Competing conceptions of social justice in teachers’ debates about ‘ability’ grouping in school mathematics

Year: 2019

Author: Anthony, Glenda

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In New Zealand, most secondary mathematics classes comprise students with relatively similar attainment, a practice known as ‘ability grouping’, ‘setting,’ or ‘tracking’. However, contrary to the beliefs of many parents and teachers, ‘ability grouping’ does not improve overall attainment, and is, some have argued, a form of ‘symbolic violence’ (Archer et al., 2018). The over-representation of Maori (indigenous), Pacific Nation, and working-class students in ‘low ability’ classes, which frequently experience limited opportunities for challenge and higher order thinking, serves to exacerbates existing attainment differences. Despite strong evidence for the benefits of mixed attainment grouping, few secondary schools have adopted this practice.

This presentation reports on a qualitative study of three New Zealand secondary mathematics departments which took the unusual step of initiating a transition towards mixed attainment grouping. Data for the study was generated from cluster group meetings involving three teachers from each school and the two researchers. Utilising co-generative dialogues, teachers shared and critically reflected on the rationale, expectations, and ongoing adaptations of classroom routines, pedagogies, and student learning outcomes.

In this presentation, we focus on teachers’ discussions about their support for, and in some cases resistance to, their transition in grouping practices. Their discussions reveal divergent ways in which teachers view social justice in education. For some teachers, their support for the transition was related to their observation that students allocated into ‘low ability’ classes on entry to secondary school tended to remain low mathematics attainers for the duration of their secondary schooling. This line of reasoning implies that teachers hold certain assumptions, for example, that assessment of current performance may under-represent a student’s future potential in a way that unjustly limits their possibilities for subsequent learning. Other teachers argued that creating classes with a wide range of attainment was an unjust impediment to learning for high attaining students, especially if there was an expectation that students work collaboratively in heterogeneous groups. In this view, high attaining students are positioned as deserving of their success, and any benefits from collaborative tasks are assumed to accrue to low attaining students, with high attainers held back from achieving their potential by being positioned – unfairly – as teachers.

Having outlined and illustrated some of the variation in teachers’ conceptions of social justice within the ‘ability grouping’ debate, we explore how such conceptions correlate with 1) teachers’ views about mathematical ‘ability’ and 2) how teachers describe effective mathematics teaching.