My problem with ability

I’ve always had a big problem with grouping students by ability. The Sutton Trust EEF Toolkit shows that ability grouping, setting or streaming has a negative impact on student attainment.

Ability grouping slows progress down

Ability grouping slows progress down

One of the first blogs I read and favourited when I began exploring the online educational world was Kenny Pieper’s Setting by ability: why? which used Ed Baines’ chapter on ability grouping in Bad Education: debunking myths in education to argue that setting and streaming was “self-defeating in the extreme.” Since then I’ve had a look at the research myself; there’s a list of some of the articles at the bottom of this blog. My favourite was Jo Boaler, Dylan Wiliam and Margaret Brown’s study Students’ experiences of ability grouping —disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure. Susan Hallam concluded her study: “ability grouping…does not raise standards, and in some cases can lower them. It can also have detrimental effects on pupils’ personal and social development.”

It’s fair to say, the case for setting and streaming is full of holes and there is plentiful research out there to show that it doesn’t achieve what it tries to achieve. As the Sutton Trust Toolkit says: “ability grouping appears to benefit higher attaining pupils and be detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower attaining learners.” In other words, it exacerbates the Matthew Effect and ensures that the gap between the knowledge-rich and the knowledge-poor widens.

Ability has no bearing on your accomplishments; effort does

Ability has no bearing on your accomplishments; effort does

My big problem with any discussion around grouping is with the weasel word “ability.” As Fearghal Kelly says it has all the connotations of a fixed mindset. When you talk about a “mixed ability” group what are you really saying? That some of them are more “able” than others? This language implies that those “low ability” students you have are actually less able to improve. The word itself reinforces the widening of the gap. In actual fact, as we all know, students who end up labelled “low ability” have complex needs, some cognitive, some behavioural, some social, and some attitudinal which have led to them performing poorly. This poor performance – their prior attainment – gains them the label of “low ability,” but it does not necessarily follow that low attainment corresponds to lack of ability.

I want to root the word “ability” out of my own and my school’s vocabulary. If we are truly to become a growth mindset school we must avoid the bear-trap of labelling students with fixed terms like “middle ability” throughout schooling when we actually mean “achieved between 25 and 40 marks on their English reading paper in Year 6 which was then translated using a threshold into an arbitrary level 4.” This has nothing to do with the individual’s ability. It is all about performance.

Ability is not fixed. As teachers we can work with young people to overcome their cognitive, behavioural, social and attitudinal issues and improve their ability to access the curriculum. We certainly won’t solve all of those issues outright, but we can ameliorate them  – and we must. But labelling a young person as “low ability” is not going to motivate them or us to try.

No matches. Mission accomplished.

No matches. Mission accomplished.

I wrote to parents this week explaining our grouping and curriculum approaches in school, and I didn’t use the word ability once. “Students are taught in groups with the full range of prior attainment,” I wrote to explain those subjects that mix – the majority of our curriculum is taught this way. Some still set, of course – that’s the Head of Faculty’s decision. Our challenge now is to raise attainment for all and to ensure that every student continues to increase their ability to learn, grow and achieve.


Research articles:

In defence of Media Studies


Media Studies is, of course, a Mickey Mouse subject. It’s easier to pass than other subjects. It’s not a rigorous preparation for university. It’s “soft”. I’m not taking the mickey here; Michael (Mickey?) Gove says so:

“…it’s a fact that some of our best universities consider media studies to be a less rigorous preparation for higher education than other courses. Students who take it up limit their capacity to choose freely between universities. Its a simple truth that a pass in physics or further maths opens more doors. But some schools still steer students towards subjects such as media studies because they know its easier to secure a pass. That easier pass will boost their league table ranking. It is no accident that the huge rise in students taking media studies GCSE has occurred in state schools, where league tables matter so much, while in private schools, where the interests and demands of students and their families currently hold more sway, there has been no similar rush to embrace the subject.”

Let me nail my colours to the mast. When I first started as a Head of English in 2002, one of the first things I did was implement a KS4 course where every student studied English, English Literature, and Media Studies. Almost every student triple-certificated after two years. And I didn’t do this to push my school up the league tables, I did it from a profoundly held ideological standpoint that media studies is a curriculum entitlement and a fundamental necessity for young people today.

Let me explain. This isn’t an just argument about effects theory, which attempts to teach young people how to avoid being brainwashed by the pernicious commercial and ideological messages of a sinister conspiracy imposed on the masses by “the media”. Such an argument is reductive and patronising, casting media audiences as passive couch potatoes without an independent idea of their own. It is this kind of approach that makes for easy headlines and provides a simple scapegoat, such as when Barack Obama called for research into the effects of violent video games as part of his gun control package in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. It isn’t just a protective discipline.

