4 signs spread of ability is a problem in your classroom

It’s not news to anyone that students can be at very different levels with very different learning needs, despite sitting in the same class.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
March 14, 2021

It’s not news to anyone that students can be at very different levels with very different learning needs, despite sitting in the same class. 

When we stepped back into the classroom this year we did so knowing that our students will have unique gaps and competencies that makes their learning needs different. Having to cater to a spread of ability in our class is just part of our job as teachers, right?

Well, while that is true, there is a difference between having a spread of ability that you manage and having a spread of ability that manages you.

When you’re faced with the latter, the spread of ability has become a problem. Here are 4 signs to help you spot it in your class: 

1. Disengagement

Picture the perfect classroom — it’s buzzing with enthusiasm from curious students who are  genuinely interested in the topic they’re working on. They’re learning, they’re working together, they’re asking questions. 

What makes this classroom so perfect? It’s the fact that every student in it is engaged. 

Many of us won’t have this dream classroom in reality. One of the main reasons students become disengaged is because they’re finding the content too hard or too easy. 

Disengagement comes in many forms. You might notice low attendance, poor results, lack of interest and negative attitudes. But you also might find that students are simply not interested in their classwork. They might be talking a lot, distracting others and not completing their work.

While there are many reasons why a student might be disengaged, don’t discount their readiness for the content they’re learning. We’ve all seen the joy in our students when something finally clicks in their minds. That moment can provide a lot of motivation. When students are lacking this experience because they don’t have access to content at their level they can quickly disengage. 

Disengaged students are not learning and their not progressing. And that’s why it’s such a problem.

If you have disengaged students in your class consider their learning level. Are they too challenged? Or not challenged enough?

2. Behavioural problems

In addition to being disengaged, many students who are not learning the content they’re ready for may have behavioural issues.

These might include aggression, yelling, swearing,  social withdrawal, refusal to follow instructions and negative interactions with peers.

Like disengagement, behavioural issues can be caused by many factors within the classroom, school or at home. But poor behaviour that stems from being challenged beyond their zone of proximal development or not challenged enough shouldn’t be overlooked. 

Often when a student is faced with the wrong content for their needs, they become bored, frustrated or anxious. For some, this may lead to self-esteem issues and a lack of confidence that can spread into other areas of their schooling and life. 

When these feelings manifest into behavioural issues, it can become a problem for not just that student and their teacher, but the whole class who are often all affected. This can create a really difficult classroom environment.

Make sure you consider how students with behavioural issues are affected by the content that they’re being presented. Can you create tasks at their level that will engage them? Can you use Rich Learning to re-engage them with the whole class?

3. Rote learning

Many students who can’t master a key competency will instead do their best to master the art of rote learning.

Rote learning doesn’t result in deep understanding. It can often reinforce misconceptions and it doesn’t help students develop their problem solving or critical thinking skills. 

It’s simply not the most effective way to learn and we don’t want to see our students resorting to it. We want to see engaged students who are curious and think creatively.  

If you have noticed students in your class who are not showing their understanding, either through their working out or their results, they might be rote learning. It’s a common fall back for students who don’t understand what they're learning, but want to get by. 

Many students who are rote learning probably think their doing the right thing. It might even get them through for a while undetected. But this approach is truly detrimental to learning. 

Gaps will begin to form in student understanding of key concepts which will make it harder to pick up connected concepts later on. It’s at that point that students might  find rote learning no longer serves them, as they cannot memorise a recipe that will help them get by and simply become disengaged.

4. Lack of progress, even when achievement exists

Sometimes students who are engaged and enthusiastic about learning still don’t progress. 

In class, these students are generally positive and involved. But their assessments will show that they are not making much progress in their learning. 

Chances are these students are finding content a little too difficult. They might have even missed a key concept early on that’s preventing them from fully grasping what they’re learning now.

These students might also be rote learning to get by. 

When students are not progressing, consider the content they ‘re learning. Is is too difficult? Or do they have a gap in their knowledge that needs filling in order for them to move forward.

Control it before it controls you

How many signs are present in your classroom? 1, 2 all of them? 

If you take a look at these red flags, you might think they’re manageable on their own. Sure, you’ve got a student who’s rote learning, but you’ll just work with them one on one until they’re up to speed. And that student who’s disengaged, a Rich Learning task will get them motivated to learn, right?

The problem with the spread of ability is that it’s ever-present. As time goes on even the best and most experienced teachers can’t close learning gaps for all of their students while simultaneously helping them progress with an age-based approach. 

A personalised approach to teaching and learning is what’s needed. And many schools across the country are addressing the spread of ability in this manner. 

To find out more about how personalised learning can double the amount of maths students learn each year, click here or complete the form below. 

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