12 Apr 2017

Why it’s unhelpful to put limits on children’s learning

‘It’s very easy not to see the intelligence which is there’

Christopher Bryan

This is a sensitive topic. In every classroom there are children with different levels of prior attainment and with differing capacities to engage with the work. However, the labelling of children through setting might be putting limits on their learning.

What happens in many classrooms is that pupils are placed in groups which determine the level of work which they are expected to do. However these tables are labelled and however carefully the adults believe they have disguised the fact that they are given work of different challenge, children are remarkably astute at knowing what these mean. Whether they are on a table called leopards or lizards, they know what these signify. Whether they are number ones or number fours they know that this involves different levels of challenge and expectation.

The problem comes when the labels remain stuck. Children self-identify with the level of work which is expected of them. This is not helpful either for the high prior attainers or the low prior attainers. The high attainers see themselves a privileged, as being worthy of greater challenge and as more able than others. All of which might be the case. But if their work drops and they are allocated a different label to differentiate their work they are likely to see themselves as failures. Similarly for the other labelled groups. Children who have the bottom labels, and they do know they are labelled bottom, feel that they cannot tackle more demanding work. They are often supported by an adult which is often appropriate, but what sometimes happens is that they become dependent on the adult to help them, even when they don't need it.

Alison Peacock in ‘Assessment for Learning without Limits’[1] provides an insight into children’s views on setting: ‘The ‘more able’ loved it; they enjoyed being the ‘bright’ ones and having ‘special’ challenges set by the teacher. They also saw working with the teacher as a negative. The middle group were annoyed that they didn't get the same work and challenges as the other group; they wanted to try harder work but they have worked out they would never be moved up as there were only six seats on the top table. The ‘less able’ were affected the most. They felt ‘dumb’, useless, they thought they would never be allowed challenges as they usually work with the teaching assistant (some by year 5 were completely dependent on the teaching assistant to help them). This ‘less able’ group like the sound of some of the challenges the top group had, but knew they would never get the chance.’

For many of the ‘lower’ groups, they are offered closed responses - matching parts of sentences, filling in gaps, completing easy worksheets, none of which really stretches them or expects them to do much. Others, by contrast are given more to do and more is expected of them. While they might have a few closed exercises in order to practice or consolidate their knowledge, they are also expected to do new things with this - constructing their own sentences, coming up with other alternative adjectives in a piece of writing, suggesting alternatives to maths problems. These children are being given more opportunities both to struggle and to gain new knowledge. The others, by contrast, have insufficient expected of them and as a result, don’t make the same gains as their peers. This extends the gap in their knowledge and attainment. The paradox is that by attempting to give them easier work, such exercises can often close down their capacity and opportunity to do more.

Teachers somehow have to make sense of this in order to get all children working to their highest capacity and potential. Schools which have recognised that grouping children by ability could be a problem in promoting self-limiting beliefs at all levels of ability have done away with the naming of tables or groups. Instead, they promote teaching to the top, rather than putting a lid on what children might produce by preparing materials which only allow them to go so far. The current trend in the teaching of mathematics in primary schools is that the whole class is taught together on the key ideas and those who need additional support are given this through guidance and discussion by an adult. Those who are early graspers are kept on the same material but are expected to work on aspects of greater complexity and depth.

The principle is that all children are exposed to the material at the same time. Now there will always be exceptions to this: those whose cognitive ability needs one to one support, often through pre-learning sessions so that they are able to access the material and others whose grasp is so secure early on that they need additional work which makes them really think. But for the majority of children in most classes the expectation is that by teaching to the top and providing additional support for those who need it and challenge for those who are capable of greater complexity and as a result all are exposed to a rich and demanding curriculum.

The shift in what pupils can do well in one lesson is likely to be different in another. So while a group of pupils might have grasped one aspect very quickly, they might be slower on another. This means that there needs to be fluidity and flexibility about what they do and what is expected of them. This movement in terms of expertise is natural. Not every child is going to struggle every time and not every child is going to race ahead. This is how learning works.

The philosophy of ‘Learning without Limits’[2] encourages schools not to label children. Their needs and barriers to learning should be identified but this is different from labelling them. A staggering statistic from Gordon Stobart in The Expert Learner[3] showed that 88% of 4 year olds placed in sets were still there by the end of their schooling. In her TEDx[4] talk Alison Peacock describes the school journey of one child with considerable additional needs. What would have happened if she had used sets? What would the outcomes have been for that child if he had been labelled? It’s very unlikely that he would have reached the top scores in his SATS.

We do not truly know what anyone is capable of until they are given interesting and difficult things to do. So a ‘learning without limits’ setting ensures there are interesting, thought-provoking, challenging things for children to do. And that alongside this there is plenty of appropriate support and timely feedback. If children are engaged in thoughtful, absorbing practice, they are both paying attention to the now, are in the moment and are also on the path for a bigger story, which moves them into tomorrow and the future.

A compelling example for why it is so important not to underestimate what children can do. Jonathan Bryan, born with cerebral palsy after his mother was involved in an car accident started a campaign to ensure all children with ‘locked-in’ syndrome are taught to read and write[5]. It took seven years before he was able to communicate and now spends part of each day in the local primary school where he is excels at maths. He also writes blogs and poems of great subtlety and wit and are read by thousands on his blog[6] ‘I can talk: a silent soul emerging’. So, a call to all to think about how we ‘label’ children and what might be hidden when we do so.

From 'Learning without Labels'


[1] https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0335261361/ref...

[2] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Learning-Without-Limits-S...

[3] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Expert-Learner-Gordon-Sto...

[4]

[5] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3671847/Th...

[6] https://eyecantalk.net/media/

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