10 ways to get the best out of mixed ability classes

Mixing it

Whether you love them or hate them, there’s no doubt that concerns are periodically raised about the merits of mixed ability grouping in schools. While there are many benefits to be derived from having children in groups that reflect the diverse nature of our society, obviously the goal for every child has to be for them to achieve to their greatest ability, whatever context they are in.

Research on mixed ability teaching versus academic setting hasn’t yet settled the question of what works best. After all, every group, whether genuinely mixed, set or streamed, is a mixed ability group. When it comes to humans, there’s no such thing as homogeneity! The key point is that with excellent quality teaching, children may thrive regardless of the nature of the group they are in.

10 tips

So how can we help to ensure we get the best out of children in mixed ability groups? Try these ten top tips:

1. If a group is mixed ability, the teaching must be too. In other words, you cannot have a one size fits all approach to the learning. Effective differentiation is one key (although difficult to achieve).

2. Know your classes. What is each child capable of in each subject area? How can they be stretched without being negatively stressed? Be crystal clear about what you expect each child to achieve.

3. There can be an assumption that teachers need to be especially aware of lower ability children when teaching mixed ability groups and this is undoubtedly true. But there is some evidence that the highest ability children may need close attention to ensure they also achieve what they are capable of.

4. Encourage independent learning. These skills combine well with techniques for teaching mixed ability groups.

5. Be aware of the opportunities for children to learn from each other. This is almost always a fruitful experience for young learners. Strategies such as peer questioning or collaboration may help.

6. Utilise praise effectively. Remember, it may be more beneficial to concentrate on the effort that has gone into work than the outcome. How might all in the class be encouraged if they haven’t yet reached their learning goals?

7. Use questioning carefully. Aim to develop thinking skills through your questioning style.

8. Devote time to the identification of muddled thinking in your children. Offer them the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding on a regular basis and to make connections between what has come before and what is to come next.

9. Place no caps on what children can do in your lessons. As the most able move through the learning at their own pace, ensure there is plenty of ground for them to cover.

10. Develop skills of reflection in children. You might do this by considering ways of reviewing, learning and celebrating as a group. Emphasise the contributions made by each member. This needn’t be burdensome. Rather, it can be a simple but regular reflection on what has happened in the classroom, the learning that has been achieved and the progress undertaken.

Were our tips helpful? Let us know your thoughts below!

10 thoughts on “10 ways to get the best out of mixed ability classes

  1. I cannot believe that after the social engineering driven mixed ability debacle of the 70s and 80s we are now back in the business of once again justifying mixed ability grouping.
    just who is pushing this completely discredited organisation of pupils ?
    is eteach an offshoot of some left wing teachers organisation ?
    when will our profession ever learn?

  2. Completely disagree with this reader comment above! Thank you eteach for highlighting what is common place amongst all primary schools. As primary teachers we can’t chose or have the opportunity to decide whether our children are put in ability groups for maths or English and so on. We have up to 30 children in one class all day. So we make the best of it and differentiate often up to 4 ways. I completely agree that children can learn from each other also; children as young as 7 are expected to peer mark work and so for those bright sparks, they can do this by working alongside children with a lower maths ability. Also, children’s abilities in maths differs greatly within the topics from shape to the four operations to measure. I have witnessed time and time again, children who struggle with number work often excel when drawing shapes or finding lines symmetry. One size doesn’t fit all.

  3. I completely agree Pete, not entirely sure it is down to the entire profession though. Politically and financial driven constraints in conjunction with lots of wishy washy everyone can go to university type left wing nonsense, with just a hint of lack of a lack of backbone and / or a managements ability to think Creatively probably means that it is here to stay.

