Thursday, 6 June 2019

Flexible and Mixed Ability grouping with Janine Irvine and Professor Bobbie Hunter.



The opportunity to hear about Flexible Grouping and Mixed Ability Grouping from two expert points of view was too good to miss, with over 80 people from the ACCoS  Kāhui Ako attending this professional development session.
The session was live streamed and you can check it out via this link.

Flexible Grouping
Janine Irvine is Principal at Cornwall Park School and part of  the ACCoS  Kāhui Ako
Her sabbatical report inquired into
while also exploring the different approaches schools have used to move teachers from only using ability grouping, to also incorporating flexible and responsive heterogeneous grouping into the teacher’s skill set.”



In her report Janine discusses the interplay between organisational structures, subconscious bias, curriculum content knowledge and the teacher needs that influence pedagogy in contrast to student needs; both academic and social as well as the influence on Learner Agency. The pedagogy of ability grouping is deeply imbedded in the teaching of reading, writing and mathematics.  Changing fundamentals in the way classrooms operate will challenge teachers and parents, as people cling to the familiar no matter whether their experience was positive or negative


Much of the research about flexibility grouping comes from prior to 2000, though there is little evidence of change in mainstream classes to date. The recent work by Christine Rubie- Davies ‘Becoming a High ExpectationTeacher- Raising the Bar’ is the catalyst for Janine investigating ways in which we group students for teaching.


Janine talked about the subconscious biases that teachers have and the influence these have with how we group and interact with students. The more we smile at children, the more time we give them to think, the more we give students opportunities to answer questions the more the students feel affirmed.  Teachers subconsciously disadvantage students through ability grouping; lower achieving students by the repetition and types of opportunities they are provided and equally, students who are higher achievers are disadvantaged when they encounter work they cannot do and have not developed perseverance strategies.

With flexible grouping some of the outcomes include;

Harder for children to place themselves in the hierarchical order
Emphasis on engagement to effort
Children and parents focus on progress and celebrate that
Students feel valued for what they bring to the task
There are a wider range of models for learners to learn from
Students learn from consolidating and challenging each other’s understanding
All students are experiencing rich learning tasks
Students see that everyone makes mistakes and these mistakes are celebrated as part of the learning journey
A higher level of learner agency

Reading has traditionally been taught in ability groups, but with a broad approach to teaching reading ie shared reading, ‘all children can be exposed to a more sophisticated piece of text and be able offer opinions and understandings’. The ability to decode is only one aspect of reading and an individual’s understanding of language and text is not necessarily directly linked to their reading age, hence the use of heterogeneous grouping opens up opportunities for all students. 

Mixed ability grouping is more familiar to NZ teachers through the work of Bobbie Hunter with many schools implementing this pedagogy in their maths programmes.

These ways of learning, challenge the views of parents and teachers as to what ‘successful’ education is as they are different to what ‘they’ experienced. There is also the challenge of the need for a broad and in-depth curriculum knowledge by teachers. This is needed to support effective learning in flexible groups; making connections, recognising facts, concepts, structures and practices that are crucial for the learning focus and working with these fluidly to support students with their learning.

In conclusion, Janine believes that the shift to flexible grouping will benefit all students and that “The evidence, as teachers witness the changes in learning evident from using a variety of grouping structures will support change.” 
Balance is the way forward: “The key is to ensure the opportunities are balance across all subjects and during the school day and year.”

As confidence with changing pedagogy develops, we will see teachers using flexible grouping strategies across the curriculum, using whichever approach is best suited for the content, the task and their student’s academic and well being needs.



Mixed Ability Grouping
After a short break the group welcomed Professor Bobbie Hunter.
Associate Professor Roberta (Bobbie) Hunter developed the inquiry-based approach aimed at raising maths achievement in low decile schools for her PhD five years ago.   Doing ‘maths’ is looking a little different these days in some classrooms, as more collaborative approaches to solving mathematics problems are being encouraged.   

Professor Hunter started with her own experiences.
Where did my journey with teaching in this way  start:  It was because of my experiences as a child.  Labelling is disabling!  Teaching students in perceived ability groups, students tend to go into a ‘group’ and stay there through their educational journey.   The concept of ability is loaded with preconceptions and subconscious bias as well as limiting; ability is seen as innate. 

She entreated us to change to using the concept of capability; this is affirmative, focusing on growth and potential.

The fact that New Zealanders are very happy to say ‘ I can’t do mathematics’ reflects on our cultures experiences with mathematics in schooling. We are not accepting of  ‘but not I can’t read’ as we have a literary society. This is not the same in other societies, and Bobbie used illustrations of her time working with other cultures to demonstrate this.   Evidence shows that traditionally teachers work differently with bottom groups or with students who struggle and this contributes to the deeply seated beliefs that you are ‘good at’ or ‘bad at’ maths, rather that maths is a capability that everyone can develop.   Teaching through flexible grouping, develops flexible thinking, in ways that are not learnt through direct teaching.  Jo Bolar’s research found that students who learnt through a rich problem solving approach, showed a more positive interactions with maths as adults,  than those who learned maths through structure ability group teaching.

