This is about the power of belief. My friend has twins. One boy and one girl. By some miracle of time travel, they seem to have accelerated from babes in incubators to Year 10 pupils in the blink of an eye. One moment I was stroking them through a plastic porthole, the next I was discussing their GCSE options with them. Sigh.
Anyway, one twin, the girl, has always struggled with her literacy. She’s had some private tutoring and has worked really hard and come a long way, but it’s been a struggle. The other learned to read quickly, is fluent and has not struggled in that area at all. Nor has he had to try very hard. So imagine their surprise and different reactions when she is placed in Set One for English and he in Set Three.
A tale of growth mindsets we might conclude. Or of hard work paying off. But no. It was simply a case of mistaken identity. The school meant them to be placed the other way round.
The thing is, she’s thriving in Set One.
At parents’ evening, my friend asked why the children were in those sets and it wasn’t until then that anyone realised there had been an error. She held her own. He produced work consistent of that expected and asked of him in Set Three. The initial response was to simply swap them back. But what would that have done for the girl? She’s worked her socks off to keep up in Set One. She’s doing ok and understanding the content. Most of all, she thinks she deserves it – that she’s worked for it. And so, rightly in my opinion, Mum says no. It’s too late now. So they are now both in the same class and both doing well.
Why do we have sets at all? None of the evidence suggests it benefits children – in fact most studies show a detrimental impact on most. I think we do it because it makes it easier for us to ‘differentiate’. But differentiation is not hard – the answer to differentiation is to teach everyone to A* standard (and beyond) and put in safety nets and scaffolds for those who might not quite make it that far. They’ll have leaped further than if we had given them C grade content.
Many years ago, when I was a young teacher, a senior manager came to me and said “Your value added results are off the scale – would you be willing to come and talk to staff about what you’re doing in order to have that impact?” I told her that what I did contradicted their policy and they might not like it. I told her that I never looked at target grades – something we were supposed to do religiously. I assumed every student was capable of an A and I used the evidence of my own eyes to judge what kind of support they needed. I said that in my view target grades were the quickest way to demotivate and to put lids on learning. I didn’t get invited to speak to staff after all, but my students continued to thrive. They didn’t all get As. But almost all of them beat so called targets.
We cannot seriously claim to support the idea of growth mindsets as long as we set children and give them ‘target’ grades based on past performance. And the fact that there is a girl in Set One, pushing past her so called limits is evidence in my book.