Heterogeneous Grouping: It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it

Should students be grouped in classes by ability levels for academic reasons? Or should students of differing levels learn together in heterogeneous groups? How best to resolve this tension was the problem this group worried over.

To realize fully the implications of the problem, they noted, it was necessary to address its class origins. Because students of lower socio-economic backgrounds have long been offered educational programs designed to reflect their presumed lower abilities and ambitions, they have been restricted from the mainstream –to their own loss and that of society. Heterogeneous grouping is meant to do away with this stultifying social stratification; but it creates significant new problems.

Especially in its early stages, the group decided, heterogeneous grouping cannot merely mean pooling the student population in different ways. Once all students have access to a richer educational experience, schools must take other steps so that real learning results.

To begin, the group suggested, class size must be reduced so that the spectrum of all students’ needs may be addressed. Teachers must have the time to get to know their students better, and to pay attention to the needs of more capable as well as slower students. Second, heterogeneous classes need to build in support structures for classroom work, such as:

  • Permanent drop-in “labs” or tutorial centers where students can seek additional help outside of class from teachers or advanced students. (Corporate grants can be sought to start up such programs.)
  • Special ed teachers assigned to certain classes on a regular basis to help students as appropriate.
  • Aides, or teaching machines like computers, in larger classrooms.

Of key importance is developing evaluation techniques based on student performance on specific academic criteria. Students must show they can master fundamental concepts in a particular discipline, the group asserted, but they will obviously not all master them at the same level. For this reason, an examination of “general knowledge,” while relevant, should not be the only criterion for assessment; in a heterogeneous class, students’ demonstrations of their conceptual mastery is also desirable. Some in the group argued for assessment based also on teachers’ observations of emerging leadership skills, increased attention in class, and such less easily quantified matters.

Teachers will need more time to develop and try out new strategies and methods for heterogeneous classes. But most important, the group noted, the concept of student as worker and teacher as coach must be employed in the heterogeneous classroom. If students and teachers interact using this approach, many of the pressing problems of differing ability levels can turn into actual assets, through peer tutoring and increased responsibility for individual research.

Still, many teachers spoke of their frustration with “forced” heterogeneous grouping, and especially of the burdens that it places on more capable students. “How am I supposed to meet the needs of students,” asked one teacher despairingly, “when they are so diverse in academic ability, social and physical maturity, emotional stability, ethnic background, and socioeconomic status?” Ninety percent of his energy is focused on ten percent of the kids, said one inner-city teacher. And the more skilled kids themselves complain, others noted, when they perceive that they are being used as classroom caretakers.

A teacher from a fairly academic high school with a high percentage of students going on to higher education agreed that students, parents, and teachers were opposed to changing the system in a school they deemed successful already. The teachers, he said, taught to the state Regents exams, and the students were tracked accordingly.

A physics teacher in an Essential school presented his version of the dilemma: The wide range of abilities and interests in his class, he said, imposed a frustrating level of mediocrity that he did not know how to deal with. Gifted students became bored, students with special needs or learning disabilities ended up failing, and he was unsure that the grades he gave reflected what a student “really knows.”

What strategies might work for this class? The group suggested:

  • Eliminating textbooks and substituting a series of assignments that kids could complete at their own pace.
  • Tracking the grading system within the class so that students choose different levels of challenge they will attempt to master, and receive a grade that indicates the level they chose.
  • Giving slower students an “incomplete” rather than a failing grade, and allowing them to work toward mastery for another term.
  • Dividing whole-year courses into half-year segments, to better keep track of who’s having trouble before it’s too late.

Reflecting student mastery as suggested here would require a different kind of transcript, the group noted. Teachers must be willing to shift their approach more toward coaching, and to break the curriculum down into sequential increments. Assessment methods, homework, and classroom work must be revised to include “challenge” sections for students who work at higher levels. Ideally, gifted students could work more independently, leaving the teacher time to coach those who need more time and help.

Clearly helping out this teacher would involve changes in attitude and habits all the way up the hierarchical ladder. It may be an important decision whether to deal with his problem as a bureaucratic one–requiring transcript changes, course definition shifts, and the like–or whether to focus on his immediate human frustration and how he might start to relieve it by changes in his classroom that he has the immediate power to make on his own. As it begins to work, perhaps, step by step the bureaucratic obstacles can be addressed.