Grouping Students – Yay or Nay?


I am currently reading a book called What’s Math Got To Do With It? by Jo Boaler. In chapter five, Boaler discusses whether or not students should be grouped together based on prior attainment. In this post I will briefly discuss a few of the points Boaler makes, then I look forward to receiving feedback to hear what everyone else has to say on the issue!

Many parents with high-achieving students support ability grouping, because they believe it will benefit their child to work with similar children. However, countries such as Japan and Finland reject ability grouping, and these are two of the most successful countries, whereas America, a country that employs ability grouping, is one of the least successful.

Some have argued that we begin to sort students at such an early stage and tend to focus on higher-achieving students. However, this approach has serious flaws, such as the difficulty of identifying students correctly when children develop at a different rates.

Researchers have found that one of the most important factors in school success is what they call “opportunity to learn.” If students are not given opportunities to learn challenging work, then they will not achieve at high levels. Making decisions to group students early in life can affect their long-term achievements. When students know that teachers do not expect much from them, they have no desire to do well.

When students are put into mixed-ability classes, students are able to help one another. Students who are struggling have the opportunity to receive help from many of their classmates, and the students who understand are able to help these students. When a student understands a concept and is able to explain it to their classmate, this can greatly widen their understanding of the concept.

Ability-grouping is a very interesting topic to think about given it is one of the most controversial topics in education. I would love to hear your opinion, please comment below!


7 thoughts on “Grouping Students – Yay or Nay?

  1. I think grouping students occasionally is beneficial but I wouldn’t want to do it for a whole class or years. If I know there are some students who are struggling on the same topic/idea it’s nice to be able to have that small group discussion with them while other students have been given tasks that they can work through by themselves. However, this isn’t something I would want to do every single time. I found that the students would also learn better from their peers than me repeating it over and over again. As well being able to explain a problem to others can be beneficial to students. I find myself if I can explain it someone else than I understand it.


  2. This is an issue that I struggle with. I do enjoy when students are at the same level and they can do more challenging work rather that just do work that isn’t challenging at all. For instance, I had a few students that were exceptional students and they were given harder work than the other students and they often solved the problems together, barely even referring to the teacher for help. On the other hand I think that it builds great leadership and social skills to work with less achieving students. For instance, a higher level student may understand a problem enough to help another student which shows a deep understanding in their knowledge and peer teaching is also great for the other student.


  3. Imagine a one dimensional point. Infinitely small. Cool.
    Let’s expand it outwards, into a two dimensional circle. Nice.
    Let’s go one higher. We hit 3D, we’ve got ourselves a lovely little sphere. nbd.
    Ready to keep popping up? You’ve got this. We expand into a fourth dimension (can’t see it, can’t point to it, but it’s orthogonal to the other three dimensions we’ve seen so far) and bam! What a neat little hypersphere.

    We often use orthogonality in math when events are independent (think probability). You’re good at playing the flute? Okay, we can measure that on this scale, from 0 to 100. Oh, you’re also good at parkour? Well, we can’t use out flute scale, so we’ll create a different parkour scale, and set it up as orthogonal to the first. We consider these two skills to be independent.

    The issue with ability grouping: it assumes all math skills are dependent. That we can measure children on one, super excellent math scale. We’ll put those kids who are low on the math scale in one group, and those who are high on the math scale in another group. This is absolute garbage.

    You can be good at adding. You can be a whiz at multiplication. You can excel at factoring. You might be a champion at exponent laws. You happen to love unit conversions. Maybe you do taxes with your mother and think that they’re just super simple. Those are six skills, which are almost entirely independent, and each need their own scale. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I think ~50-100 math skills/scales would be a reasonable, conservative estimate.

    Our students aren’t one dimensional. They don’t all fall somewhere on a one dimensional thin line that stretches from 0 to 100. They are multidimensional, oddball shapes. They have weird spikes of knowledge where they excel and unexpected chasms of learning where they missed a month in Grade 3 from chickenpox. Ability grouping doesn’t work because you can’t sort children. We don’t have any reasonable, general way to assess them.

    Now, temporary ability grouping? You, as a teacher, see that Chelsea is great at reflections, and Thomas really struggles, so you make sure they sit beside each other for a week? That’s cool. Or maybe both Lindsay and Regan code, so they can do addition in different bases easily and you choose to send them off to do a hexadecimal art project for a unit. That’s wicked.

    Ability grouping is an adaptation, and a method of differentiation. It should be permissive and supportive and short term, not proscriptive and limiting and for years or for life. Don’t try to sort children; that’s the ultimate conceit, to think our assessment tools are so good as to be able to do that.


  4. I’m not sure that I have an answer to the questions that have been posed in this discussion. However, I love that they are being asked. I am curious about what you think about ability grouping among different age groups. I find that so often we group all Grade 10 students according to how they match up with other Grade 10 students. As I am conducting research for another project, the research is suggesting that non-graded classrooms (or classrooms that are based on ability, not grade level or age) benefit those students who are gifted and talented. The argument is that students are challenged when they work with peers who also need to be challenged. What do you think about this? Are there pros? Are there cons? Is there a better way to challenge students who may need enrichment or acceleration in a regular classroom?


    1. Tori, educationally, I think there’s potential to what you’re saying about mixed age groups. Socially, it would complicate our system. The across the board standard in Canada is: From 0-5 parents look after children (although there are other social supports), from 5-18 the school system looks after children, and from 18+ people are considered adults. Obviously, these are broad brush strokes, but they’re accurate in many cases.

      If out school system no longer lasts for 13 years, but rather to the needs of learners, there will be educational benefits and social complications. Some students will finish early – do universities and workplaces take younger students who’ve excelled? Are they able (developmentally) to look after themselves? There are also issues for students who travel more slowly. Many pieces of our social world are constructed on our education practices, even laws like driving age, voting age, drinking age, the youth criminal justice act.

      I think it would be very neat to do cross-aged groups, and potentially beneficial, but it would cause turmoil. At that point, would we still teach in groups that form in September and disperse in June? Probably continual enrolment and continual instruction would make more sense.


  5. I think grouping students can be very beneficial for those students who are learning at lower levels, as well as for students who are at a high level of thinking. Group work allows those two different ends of the learning spectrum meet in the middle. As well, Jo Boaler uses a lot of the inquiry method of teaching, which is why group work is important. This is a video we watched in EMTH so you can see what I mean!

    Thanks for sharing!


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