‘Just Teach to the Top and Scaffold Back!’: Thoughts on Mixed Ability Teaching

I’ll start with a story. This past summer I met up with a former history teacher and she told me that she remembered me so clearly being in her class in 2009. I came with my planner and notes in perfect order, and my being there gave the rt of the glass a good model. I also recall writing a (rather terrible) 5 paragraph essay and it being presented to the class as an exemplar. I was in advanced classes in everything except history, and my standard for what is necessary to do well in my other advanced classes was something that wasn’t in this mixed ability class. So why tell this story?

Mixed Ability, Mixed attainment are all terms that have been thrown around and deployed in tweets when defending mixed ability teaching- of which I am a defender. But in my very first year as a teacher, I noticed that there was a span of about 6 grade levels of attainment. Some of my year 11s (grade 10) were able to write multi paragraphs of great analytical depth, while others struggled to form a single sentence. So, when faced with this problem- who do I decide to put my teaching energy toward helping?

The Problem with Scaffolds

Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEo of Baltimore Schools, gave a talk at researchED philadelphia a few years ago where she said educators love to use the world scaffold, like its a garnish on a dish (just sprinkle a little scaffold, here, and a little scaffold there). One of the difficulties in mixed ability is that we can either over scaffold or under scaffold. Take for instance, the PETAL acronym  or the WHW for analytical writing. They are seen and deployed as a scaffold for pupils who struggle to think through analytical writing, and they are useful for them to get a handle for how a paragraph might flow. In a mixed ability setting however, the acronyms can almost be a straight jacket for top performers and especially those that are very compliant with whatever the teacher says to do. Instead of feeling the freedom to experiment with form and language, they ask, ‘I’ve done PETA, but have I done the Link correctly?’. 

‘Write a WHW paragraph’ can become a series of 6 questions to answer in order with sentence starters. The modelling of a true writing process, which does include elements of WHY and PETAL, would naturally show up in an exemplar answer, but rarely fall in a set order. In addition to pushing pupils to conform to that ‘scaffold’, teachers can also be held back by it. Modelling exemplar writing instead becomes modelling a scaffold. Giving an exemplar answer becomes accompanied by annotating which elements of PETAL are missing or present

As a teacher that has only ever taught mixed ability but was rarely in a mixed set herself, I see both sides of this debate. The top attainers can be examples for the kids that struggle as I was; seeing a classmate perform well gives pupils a peer to emulate. But when we say ‘teach to the top and scaffold back’ what can we actually mean? The fact of the matter is that a pupil that is a predicted grade 7, 8 or 9 needs completely different teaching from a pupil that is reaching for a 4. While we are attempting to raise the floor, we potentially are holding back the top attainers. 

This is my thought: mixed ability works great for most, but there should be a top set to ensure that the most able children are being pushed to their full potential. 

I’m on twitter .

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