can bias students toward students outside their group leading to ridicule and damage to self-esteem. Students in the lower ability groups recognize the fact that they are in the low set and this could become a self-fulfilling prophecy for many, thus preventing them from moving up into the middle ability or high ability groups. Students in high ability groups can feel pressured to perform quickly and perfectly all the time, thus resulting in burnout and possible dropout altogether.

Macintyre, H., & Ireson, J. (2002). Within-class ability grouping: placement of pupils in groups and self-concept. British Educational Research Journal, 28, 249-263.

Macintyre and Ireson conducted research using third to fifth grade students in a primary school in London to determine if students were placed in ability groups based on their actual abilities, and also to identify any relationship between students' self-concepts, their abilities and their placement in within-class ability groups. For their research, the authors looked at standardized test scores and self-concept measurements on 145 students, and gathered information from teachers about the ability groups within the classes they teach.

The authors state that in British primary schools, it is common practice to ability group students within the normal primary classroom setting in order to avoid streaming, whereby students are grouped and then segregated in separate classrooms for all subjects. Streaming often results in student grouping based simply on social class rather than ability (p. 250). Macintyre and Ireson assert, however, there are issues that can accompany within-class grouping, not the least of which is diminished sense of self and lowered achievement. Obviously, some students that are low ability grouped tend to have low self-concept which can be a predecessor to lowered achievement. This leads one to assume that by simply being placed within a low ability group, students low self-concepts are accentuated and therefore perpetuate a cycle of disaffection. Alternately, though, students in high ability groups can negatively affected as well. They can develop a "crystallized view of their ability that may lead them to avoid challenges that are necessary for effective learning" (p. 250). The authors provide evidence that students might often be misplaced in ability groups and may not ever be transferred to the correct group. When this occurs, a student's perceptions of their own abilities may be altered, sometimes simply by the teaching methods experienced within the ability group. Research indicates there are differences in teaching among different ability groups based on the teacher expectations of the group as a whole, not on individual students.

This article offered several points that must be considered when ability grouping within a classroom. First of all, teachers must remember that most students may be weak in one or more subject areas, but usually not in all subject areas. Constantly placing a student within a low ability group can lead to lowered self-esteem and, I believe, lack of desire to even try to improve. There is little chance of peer tutoring in this situation. Students in low ability groups may often be looked down on by students in high and middle ability groups, and even by some teachers. It has been my experience that these students often act out and turn in to behavior problems. Constantly placing a student within a high ability group can lead to unrealistic and egotistical self-esteem issues, while at the same time preventing a student from realizing there are challenges that require thought, research, and work that go beyond typical classroom walls. They often have inflated egos which lead them to assume they are always right and keep them from actually looking up correct answers. I realize, after reading this article, that grouping students may not always be the best teaching method, but can be beneficial to students and teachers as long as the intent of the grouping is not compromised by simply assuming students abilities for group placement.


Poole, D. (2008). Interactional differentiation in the mixed-ability group: A situated view of two struggling readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 43, 228-250.

In this article, Poole researches the possible benefits for students placed in heterogeneous ability groups. In most cases, she found that lower ability students did indeed benefit from being placed in mixed ability groups. They learned by simply observing and listening to higher ability students during class activities. The students could assist one another by sounding out unfamiliar words, taking turns reading aloud, and simply supporting one another during oral reading. Active learning occurred when students worked together in a positive environment. The lower ability students appeared more comfortable working with their peers as opposed to working one on one with the teacher, which often restricts the teacher to only being able to work with a limited number of students at a time. Struggling readers appeared to fit in better with the class, even though they were not on the same academic level as the other students. When questions were asked by the teacher or other students regarding a story they just read, the lower ability students seemed more eager to answer and participate in the discussions than they would have been had they been working independently. The researcher also noticed that students tried to answer questions using different depths of knowledge. Overall, Poole was pleased with the study and its outcome. One concern that was mentioned regarded more proficient student readers and what they gained from this experience. It was interesting to note that they did learn how to work well with others less able than themselves, and the importance of helping their classmates. In the research, Poole considered the chance that the more proficient readers might be negatively affected by assisting the slower readers. Did helping the lower ability students stunt the education of the higher ability students? The research showed that it did not, but the higher ability students were not given the opportunity to expound and open up as they normally would have, had the lower ability students not been present in their group. Either way, though, it appears that students benefitted from this type of grouping, whether they were lower ability, middle ability or high ability.

Critics argue that the negative aspects far outweigh the positives when it comes to ability grouping. Among these are a widening achievement gap between higher ability students and lower ability students, low self-concept and loss of motivation associated with students in lower ability groups, inferior teachers and teaching methods for students of lower ability groups, and stigmatization of students in lower ability groups. After reading this article, I can see how these things would affect students, but I can also now understand that ability grouping does have certain benefits when used in a manner that is consistent from one group to the next. This article was easy to read and it has convinced me to use some mixed ability groups in my classroom and form my own opinion. I think if the higher ability students are not challenged enough, they will become bored and disinterested in the subject matter; the same is true for lower ability students. Working in groups, whether they be homogeneously arranged or heterogeneously arranged, can be beneficial to all students.