Primarily, for me, media studies is about creativity. Back in 2002 I was frustrated by the lack of creative opportunity in the existing GCSE English and English Literature specifications, and included Media Studies to provide a creative outlet for the students. Simply put, media provided them with the opportunity to make things. Since then, Web 2.0 has meant that nearly all of us are media creatives. Every Facebook status, every tweet, blog, vlog, pin, Instagram or Flickr share is a creative act through the media. David Gauntlett calls it “the make and connect agenda“; the young people we teach every day are not slavishly sat in front of the television of an evening, devouring commercial messages with square eyes and a blank expression. They are instead constantly creating, sharing, and self-representing, often clumsily and with little regard for the process and its potential impact on themselves and others. The need for a subject which frameworks their understanding of this is more pertinent now than ever.

I don’t want to denigrate the importance of an understanding of the world, either. It is essential that young people understand how important the relationship between news and politics is, how much the friendships between David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks or Andy Coulson matter. How the Rupert Murdoch empire controls not just The Sun but wants to control Sky too. How it’s no accident that James Bond’s phone is a Sony. Why it’s important that Google owns YouTube or that iPhones only work with iTunes. That the PCC is a self-regulating body and what the Leveson inquiry is all about. To understand media institutions is to understand the commercial and political structures of the country we live in. This, surely, is an educational entitlement.

I am proud to be a teacher of a Mickey Mouse subject. A study of Disney can lead into a history of the representation of the role of women from domestic servant to independent role model. It is a brilliant case study in the commodification of childhood, branding, and a horizontally integrated company. The narrative control, intertextuality and sophistication of films like Enchanted or the Toy Story trilogy provide a rich and rewarding experience on multiple levels in a way which the modern novel is struggling to match.

Sir Ken Robinson, in his Changing Education Paradigms speech, famously explains that the education system has to prepare young people for jobs which don’t yet exist in economies we cannot predict. There are young people like Charlie McDonnell and Tom Ridgwell currently making a good living from creating YouTube videos. I was lucky enough to teach Jack and Dean – for A-Level Media Studies – whose 11 million video views and 214,000 subscribers give them a bigger reach than most TV programmes. These young people are doing a job that most people still don’t understand in an economy that nobody thought existed. They are an example of young people making, creating and connecting, and forging a brand new career path to fit – the model of a new educational paradigm.

My triple-cert course lasted until the new model for GCSE English was introduced in 2010. At that point it was no longer possible to fit it into the time constraints, and the new specs for GCSE English Language incorporated more work on multi-modal texts as part of its core business which went some way to mollify my misgivings. We pushed Media out into the options, where it promptly recruited three groups. (I’m still amazed the curriculum deputy let me do it – it must have been like dropping a bomb into the options pool.) Yet now the proposed new national curriculum for English KS4 excises any mention of the multi-modal, removing any last vestige of reference to the moving image or to the flexible, dynamic way that modern writing and reading is developing through hyperlinks and embedded media. Whilst this sat within English, I felt more at ease. Without it, I don’t see English preparing young people for the types of texts they will be reading and creating as they become adults.

I am not the first to attempt a defence of media studies in the face of criticism. There is even a collection of defences far more academic and impressive than mine at the Manifesto for Media Education site, including coruscating pieces from David Buckingham, Julian MacDougall and Cary Bazalgette amongst many other luminaries. For me, media studies is an entitlement. Young people are connecting, creating, using, and innovating in media every waking hour; it is incumbent on educators to support, cherish and develop their understanding of the processes in which they are engaged to the best of our ability.

“Thinking aloud” and teaching the writing process

This month’s #blogsync is all about classroom practice – “A Teaching and Learning strategy intended to elicit the highest levels of student motivation in my subject” – and I have revisited some work I did with Nottingham University on cognitive approaches to writing some years ago.

The Theory – intended impact and reflection on effect

The cognitive theories of writing – Flower and Hayes (1981, revised 1996) and Bereiter and Scardamalia – focus on the processes in the brain of the “expert” writer as opposed to the “novice” or student writer. Essentially, the theory goes, the writing process consists of two bodies of knowledge – content knowledge (knowledge of what you are writing about) and discourse knowledge (knowledge of how you construct a piece of writing). At its simplest, this process is rendered as “Knowledge Telling”:


Critical to the understanding of this process is that it is only when pupils have a confident grasp of one body of knowledge can they focus intently on improving the other. The “expert” writer has highly developed discourse knowledge and is able to use processes such as planning, organising, translating and reviewing to interact with the writing problem in front of them (e.g. essay title, #blogsync theme…) to move into a model which is closer to “knowledge transforming”:


In the latter model, the dual problems of what to write and how to write it are constantly redeveloped and reassessed in the light of one another. This is cognitively complex, but it is the model towards which we should  be moving students in the teaching of the writing process.

