There is no teacher who does not teach mixed classes. You are not going to find a group of students who are identical in their needs, strengths and interests. Every student is an individual made up of a complexity of characteristics. Students vary as to their – motivations, aptitude, background, confidence, exposure to English, family status, family attitudes to learning languages, physical challenges, speed, memory and feeling about school. And a lot of these features may vary from day to day and change as they get older, too. I believe the term ‘mixed ability’ is misleading as it suggests that students are either good or bad at learning a subject. Using terms like ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ to describe students is not just unhelpful but also dangerous as labels stick and can cause irreparable damage because not only those around the students accept these labels but students themselves do, too. Once you see yourself as a failure, it’s hard to move on.
But teachers need to consider how to face the challenges of teaching ‘mixed’ classes and these include:
· It’s hard to pitch lesson
· The perception that ‘strong’ students dominate
· Quicker students get bored
· ‘Weaker’ students hold things up
· Some students give up
· And teachers need to cover the course book within a specific period of time
· And most worryingly the difference between students only seems to get greater as time goes by.
I would like to suggest the following four strategies to help solve these problems -
- Vary teaching methods to suit different abilities, learning styles and interests
- Use ‘open-ended’ tasks
- Create a collaborative classroom
- Reflect on how we affect students
Vary teaching methods to suit different abilities, learning styles and interests
We accept that students are different, so why do similar tasks and activities every lesson? Why stick to the course book which follows a particular style and methodology?
It’s crucial to vary tasks and activities. A lot is said about Multiple Intelligence theory and it is generally accepted by teachers but to what extent do you plan a variety of tasks especially with Teens? Are they moving around? Is there music in the classroom?
Example task one – write the following letters on the board – B C R I E A D and ask students to work together to write as many words using those letters as they can in 150 seconds.
· It’s a great way to activate vocabulary and practise spelling
· Some students find individual words easier to work with than grammar
· Many students have a strong visual memory of words and this taps into that
· Collaboration is a popular mode of learning as students can not only support and encourage each other they can also teach each other
· Giving a time limit means that you don’t have to wait for stragglers to finish and hold up the lesson
Example task two - What about doing a quiz like this?
· It doesn’t just rely on language knowledge but also on world knowledge
· Some students know more about other subjects than English, like popular music
· Making educated guesses is part of the skill
· Knowing the ‘right’ answer is not so important but being motivated to find out is
There is such a huge focus in education on ‘knowing the answer’, yet in life surely the skill is to have questions, be keen to learn the answers and know where to look for them! We seem to have confused the journey that is education with the destination. Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi describes this almost magnetic pull that is learning thus:
Human beings feel best in flow, when they are fully involved in meeting a challenge, solving a problem, discovering something new.
Collaboration versus competition
When I was at primary school (many years ago) there were pieces of paper on the wall each with a student’ same on. Every time we did a piece of ‘good’ work a gold star was stuck next to our name. Looking back at this now, even though I had lots of gold stars, I feel it was a negative and unfair practice. How on earth did children (as young as five or six) get over seeing no stars next to their names? How motivating was it? Tell a child they are a failure, and they’ll believe it. Drive a competitive wedge between children in the same class and you’ll always have to deal with the worse effects of teaching a mixed class.
Collaborative learning seems to me to be real best practice. Every child succeeds in an environment of co-operation. There is no spotlight shining on individual children, under which they are expected to perform immediately to prove they know the answer. The stress of that is more than learners find comfortable or encouraging.
Vygotsy’s idea of the zone of proximal development simply put presents the idea that working alone a child can reach a certain level of attainment; with support she can reach a higher level. The difference between those levels is where learning takes place. Working together, students can not only help each other, but also create a nurturing environment.
As teachers, it’s our job to encourage children to ask questions and look for answers in a variety of situations. It’s not our job to expect them to know the answers and criticize them if they don’t.
How important is the role of the teacher?
Think back to when you were a child.
What characteristics do you attribute to a good teacher?
What characteristics do you attribute to a good teacher?
Are they any of these?
She noticed me.
She believed in me.
cheerful and friendly
organised and confident
authoritative but not authoritarian
But how many teachers may discourage their students without even noticing? Look at this typical classroom exchange. Have you ever said similar things? What’s wrong with it?
· The teacher only uses the name of the ‘preferred’ student
· The teacher assumes one student is better than the other
· The tone of the teacher’s voice may also give the unnamed student the message that they are ‘useless’
· The teacher rushes the student. Research shows that teachers typically wait less than a second for an answer to a question. This gives hardly any time for a student to consider an answer and gives the message that being quick to respond equates to being clever!
Increasing the wait time to 7 seconds results in an increase in 1) the length of student responses 2) the number of unsolicited responses 3) the frequency of student answers 4) the number of responses from less capable students 5) student-student interactions and 6) the incidence of speculative responses.
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As a teacher, am I giving all my students an equal chance to succeed? Here is a personal check list you can use.
Are all the students involved?
Do weaker kids always sit at the back?
Do I nominate ‘brighter’ kids to answer questions?
Do I monitor all the kids?
Do I use all their names?
Am I set in patterns that ensure kids get left behind or left out?
Do I encourage everyone to participate equally?
Do I praise all contributions from students equally?
Am I audible and visible to all the kids?
Is my language clear and well graded or confusing?
Can everybody understand?
Is it clear when I want to get everyone’s attention? What marker expressions do I use?
It’s not easy giving all students what they need in lessons, but self-awareness can go a long way to helping ensure that all students are fairly treated and encouraged equally. Most importantly for us, as teachers, is that we believe in our students’ potential to learn and develop and that we don’t dismiss them, even subconsciously, as failures.