In the old days, children were streamed into classes according to their academic ability – so you were in Class A if you were a boffin and in Class D if you were, well, more technically inclined.
The latest thinking on separating children into ability groups and today’s schools policy on streaming is quite different. Grouping children according to ability is no longer the norm; mixed ability grouping is preferable, although in languages and maths ability might still be used as a criteria.
How this is implemented and the messages learners receive from the formation procedures are vital in terms of developing learner self-esteem.
Policy of inclusion
South Africa’s education policy is one of inclusion. The Education White Paper 6 on Special Needs Education recognises that all children can learn and they all need support. It acknowledges and respects “differences in learners, whether due to age, gender, ethnicity, language, class, disability, HIV or other infectious diseases.”
The policy aims to maximise the participation of all learners and appreciates that a “broad range of learning needs exists among the learner population at any point in time.”
Groups therefore that are purely ability-based could find themselves running counter to the philosophy of our national policy on inclusion. The performance of the policy varies from school to school and also from subject to subject.
Implementing different teaching strategies
In order to cater for the different learning needs and learning styles in individual classrooms, it is suggested that teachers implement a variety of strategies in their teaching day, individual work, pair work and group work.
Mixed ability groups
Mixed ability group work has become an important part of the school day for a range of reasons. The underlying principle is that through mixed ability groups children will not only be honing specific subject knowledge, but will also develop those intra and interpersonal skills and attitudes that are necessary in the work environment.
Group work should promote the sharing of ideas, co-operation and negotiation. By engaging in joint problem solving, for example, social skills are promoted and key skills related to future citizenship enhanced.
Benefits of group work
Through this shared activity, learners build their confidence and self-esteem, and respect for all individuals is promoted as learners engage with each other and begin to accept differences in other opinions and capabilities. They begin to realise that people excel in different areas and subjects, that we are individuals with unique qualities and when these are integrated the group as a whole benefits.
This attitude needs to be continuously “modelled” by the teacher for learners to begin to internalise the notion. Subsequently, it should become part of the norm for a learner to display different abilities in different areas and not feel in any way negated.
The role of the teacher
The teacher plays an important role in ensuring the success of group work. Learners should be given very clear guidelines on what to do and how to behave before commencing the group work.
The teacher should monitor the groups closely to ensure constructive group dynamics. A rubric, which clearly sets out the assessment criteria, should also be discussed and given to the learners before they begin the work. This will allow learners to assess both themselves and each other in relation to group participation.
Through these assessments a teacher will be able to gain insight into the extent of each individual group member’s participation and contribution towards the group project.
For successful group work
For group work to be truly successfully and meet the above aims it should be done across the curriculum, i.e. it should happen in all subjects. Remember: group work is only one of many teaching strategies. Individual strengths and weaknesses will still come to the fore in other contexts as learners will also be involved in both paired and individual work.
Group work, however, should not be dismissed as it can be an ideal context for holistic development.