Why grouping of students according to ability is unfair

Classroom

A teacher and her pupils inside a classroom during a lesson.

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What you need to know:

  • Ability grouping upsets the special bonds students have built over the period of study at the school.
  • All students have the potential to succeed to the best possible potential, however varied their abilities.

A little more than 10 years ago, the authorities of a secondary school announced that it would group that year’s KCSE candidates according to their abilities. The announcement meant that students would be grouped into classrooms or streams according to their academic achievement.

Ability grouping, it was said, would provide instruction that was appropriate for students and their individual needs.

All schools have students of varied abilities. They are, for the most part, taught together rather than being set apart in groups. Under this regime, all students in the same classroom receive the same instruction, with teachers professionally tasked to provide a teaching that takes care of the diversities in abilities.

The announcement sent shockwaves through the parents and the students’ body present. That was during an academic day for the students.

Whatever its merits, ability grouping creates unintended consequences that hurt students.

It primarily hurts students’ motivation to learn. It also adversely affects their sense of belonging in the school. Students who have learning difficulties are stigmatized as not good enough to interact with students of high ability.

Stigmatises learners

It also upsets the special bonds students have built over the period of study at the school. The bonds serve social, emotional and educational needs of learners. The weak students get peer support from classmates who happen to be good in a certain subject or an all-round student.

Most students are not all-round students. They lend mutual support to each other particularly in subjects they are strong. In turn the students get support from peers who are strong in other subjects.

As noted earlier, ability grouping stigmatises learners with low abilities. Ability grouping grossly ignores the Pygmalion effect in education research. The idea suggests that teacher expectations influence student performance. If a teacher expects a student to do well, he will do well. Positive expectations beget positive results. Negative expectations beget negative results. 

By labelling some students of high ability and others of low ability, the decision to assign classes according to academic performance designates some students as winners and others as failures. Needless to say, this is unprofessional.

All students have the potential to succeed to the best possible potential, however varied their abilities. The Bill of Rights implies, among other things, that every citizen, every child has the right to develop his or her intellectual powers to the fullest possible extent. 

Ability grouping in classrooms sends contradictory signals to the students, parents and the entire society: that some students are entitled to quality educational experience than others; that schools have the right to deny certain categories of students’ quality educational opportunities while it reserves them for others. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Equal opportunities

Educational laws provide for equal educational opportunities to all children. The formal curriculum is available to all students without discrimination. Availability is predicated on the assumption that the syllabus coverage is a marathon, and not a sprint. Authorities in education have in mind how much time students should spend on course materials over time. 

Embedded in the school calendar, school hours and class hours, is what in educational jargon, is called instructional pace. This is the speed with which a teacher covers content during the time allotted to a content area.

Covered too fast-paced, it disadvantages high ability and low ability learners alike. It leaves too many students behind. If it is inordinately too slow, many students get bored and disinterested, ironically, leaving many students behind. An instructional pace in which teachers move on when with approximately 80 percent of students assures their mastery of what is taught.

Statutes on education envision a school environment which leaves no child behind. It envisions a school environment which provides equal educational opportunities to all learners without labels. 

The school gives students of various backgrounds and abilities the same teachers and the same instructional resources. The students in mixed ability classes should then be able to access the same high-quality instruction throughout their primary or secondary education cycle.

The students leave the school with pleasant memories. The bright students leave with memories of having supported their comparatively weaker peers while the average and below average students equally leave with memories of having been supported one way or another — by fellow students, teachers and a school system which was sensitive to the diversities in abilities, talents and interests in the learners.

The writer is a communications officer, Ministry of Education

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