I am enacting the knowledge transforming process now in this blog post, constantly deleting and rewriting sentences, changing the order, cutting and pasting a section from here to there, but what you, the reader, will see is the finished product, not the process. And, in teaching, the process is the most important thing. Providing students with examples of the finished product (“an A-grade essay looks like this…”) is not futile, but far more important is to provide students with example of how to write an A-grade essay…

The expert writer – the teacher or a student – needs to model the thinking that is going on as the text is constructed by thinking aloud and explaining what choices are being made and why, both in terms of content and discourse. This is not easy and I have on more than one occasion had teachers wonder what’s going on in my classroom as I rehearse writing a poem, an argument or a description whilst narrating aloud what is going on in my head! But, without practice, this can be muddled in the classroom, so I continue…

The think-aloud process should be followed by co-constructing the text with the students as a shared writing approach. The aim in both these processes is to expose the cognitive processes to enable students to see what happens “behind the scenes”. The Martin/DSP wheel outlines many of the elements of this approach:


In my classroom – description of classroom action and evaluation of impact

To explore the application of “think-aloud” and shared writing, I used the approach with two separate Year 8 groups when teaching analytical writing to explore “The Highwayman”. I wrote a paragraph whilst articulating my thoughts, composed another paragraph together, and finally moved into independent writing. Following the lessons I gave them questionnaires to evaluate the impact. From the questionnaires, the following conclusions were drawn:

  • 80% found the demonstration of discursive writing helpful
  • 94% found the shared writing experience helpful
  • 70% found the teacher’s “think-aloud” talk helpful

In pupil interviews, this was refined by the explanations that a barrage of “think-aloud” talk was too much to take in. Pupils found it difficult to extract useful information from the “think-aloud” although they understood the process better. The sheer number of decisions made in constructing sentences and paragraphs of writing became obvious but no less challenging. This evidence makes the rehearsal of the think-aloud even more imperative to distil and structure of the thinking and avoid the barrage effect.

Engaging staff in the explicit teaching of writing

When working with staff on this approach I ask for a Diamond 9 ranking which I reproduce here (Thinking Aloud 9) in the hope that readers of this blog can take these ideas into their own classrooms. The idea of the exercise is for teachers to evaluate what they see as most important about teaching the writing process:


  • “Thinking Aloud” and being totally explicit about the process
  • Encouraging pupils to contribute
  • Showing precisely how writing is constructed
  • After modelling , scaffolding the learning through shared or guided activities
  • Making visible and explicit the “structure” of the process, concept or knowledge
  • Building in time for pupils to reflect on the process
  • Breaking down the process into a series of manageable steps
  • Enabling pupils to do it independently
  • Encouraging pupils to think for themselves or to ask their own questions

I’d be interested to know the thoughts of readers of this blog – please let me know in the comments!  And finally, with staff as for readers of this post, I would urge you to:

  • Choose a genre or type of writing used in your subject and try demonstrating it for your pupils
  • Consider how you might use pupils as experts to model as an alternative to the teacher
  • Plan a range of activities which will help pupils to make a bridge from modelling to being able to use the process independently

Positive Language

I read a post by whenisitdueinsir  yesterday, which has inspired me to conduct an experiment. The blogger noticed that a “mufti day” or “home clothes day” at primary school becomes a “non-school uniform day” at secondary. The shift from positive to negative language on transition from KS2 to 3 slides past almost unnoticed until foregrounded.

I thought back through my week at school and wondered how many children I had told to “stop” doing something, or “don’t” do that, or who I had given a flat “no” to. Bill Rogers clearly outlines the benefits of using positive language in the classroom, so I know I shouldn’t (there I go again). In fact, Tom Sherrington’s post about Rogers reminded me of it only a month or so ago.

So I am making a personal pledge in my own teaching to refocus myself on positive language. “Stop talking please” will become “Could you please listen carefully?”. “Don’t log on yet” will  become “please wait until I have given you all the instructions”. “Don’t push” will become “could you please wait your turn.” And not just in the classroom either – in conversations with staff and parents I am going to make every effort to use positive language. Gone is “that option combination won’t work”; in its place: “have you considered Media Studies?” I will try to avoid “don’t let students out before the bell” and go for “please wait until the bell before dismissing your group”. And “that won’t work” will be completely off limits unless I can offer a positive alternative.

This isn’t just a gimmick. When something is prohibited or forbidden, it sets up an oppositional relationship and breeds negativity. When, instead, I say what I do want to happen, offer the path that I would like the students to take, give a solution rather than just identify a problem, I hope to avoid that trap and create a culture that has positivity and collaboration in its very fabric. Truth be told, I think this should be a whole school cultural bottom line – and maybe that’s something we could look at!

So if you work with me, follow me on Twitter, read this blog, or if you’re in one of my classes – please try to catch me out! I’ll thank you for it.