One way to narrow the gaps? Get rid of your Low Ability learners.

"Surely, you can't be serious!" I hear you cry, dear reader.

Actually, I am.

And whilst you are about it, get rid of your High Ability, Middle Ability, More Able and Gifted & Talented learners too.

"But there'll be no one left to teach!" you retort. Yes, there will: and they will be learners who are - every single one of them - growing in confidence in your classroom.


The language we use to describe learners has a very powerful effect of how we see them, what we expect of them, what we communicate to them in terms of our expectations, what messages we send about our own beliefs about education. I believe that the use of the labels High / Medium / Low Ability is particularly unhelpful in an education context.

Why such a strong objection to these terms? In short, I believe their use is antithetical to any world view that is likely to support the narrowing of attainment gaps.

Professor Carol Dweck's work on mindsets has thrown a bright and very welcome light onto this debate. In her (highly recommended) book Mindset, she argues:-

“Students (and their teachers) can have different beliefs about intellectual abilities. Some believe that intellectual abilities are basically fixed—that people have different levels of ability and nothing can change that.
“In contrast, others believe that intellectual abilities can be cultivated and developed through application and instruction. They do not deny that people may differ in their current skill levels, but they believe that everyone can improve their underlying ability.”
Are these equally valid world views? Dweck's research, which characterises the first view as a Fixed Mindset and the latter as a Growth Mindset, suggests not. In education, sport, business - indeed any field we care to mention - there is an increasing weight of evidence that what matters is a can do attitude. Notions of "ability" tend to discount the importance of effort and diminish the extent to which learners will take risks - essential for learning.
I believe a big part of the problem resides in the use of the word "ability" itself. We are so used to hearing the word "ability" as a label that it suggests learners fit into these neat, deterministic categories, that ability is indeed fixed and unchangeable.
Use of this word also leads to wrong-headed ideas when it comes to "differentiation", with some teachers attempting (often at the insistence of their senior managers) to differentiate for Low Ability learners. 
Despite what that compulsory, school-wide planning template may say YOU CANNOT DIFFERENTIATE FOR LOW ABILITY LEARNERS.
Why? Because the term "low ability" is too general. When differentiating for any learner, we need an answer to the question "What, specifically, is this learner not able to do that will be a barrier to her progress in this lesson, and what is the best way to ensure this barrier is overcome?"

Attempting to differentiate for "Low Ability" without addressing oneself to this question usually leads to further disadvantage for learners labelled with this lamentable tag. Word searches. Colouring in across the curriculum. Cloze exercises. Make it simple and "at least they'll be doing something".

To support learners we need specifics about learning. Labels attached to individuals do not help us and we do not need them.

An example (maths). Today we are simplifying fractions like 35/49. Sam does not readily recall her multiplication facts, so she will struggle with this. Is she low ability? No. She simply hasn't learned her multiplication facts yet. The world view that characterises Sam as Low Ability might suggest "She's not ready for simplifying fractions yet, let's do some more writing down what fraction of these pizzas is shaded." However, looking at pizza diagrams will not teach Sam her times tables, which is the real reason she cannot access today's lesson.

What Sam needs today is, perhaps, access to a printed times table, guidance on how to use it in this context and - in the medium term - support to learn her times tables so that this barrier is permanently overcome. Inappropriate labeling of a specific gap in learning as a general fixed trait of the learner has robbed her of the chance to move forward, a chance which may arise and again be missed year after year.

So, how do we describe / categorise the learners in our classrooms? Well, how about "learners"? Applied to all of them. What is the burning question to which Low / High Ability labeling is the answer? "How can I differentiate my lesson?" For the reasons above, no. "How can I report the attainment of my pupils to parents and managers?" No, you can report attainment data without an ability label. "How can I select a subset of my learners for additional challenge?" Again, no: all learners need appropriate challenge. In the same way that Low Ability is too general a term to help identify the support needed by individual learners, the label High Ability is unlikely to match the particular challenge you have in mind to all of the learners who are ready for it.

When I was born I could not talk, walk or hold a knife and fork. In absolute terms, I was extremely low on a whole range of abilities. It would have been ludicrous to label me as a Low Ability new born - I just couldn't do these things, yet. But somehow it does not seem ludicrous for teachers of even very young children to refer to a proportion of their learners as Low Ability. At some point between birth and age five a laughably inappropriate label becomes depressingly commonplace.

It's time to ditch these labels. They don't help teachers to teach, and they certainly don't help learners to learn.

1 comment:

(Please post when you have tried this particular tool - thanks!)
How did you adapt this tool for your classroom?
What was the response from your learners?
What advice would you give other teachers about this tool?