You’ve read the research, you’ve talked to your colleagues and you know that mixed ability grouping is probably the next step for your classroom, but you may be unsure about how you manage your mixed ability class, particularly in Maths lessons, where progress and attainment can be so different.
Here are some practical strategies for managing a mixed ability classroom at primary and some activities to use in KS1 or KS2, with a focus around cooperative problem-solving in Maths which is where mixed ability can come into its own!
This post follows up on the ideas raised in mixed ability vs ability grouping in the primary school classroom. If you haven’t read it, read it now – we’re not alone in thinking that the concept of ability groupings in primary school within the new curriculum needs a general rethink.
So, let’s dive in…
Differentiated challenges for mixed ability Maths teaching
When teaching mixed ability groups, there are challenges that can arise. The Wroxham School in Potters’ Bar have solved the mixed ability challenge with …challenges! In lessons, students are given the input as a whole class and then there are three challenges to pick from for the task. Children self-select the task they feel best suits their confidence with the content. If they feel the challenge they picked was too hard or too easy, they are free to go back and pick another one. This also involved a culture shift as children were taught to challenge themselves but also not feel ashamed of picking the easier challenge if they want to. They can work through all 3 challenges during the lesson if they wish so can build confidence during a lesson.
Planning carefully for mixed ability
This is no extra work for the teacher as it requires the usual 3 differentiated tasks but without having to teach the content three ways. It takes some thinking about during the planning stage when you are first implementing this but once embedded, it becomes a very easy way to ensure everyone has the potential for not just grasping the basic concept but also moving to a greater depth of understanding. Of course any child who needs extra help or support is given it and assessment during and after the lesson ensures teachers act on gaps as soon as possible.
Cooperative problem solving activities for mixed groups
An engaging way to manage mixed ability classes is to work together at the start by introducing a lot of cooperative problem solving. Especially starting with low threshold, high ceiling type problems. These are problem solving activities which anyone could complete, but where more sound Maths knowledge would enable a more efficient method for solving.
For a bunch of activities to use in a mixed ability classroom that are geared towards that "light bulb moment", download our Mixed Ability Maths Resource
Giving these out to mixed ability groups enables them to start working together. They can start by working it out on their own – each using their own methods – then compare in groups to see who has the most efficient method. In some cases you also find that the higher ability have tried so hard to think of some complex equation for it that they have not actually finished – and can learn a thing or two from a lower ability child who just got stuck in and tried loads of things until something worked!
Pet Shop Puzzle
This Pet Shop Puzzle is a great example of a low threshold, high ceiling task and has been used from Year 2 up to Year 6 with great effect as a starter puzzle. No input from teacher needed – just let them go and see what they do. It’s a great assessment piece too, just take notes on how each child approaches the puzzle to get an idea of how their Maths brain is working! Download the free Mastering Mixed Ability Maths Resource for details on how to manage this activity.
Using Master Teachers to improve Maths talk
How about introducing master teachers into your classroom? Not the adult sort, but you can always make use of your high achievers and give them a role helping other children on their tables. This might be a role for every day (i.e. a child per table who is the Master Teacher and coaches or supports the other children) or it could be a badge handed out during a lesson for a child who has finished the work and shows good understanding.
The master teacher or teachers can then provide peer support to your lower ability pupils to help them understand concepts. Children often find their peers explain things in a way they can understand better than the teacher as they are closer to their level.
More time for individual pupils
As well as giving the teacher more time to help children, it also helps embed the knowledge for the Master Teacher as by teaching it and seeing other children respond to it or not they will soon see if their own grasp is correct.
You can even give the children a table in the room where children who want support can see them and they can help them to grasp the concept.
It takes some time to set up to ensure the master teachers aren’t patronising and know how to actually teach something rather than just give out the answers. However, that input at the start however is well worth it and if it becomes a school wide policy then year on year their teaching ability becomes first rate!
Reinforce important concepts from KS1 and KS2
Although the above ideas can really help to keep everyone working together and on the same content, there will invariably be some children who simply struggle with certain concepts. This may require some more outside help if you do not have the resourcing in school to support them individually. You might want to consider individualised tutoring or online support to help plug specific learning gaps. Our online 1-to-1 tuition from Maths specialists is an extremely effective method to reinforce specific concepts in KS1 and KS2 while putting you in charge of each pupil’s learning by selecting the concepts that need work.
Do you have any activities that work particularly well in a mixed ability classroom? Let me know your thoughts on firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be sure to add them to this blog post.