05 Improving children’s mathematics learning and achievement through the use of flexible, multi-ability grouping of children

ERO’s February 2013 report Mathematics in Years 4 to 8: Developing a responsive curriculum, found many schools used practices such as ability grouping within and across classes without any evidence they improved outcomes for children. Research shows this particular practice seriously disadvantages those who find themselves in lower groups. Such children typically find themselves shut out of much of the curriculum, lose confidence in their ability to be learners of mathematics, and acquire deeply negative attitudes towards mathematics.

Teaching teams at SELWYN RIDGE SCHOOL undertook annual inquiries directed at improving teaching practices. Two teachers researched the impacts of ability grouping compared with the impacts of flexible, multi-ability grouping on teacher practice and children’s learning. As a consequence, they decided to trial multi-ability grouping in their classes. Children self-selected the difficulty level of the problems they would undertake and used digital devices to access the resources they needed for working independently or in groups.

This narrative describes what ERO saw in one of the two classrooms during a mathematics lesson. Some of the children’s perspectives are also shared.

The need for an inquiry became apparent when an analysis of data identified that mathematics achievement in Years 4 to 6 left a lot to be desired. Two of the teachers decided to work together (the children in their classes had similar needs) and put their own teaching practice under the spotlight.

One issue that they identified was that the way they ran their groups gave them little time to work with individual children. After reading research that highlighted the advantages of multi-ability mathematics groups for both children and teachers, they decided to trial multi-ability groups for themselves.

A multi-ability mathematics lesson

We observed one of the teachers teaching a lesson to her Year 4 students, with ‘time’ as the focus. At first the students sat together on the floor doing small, hotspot revision activities and problems similar to those they may have encountered in earlier group or independent work.

The teacher then introduced the day’s activities and asked the children to select the difficulty level and decide whether they would work on them independently or in a group. To cater for a range of capabilities the teacher had prepared ‘packs’ at three different levels of difficulty, ready for the children to download to their digital devices.

  1. The teacher explained that the first pack was quite challenging and then used her device to provide a preview of the contents. The problem solving activities in the last section were the most challenging, she pointed out.
  2. In previewing the second pack the teacher explained that it was easier than the first but also had some potentially challenging problem solving at the end.
  3. The third pack was for children who still felt they needed help with telling the time. It contained no difficult problems.

The teacher asked the children to decide what pack they should attempt and then download it to their device. They rushed to do this. The teacher did not initially screen or try to influence the children’ choices – each child was trusted to make the right decision. Some went off to work alone and others chose to work in twos or threes.

While the children were engaged with the tasks, the teacher spoke with or worked with individuals. On a clipboard she made notes about each child’s learning. She suggested to one child that he should try a harder level.

The ERO evaluator checked which of the three packs the children had selected. About half had selected the most challenging pack; the others had selected the second-level pack. None had selected the easiest pack.

We noticed that after about 10 minutes fewer children were working alone. As they reached the more challenging problem-solving activities they gravitated together to solve them. All discussions focused on possible strategies and solutions.

Children supporting each other to learn

Their teachers had clearly taught the children strategies to use when someone asked them for help: they were there to help their peers learn, not give them the answer.

The ERO evaluator observed a child who had been working alone suddenly go to another boy. He put his device in front of the boy, who was working with a friend, and said, “I’m stuck”. As the boy was
reading the problem, his friend reminded him that he was to help but not give the answer.

The boy thought for a while and then the conversation went like this:

Boy teacher: “Don’t you understand what quarter of an hour is?”
Boy student: “No.”
Boy teacher: “Okay, we can use my watch.” He grabbed the boy’s hand and made his finger touch the watch. “Can you start at the 12 and go a quarter way round?”
Boy student: “Yes, here”, as he pointed to the 3 on the watch face.
Boy teacher: “OK, now touch every number and count in 5s”. He took the boy’s hand again and made him touch the digit while he said 5, 10, 15. Then he said “Do it again and you count in 5s this time.”

Once the boy student had done this twice, the boy teacher asked how many minutes were in quarter of an hour. The boy student answered, 15, at which the boy teacher said “Off you go”, and went back to working with his friend.

Impacts for children

We talked to the student who had made most progress since the introduction of multi-ability grouping. He said:

“I used to be on stage 3 but now I am on stage 5 where I am supposed to be. Last year I was in the bottom group and that made me a little bit sad. This year’s maths is really cool. You can challenge yourself and that is fun. We have mixed groups and that is cool. I also ask my friend sometimes because he knows how to help me.”

Another child said he liked maths because he was not in a group. Before, when he was, he felt he didn’t have enough time to practise; he was either rushing to finish something after mat time or waiting for the teacher.

End-of-year GloSS testing showed that many children had benefitted from the shift to learning in multi-ability groups (see chart below).

This image is a bar graph called Bar graph showing Room 10 students end of year Gloss stage from 2015 to 2016.  The Y axis is number of students and ranges from 0 at the bottom to 14 at the top in increments of 1.  The X axis is Gloss stages and has stage 4, stage early 5, stage 5. stage early 6, stage 6 and stage early 7. The light blue bar is End of 2015 and the dark blue bar is end of 2016.  Stage 4 = 2015 2, stage early 5 = 2015 14, 2016 1, stage 5 (Year 4 National standard) = 2015 8 2016 6, stage early 6 = 2015 4 2016 13, stage 6 = 2015 6, stage early 7 = 2016 2.