Picciotto (2011) bemoans the fact that math classes at the school where he teaches are not tracked. Picciotto (2011) is a math teacher at Urban School where the school administration has adopted the heterogeneous mode of grouping students. The teacher reports that the Urban School lacks an honours or a remedial tracking system.
Students with different abilities are taught in the same class, receiving similar materials and equal attention from the teachers. As a result of this, Picciotto (2011) reports that the teachers in the math department have been forced to come up with teaching strategies to enable them cope with the situation.
This teacher (and all the teachers in the school’s math department) would have liked the school administration to separate students on the basis of their intellectual abilities. The implication here is that the segregation would have made the teachers’ work easier and would have had more benefits for the students.
Picciotto (2011) voices his opinion regarding the debate that has been raging in the United Kingdom and other western nations for a long time. The debate revolves around the issue of grouping students in school depending on their intellectual ability.
According to Henderson (2007), there are schools which have adopted the policy of separating students into groups for all subjects, particular classes or curriculum on the basis of their academic ability. This practice leads to a homogenous class with students possessing similar or almost similar academic abilities. This means that gifted students are separated from their peers, receiving different materials from different teachers.
In some cases, the gifted students are made to skip grades depending on their perceived academic abilities (Zieber 2009). Schools adopting this policy usually assign high calibre teachers to these classes while the classes with low achievers are left with those teachers who are regarded as low achievers.
Tracking and Homogenous Grouping of Students
Segregation of students can occur at various levels. There are those schools which separated the students into small groups within their classes. This means that gifted students remain within the same class with their low achieving peers but they are grouped together (Henderson 2007). On the other hand, the gifted students may be grouped together in one classroom, leaving their low achieving counterparts in another class of their own.
On the other hand, there are schools which do not separate their students on the basis of their academic ability. This means that the gifted students are taught together with their low achieving counterparts. The gifted students receive no special treatment from the teachers.
The students receive materials that are the same from the teachers regardless of their academic ability. This practice is what Cromwell (2004) refers to as a heterogeneous policy. It is what the Urban School where Picciotto (2011) teaches math has adopted.
As already indicated, Picciotto (2011) and other teachers in his department would like the Urban School management to adopt a homogenous policy. However, one cannot help but wonder whether Picciotto and his colleagues are aware of the negative impacts that a homogenous policy has both on the students and on the school as a whole. This is given the various weaknesses that are associated with this policy.
This paper is going to critique the homogenous classes’ policy similar to that advocated by Picciotto (2011) and his colleagues in the Urban School. The critique will be based on the internal and external factors and influences that inform the formulation and implementation of such a policy.
The critique will be prospective or forward thinking in nature, with this author looking at the reasons why the homogenous policy advocated by Picciotto and other people who share his opinion may not work. In this critique, the author will provide the reader with a better alternative to homogenous classes. The alternative in this case will be mixed-ability or heterogeneous classes.
The Homogenous vs. Heterogeneous Classes’ Debate
As indicated earlier in this paper, Picciotto (2011) represents one side in the raging debate pitting those supporting homogenous classes’ policy against those who are for heterogeneous classes’ policy. This being the case, it is important to look at the arguments that are fronted by the supporters of homogenous classes. A critique will then be made on these arguments, making a case for heterogeneous classes.
Advantages of Homogenous Classes
So, why does ability grouping or tracking theorists remain adamant as far as this policy is concerned? This question can be answered by looking at some of the alleged advantages of this policy:
Increased Pace of Learning
Tracking or homogenous classes’ policy places learners with similar academic abilities in one group or class. According to Jan, Sara & Sidney (2004), this increases the pace of learning on the part of these students. Proponents of this policy argue that students in such classes can understand concepts within short periods of time as compared to what would have happened in a heterogeneous class.
Gifted students in heterogeneous classes will be forced to pace down their learning in order to accommodate the slow learners. According to Jan et al. (2004), this leads to wastage of time and slowed learning on the part of the gifted students.
However, this point seems to be skewed in favour of the gifted learners. One cannot help but wonder why the proponents of homogenous classes are not into consideration the slow learners. Does tracking help them advance their learning skills too? Probably not: the proponents would not fail to highlight such an achievement.
Ability to Provide the Learners with Individual and Personalised Attention
Cromwell (2004) is of the view that this is one of the oft-cited strengths of homogenous classes. According to these proponents, individual attention in a heterogeneous classroom is hard if not impossible. This is given the fact that the teacher is forced to divide her attention equally among all the learners in that class, their academic ability notwithstanding.
However, personalised attention is possible in a homogenous class or group. This is given the fact that the teacher is able to teach the students in a given group at the pace appropriate to that given group. According to Henderson (2007), this enhances the learning process by helping the students move along the lessons faster.
A critical analysis of this argument will prove that it is a veiled attempt to justify personalised attention for gifted students. Why do the proponents of homogenous classes find it so hard to accept the fact that the slow learners are also entitled to equal attention from the teacher? With such kind of favouritism, it is not hard to understand why a homogenous policy in Urban School will not work.
Boosting Confidence of the Learners
Advocates of homogenous classes will argue that a heterogeneous class does not boost the confidence of both the gifted and weaker students. For example, the weaker students find it hard to compete against the gifted students given the fact that the latter always emerge at the top of the class (Zieber 2009). This being the case, the weaker students may develop low self-esteem and this may deteriorate their performance further.
