How should we set our classes

13 February 2015

How do you group your students? The recent Sutton report claimed that setting by ability has no impact on student learning. To me, that suggests that everyone should set, since the reduced planning should enable their teachers to work harder in other areas, which were presumably controlled out in the study.

Regardless, I think it’s interesting that we still set the way we always have. Broadly speaking, you give everyone a test, put the students in order, then put the top 32 in the top set, the next 28 or so in the next set and work downwards, the rationale being that weaker students require extra individual attention whereas high achievers are better able to work independently. There are alternatives to this model; I heard this week of a school where students are indeed ranked, but then all of the sets are of 32, leaving teaching staff with a much lighter teaching load and the time to mark more effectively, plan more effectively and provide other interventions in their increased free time. This intrigues me, but until I see a study which suggests it improves attainment overall, I think we’ll be sticking with the current system.

Here’s an alternative to current practice. Group pupils by areas of weakness, then alter your schemes of work for the different groups, or ensure your staff are comfortable viewing your scheme of work as a fluid document, to be altered depending on the needs of their students. Teachers would then be able to focus on the topics that students are most in need of help on, instead of the more aggregated approach, which without proper differentiation and extension can leave some students plateauing. This could be an Algebra set, a Stats set, etc. or more complicated than that, with students grouped according to areas of weakness on individual topics, which can then be systematically retaught and assessed.

How could you do that? I’m afraid it would require some intense data collection, but then surely we want to know what our students can and can’t do? It’s not ‘weighing the pig’ if each weighing of it helps you understand how to fatten it. At Create A Test, you can set tests with each question mapped to our specification and each exam board. Having marked the tests and uploaded the marks, you then have access to information on a students’ abilities, down to an incredibly granular level. Even just using CAT for half-termly summative assessments, by the end of Year 8 you’d have an extremely detailed synopsis of the strengths and weaknesses of your cohort. Could that then be used to put students who have problems with similar types of questions in the same set? Could you also pick your teachers to ensure that your best Shape teacher is teaching the group who struggle with area, Pythagoras and trigonometry?

It’s just an idea, and requires further thinking. What do you think? Tweet us @createatest

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