  4. Primary school teachers teach with these considerations every lesson. Teaching in y4 there were abilities ranging from level 1 to level 4 and therefore making it impossible to pitch lessons at one level. This is why teacher’s aids are so invaluable. Maths can be particularly difficult as children require different calculation methods at different levels and stages of learning, some needing number lines and others requiring column. Teaching and learning can defiantly benefit from class ability groupings, particularly in maths, in the first instance, in a 3 form entry setting as my school was. This is after all a stage of differentiation. Grouped into 3 differing ability classes the teacher can then fine tune his/her differiention in their individual classrooms so that differentiation has occurred 6/7 times as opposed to 4. Children can still work collaboratively and learn from one another in each class. As I found in maths lessons can be more focused and driven by specific needs rather than trying to teach 3 different calculation methods at the same time. We went back to teaching our own class maths following leadership instruction but I felt teaching was not as direct or finely pinpointed as before and I felt the children were not considered individually as much as before.

  5. Pete,

    Are you a teacher? What are your suggestions for teachers who have students who are on 1st grade – 6 grade levels in math?

  6. I thoroughly dislike the sloppy writing of the person who came up with these Tips. In the preface to the Tips the writer states that, ” there are many benefits to be derived from having children in groups”  but does not identify even one,  beyond a platitude about reflecting society.  
    The writer also suggests that no research exists to  show that setting is more efficient than mixed ability teaching.   This may  be true but, since it was introduced, there has been a substantial move towards setting of students.  Even in the early days I always remember that Maths was exempt from mixed ability teaching. This suggests that putting A* students with those likely to get a U grade is unlikely to produce good results.  Of course “excellent teaching” will produce good results no matter how you organise a class.  The question is how many lessons are Excellent.  Even in a very good school I doubt that this will be much better than 25%.
    As for the Tips whilst many of them seem to reflect good practice many of them could be equally as well applied to setting.

  7. The only way mixed ability classes can work efficiently is to Have TAs in the class room. I am a specialist TA mainly in Design and TEC but also in science /maths. Teachers haven’t got time to spend with low academic pupils in a class with higher ability pupils, so the TA is invaluable to work with in many cases two or three pupils at a time or more. This works very well in my school and much appreciated by the Teachers. Its a shame the Government doesn’t want TAs or are trying to reduce them. Teachers will struggle without TAs and the lower ability pupil will loose out. The 10 tips are waffle and who ever wrote them needs to try and teach a class with mixed abilities and special needs in one class.

  8. With respect, it does sound like you ( mostly in primary) have no choice. You do not make policy, you follow policy and in Chelsea’s words ‘make the best of it’ .. you do your best in less than perfect circumstances and devise coping strategies to facilitate as much ‘useful’ work being completed for as much of the time as a number of the kids in your class will allow. other posters have stated that they could not teach without TA’s. who effectively facilitate the teaching of same but different subject matter to lower ability students. It is very telling that none of the posters have stood up and stated that fully mixed ability is the ideal situation and context within which to teach. Pete, you are spot on!

  9. I totally agree with the first comment which reflects the ineffective, bias driven and anti-academic mindset so reminiscent of progressive education that is primarily responsible for plunging British schools into a never-ending educational crisis of under-educated and illiterate children. There is no such thing as every child within a mixed ability class benefiting especially when the lowest common denominator of dumbing down is all the rage. Obviously the academically able will rarely be challenged so they switch off and so much time spent with the less academically able will create an impossible situation for the class teacher. Teaching assistants are then seen as the problem solver, why is it that the least qualified are then put with the less able??

  10. The research comes down in favour of mixed ability. This is not ‘wishy washy’, it is the view of the Education Endowment Fund: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/setting-or-streaming/

    In setting the top 5-6% do better. Everyone else does worse. That’s 95% of your students. So before you start throwing around ‘anti-academic’ slurs, do your homework. To be academic is to be open to ideas which do not confirm your own biases and lazy stereotypes.

    I’ve taught in both types of setting and been taught in both types of setting. I much prefer mixed ability.

    Incidentally the use of TAs does not come out well in the research either.

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