However, this is not the case in a homogenous classroom. Learners in such a classroom are at a more or less the same level. Playing ground is levelled for both weaker and gifted students (albeit in their respective groups or classes), and this boosts their determination.
However, one cannot fail to question the honesty of this argument on the part of the proponents of homogenous classes. This is just another attempt by this school of thought to protect the interests of the gifted students.
It is an attempt to further their ‘intellectual purity campaign’ that is not unlike the racial purity campaign advocated by the Nazi regime in Germany during the reign of the communists. This argument is aimed at justifying the relegation of weaker students into intellectual oblivion.
What does the Future Hold for Homogenous Classes’ Policy?
Having looked at the strengths and benefits of homogenous policy as laid down by the proponents and having refuted all of them, it is now important to look at what the future holds for this policy in the United Kingdom and the whole of the western world in extension. A critical analysis of this policy will prove that there is need for an alternative which is more beneficial both to the gifted and the weaker students.
There is need for a different policy that takes into consideration the needs of the weaker students while at the same time appreciating the special capabilities of the gifted students. There is need for a policy that is all encompassing; a policy that does not improve a select group of students at the expense of others.
This alternative is the heterogeneous or mixed-ability policy. It is the only policy that can work for schools in this country in the future.
Following are some of the reasons why this author feels that homogenous classes’ policy is not suitable for this country and instead, it should be replaced with a heterogeneous policy. They are the reasons why Picciotto (2011) and his colleagues in the math department should support the Urban School’s heterogeneous policy:
Homogenous Policy is a Separatist Policy
Ireson, Clark & Hallam (2002) are of the view that homogenous classes increase feelings of segregation among the students. It is hard for some of the students to manage the feelings that are associated with separating them based on their academic ability.
What homogenous classes achieve at the end of the day is a form of a ‘caste system’ within the country’s education sector (Ireson et al. 2002). This will in effect lead to unnecessary divisions among students who are not to blame for their academic abilities.
But this is not the case when it comes to heterogeneous classrooms. There are no feelings of separation of segregation given the fact that all the students are treated equally by the teachers.
This is the reason why even parents in most schools are against homogenous classes. It is perhaps one of the reasons why they management at Urban School has continued to support heterogeneous classes even in the face of opposition from some of the teachers.
Criteria Used for Separating the Students May not be Subjective and Inaccurate
According to Teachnology (2011), most of the systems and strategies that are used to divide the students into groups might not be objective and accurate. Most of the times, it is noted that the criteria used is based on the subjective opinion of the teachers regarding the academic ability of the students. Proponents of homogenous policy argue that standardised test which is used most of the times is accurate.
However, it is a fact beyond doubt that standardised tests have many flaws and weaknesses and cannot be regarded as objective criteria in separating the learners. According to Adodo & Agbayewa (2011), the tests may fail to accurately reflect the academic abilities of the learners, meaning that some of them may be assigned to inappropriate groups. In a nutshell, the separation of students in homogenous classes is not scientific at all.
This being the case, it is not hard to imagine why a heterogeneous classes’ policy is the best alternative. There is no room for subjectivity and unscientific evaluation of the learners’ abilities.
The arguments given above to support heterogeneous classes’ policy are in no way exhaustive. There are other reasons why homogenous policies may not work calling for heterogeneous classes. For example, a homogenous class is characterised by the unconscious treatment of the students as superior or inferior on the part of the teachers.
Also, it is noted that students from minority groups such as blacks and those from poor backgrounds comprise a huge number of students in weaker groups. This being the case, homogenous policies extends the class differences in the society to the classroom.
Students in the low performing group are also stigmatised by their peers and the teachers. This does not help in improving their academic performance. It is against this backdrop that this author advocates for a heterogeneous class policy in our schools.
Adodo, SO & Agbayewa, JO 2011, Effect of homogenous and heterogeneous ability grouping class teaching on student’s interest, attitude and achievement in integrated science, International Journal of Psychology and Counselling, 3(3), 48-54.
Cromwell, S 2004, Homogenous or heterogeneous: Which way to go? Available from: <http://www.educationworld.com/a_issues/issues046.shtml>. [9 December 2011].
Henderson, L 2007, Multi-level selective classes for gifted students, International Education Journal, 8(2), 60-67.
Ireson, J, Clark, H & Hallam, S 2002, Constructing ability groups in the secondary school: Issues in practice, School Leadership & Management, 22(2), 163-176.
Jan, AB, Sara, SW & Sidney, MM 2004, Gifted students perception of the academic and social/emotional effects of homogenous and heterogeneous grouping, Gifted Child Quarterly, 48(1), 7-20.
Picciotto, H 2011, Notes on heterogeneous classes. Available from: <http://www.mathedpage.org/teaching/heterogeneous.pdf>. [9 December 2011].
Teachnology, 2011, Does grouping students by ability work? Available from: <http://www.teach-nology.com/currenttrends/equity_excellence/tracking/>. [9 December 2011].
Zieber, M 2009, A quick glimpse of heterogeneous grouped classes: Benefits within multilevel learning environments. Available from: <http://maureen-zieber.suite101.com/a-quick-glimpse-of-heterogeneous-grouped-classes-a102249>. [9 December 2011].