So what should be the goals for schools.
Stimulating environments – changing working spaces and hands on and real applications.
Teachers who have the knowledge and skills to recognise and support strengths and capabilities of students.
Classroom arrangements and organisation for learning that
- move to more use of flexible, strength based grouping.
- develop group worthy tasks which involve collaborative practices.

- pitch tasks at the expected curriculum level or above of the students.

MYTHS that Bobbie wants BUSTED!
Maths is fun. Learning requires challenge.
Tasks must be set at their level so they are ‘achievable’.
Instead plan for
Low floor, high ceiling problems, so everyone can start the problem and  every child has some thing to reach for.
Just in time learning with in the lesson eg. teaching of strategies
Strategies for grouping, so that groups are always changing. Ideas included a Deck of cards, Allocated numbers drawn    from sticks, grid system, photographs of students,  random organiser…


The emphasis on developing ways to visibly randomised grouping : ( juniors in pairs- others in 3’s or 4’s), is an important part of the building collaborative skills and recognising the strengths that every student can bring to learning.
So that                 
students become agreeable when working with other
there is an elimination of social barriers
there is increased mobility of knowledge between students
there is a decrease in reliance on the teachers
there is an increase in reliance on interaction and cooperation.
These will support learners  to develop Intra – Collaboration skills through
members going out to other groups to borrow ideas from other groups (Cross fertilisation)
groups sharing ideas and learning
groups sharing ways of strategizing
groups that challenge each other’s answers to critically reflect on the learning and outcomes
thinking teams are less threatening for the quieter students and they are more likely to contribute.
Making Connections.
Janine’s closing comment in her report is , ‘other schools have used Math as a starting point (to using flexible grouping), due to the quality professional development currently available in this subject’  links to the comments made by Bobbie Hunter in her interview with E Tangata.
Do you think the style and approach that you’re championing with mathematics has potential applications in other subjects?
"Absolutely. We know that we’re getting somewhere with teachers when they start to say they don’t just use this in maths, but in everything.  We say it’s got to be mixed ability, socially strength-based, and every group has to have the attitude that when we end up with some idea of how to solve something, all of us understands it. It’s not about one person telling us how to do it. It’s about all of us sharing, collectively, what we know.
And after six months they’ll say: “I don’t see why I ability-group in reading when I don’t do it in maths.” 
So, they start applying the principle to everything else. It transfers straight across the curriculum.
That’s a long, hard journey for teachers to go on. It probably takes three years for teachers to become able to teach in this way, because they’ve got to unlearn a whole lot of stuff. But they do it. They do it brilliantly. It’s stunning what teachers can do.

Janine’s observed that this is a journey that requires trust and professional development to build teachers content knowledge. The support through resources, flexibility in timetabling and reflection on assessment demands, along with educating parents will support children’s academic and well- being needs as they learn in the 21st century.

Other implications:
Listening to the presentations, reading more of Bobbie’s work and Janine’s report have prompted the thinking as to,
‘What is Success’?  How do we, as a society, measure educational success? In our schools, whose voice can we not hear?
In her interview with E Tangata Bobbie is quoted as saying,
‘Recently, I was in a meeting where somebody asked about what’s going to happen with assessment now National Standards is gone. A senior ministry person said: “Well, we’re developing another assessment tool.”
So I asked: “Who’s deciding on this assessment tool?”
And this ministry person said: “Society is deciding it.”
So, I said to him: “Whose society?”
And he said: “The New Zealand society.”   As if there was only one.

Janine raises the question as to whether the changing assessment climate in NZ with the removal of National Standards, will encourage schools to rethink the role of assessment, refocusing assessment to learning and teaching rather than grading.
She concludes with the powerful statement.   ‘That we need to assess what we value or else we run the risk of valuing what we assess’.

With the changes in learning this is a discussion that needs to be continued.
2019 Flexible Grouping 2 Mathematics/Pāngarau Initiative 
Further links to support your inquiry further.
  • Developing mathematical Inquiry Communities  (DMIC)  is a model of ambitious mathematics teaching founded in equity which incorporates an advanced form of complex instruction (originally designed and developed by Professors Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Lotan at Stanford University, and in mathematics by Professor Jo Boaler).

  • DMIC in New Zealand is led by Professor Bobbie Hunter, who brings her Cook Islands heritage, mathematics education, professional learning, and theory to practice expertise to this collaborative and culturally responsive pedagogy.

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