Saleh, M., Lazonder, A., & Jong, T. (2005). Effects of within-class ability grouping on social interaction, achievement and motivation. Instructional Science, 33, 105-119.

Saleh, Lazonder, and Jong, the authors, report on research conducted on students in a Kuwaiti school to determine if and how social interaction affects learning among fourth graders of low, average, and high ability when grouped homogeneously and heterogeneously. To determine ability level, researchers used students scores from a basic science skills test commonly used in Kuwait. Students were taught basic plant biology then dispersed to various groups to complete a range of tasks. During the study, the researchers learned that students in the low ability groups did better when grouped heterogeneously. They assumed the reason for this was because the students were collaborating with more skilled peers and were more apt to open up. The students used each other to assist in answering questions and solving problems. The students in the average ability groups seemed to fare better when grouped homogeneously. They also preferred being grouped by gender, and appeared overall to work well in their groups, although not as much as the low ability groups did. Students in the high ability groups worked equally well with heterogeneous groups or homogeneous groups. Social interaction was more frequent and positive among homogeneously grouped students.

Students in this study were given the "How I feel about working in groups at school" questionnaire (p. 110) to find out if they liked working in ability groups. Overall, students were satisfied with their placements in the groups. One area of interest however, was whether low ability students would benefit from working with a high ability student and vice versa. To find out, students were placed in mixed ability groups. The low ability students reported that they enjoyed working with the high ability students because they were able to see the subject matter in a different light, from a perspective more common to their own. Many of the low ability students were able to ask questions and get detailed explanations from the high ability students simply because they felt more at ease with a peer. These same students may not have addressed their questions to the teacher. Mixing the ability groups led to social interactions that might not have occurred otherwise. Allowing students to interact in this manner is a good way to prepare them for society where most jobs require teamwork, collaboration and cooperation.

This article was informative and I did learn some benefits of placing students in homogeneous and heterogeneous ability groups. For me, the most helpful was the evidence which supports mixing low and high ability students to see if either benefit. I use peer tutoring in my classroom and this is very similar to peer tutoring. I have found that not only do the low ability students gain from this, but the high ability students as well because they are usually the group leaders who must explain to the other group members. This is also an excellent life lesson because it teaches students to get along, assist and support their team members, and work together for a common goal.


Tomlinson, C.A., & Allan, S.D. (2000). The rationale of differentiated instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. In How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms (pp. 8-16). Virginia: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Differentiated instruction is a necessity in today's classrooms. Students cannot be expected to learn the same thing, the same way, in the same amount of time. In this chapter, Tomlinson and Allan discuss the importance of differentiated instruction to ensure the success of all students while at the same time make the learning environment more enjoyable. Many teachers simply write one lesson plan then teach it to multiple classes regardless of the students' ability level within those classes. This is basically an attempt to get by with a "one size fits all" approach which simply does not work. Tomlinson and Allan state that it is possible for a teacher to teach the same lesson to several ability groups using several methods within the same classroom. In this manner, students can learn regardless of their ability level. If a student has mastered a specific skill, there is simply no need for that student to continue lessons or activities designed to teach mastery of the same skill. Students will become bored repeating the same things again and again. This is where ability grouping in the classroom can be beneficial. Students are placed in homogeneous groups based on their ability level and allowed to work with other students on similar projects and assignments. The teacher can differentiate the instruction so that it meets all the students within the group. The students in the lower ability group can have the lesson simplified so they grasp the concept being taught. Most of the students in the middle ability group should be able to complete assignments as the teacher prepared them with little or no problem. The students in the higher ability group could do the same lesson as the rest of the class, but learn it in a more challenging way. Even though the lesson might include a skill this group has already mastered, differentiated instruction will provide more stimulation and more thought-provoking activities. Students usually enjoy working in peer groups.

Student ability grouping can provide social interaction among students, can enhance self-esteem (as long as students are not ridiculed or made to feel inferior), can aid learning by encouraging peer tutoring, and can teach teamwork and social skills that may not be taught at home. As a teacher, I need to ensure that I am meeting all my students' needs to the best of my ability. This chapter in the book was very informative and gave several examples of how students learn and how they feel about learning. Tomlinson and Allan provide information on how to implement different kinds of differentiated instruction in the classroom. All students have a right to learn regardless of their ability or lack of. Differentiated instruction makes that possible. I think students will learn more and will be more open to learning if they are grouped, simply because this is a comfort to most of them and they don't have as great a fear of intimidation.