What we call mixed ability classes or heterogeneous classes are classes within which students have different levels of ability and proficiency. As a teacher, our aim is to unlock all of our students’ potential. However, every student has a different way of learning, and learns and progresses at different pace. Moreover, although it is quite tough for us to know about each student and to follow what each one has performed during the lessons, it is our role to monitor each and every individual and to reach their needs.
Students will differ in many ways in terms of learning ways, strengths and weaknesses. They will be different because of their age, gender, learning styles, language skills, motivation, cultural background etc. My article here aims at showing the advantages and problems that can be met with mixed ability classes. We all are confronted to mixed ability classes but if we view the positive things about it and try to implement strategies and techniques to teach our mixed groups then it can become a considerably better experience.
Dealing with mixed ability classes is not always easy. Some students will have finished an activity while others will just have started it, most able students will tend to dominate while weaker students will sit at the back and get distracted, and able ones will get bored quickly if their mind is not challenged enough. And as for material, textbooks are mostly designed for ideal homogeneous groups, which does not reflect the reality of teaching. These are just some of the few examples of problems teachers can come across when teaching mixed ability classes.
Here are the questions we should ask when teaching mixed ability classes:
- How can we find ways to control a class with mixed ability students to avoid chaos?
- How do we find content and activities that will suit our learners in terms of motivation?
- How can we personalize learning and manage time in a class where there are many different learners?
- How can we monitor effectively our learners’ progress?
- How can we make sure that our students get equal learning opportunities?
However there are all also great benefits when teaching mixed ability groups. The first advantage I would say is that we have a rich group consisting of varied experiences, opinions and interests and that makes our teaching practice even more interesting. Mixed ability groups generate more collaborative, creative and innovative projects. It also helps us as teachers to change our habits and grow professionally by experimenting new teaching strategies. With mixed groups our learners’ autonomy is also enhanced and students develop more social skills.
So even if your classes do not seem the ideal perfect classes with a high level of proficiency, keep in mind that you have individuals in front of you who are capable of bringing a lot to your teaching practice and who are expecting you to find the ways to unlock their potential.
Usually behavior patterns can be learned and if you are consistent when using the following techniques, the general atmosphere in your classroom should change for the best. If you face persistent misbehavior however, you should move to the next level. This doesn´t mean however that you can allow yourself to lose your temper. You still need to keep calm and explain the situation to your student. Explain to the student the consequences of their continued misbehavior. Try to always offer them a choice and explain their misbehavior in terms of choice. If you choose to continue to … then you are choosing to be taken to ….. (Consequence)
If the student refuses the choices you have provided, then you need to move to delivering the consequence. Always remember that a consequence must be fair, reasonable and related to the actions and attitudes of the student. Once the consequence has been delivered, you need to allow the student to make amends – therefore you may need to smile or praise later work.
It goes without saying that any school has a behavior policy where it integrates guidelines for teachers about rewards and consequences. This behavior policy is a very important document to ensure consistency among the whole school. It should aim at giving clear and detailed information about the types of sanctions and the different progressive procedures to follow. You need to adapt the consequence to the importance of the misconduct. You can start from removing the child from his normal sit and then give him a detention or for more serious behavior issues you may need to send him to referral to the Head of your department or to a senior member of staff. Rewards and sanctions-also called consequences in a more positive language- are key features in a school but also within your classroom as they will allow you to reinforce good behavior at all times. However there have been many debates about behavior policies and these questions are more than relevant ones when you deal with behavioral issues.
One of them is about praising work that is at the appropriate level. The tendency shows that by praising too often work that is not beyond expectations we don’t develop the abilities of our students as much as we should. Another criticism is linked to the use of rewards. In some schools students are given points to celebrate their achievement without considering the type of achievement and these rewards are clearly seen as bribes both by children, teachers and parents. Instead of developing a sense of responsibility for their learning, students link work to reward and don´t work for knowledge in itself but for the discounts they will get in shops through the reward point system. Likewise the merit systems found in some secondary school can be interesting and relevant for younger students but once they reach the critical 15-16 age, this merit system is no longer relevant to praise their work. The last but not least of the critics is about the direction of praise and rewards. Because we want our learners to improve and because we want to modify the attitude of some them we are inclined to discrimination. Indeed we will have the tendency to direct our rewards to previously misbehaving students while we are forgetting about the rest of the group.
This behavior policy is a very important document to ensure consistency among the whole school.
Sometimes our students are not self-aware of their attitude. For that reason it is very important to give them time to understand that they need to modify their attitude. Instead of standing in front of them and showing them your disappointment, give your instruction and move away allowing time for your student to take into account your request. For example you could say “ John could you please open your book and start work? I’m going to see Will to help him and I will come back in two minutes to see if you need any help as well. ”
Redirect their attention by using a positive directional language. Try avoiding any involvement in discussion about what your student do wrong. Instead try to center their attention on the task. Your instruction has to be clear and short. “ Okay Kate and Mary, you should be ready now. We are looking at the task p. 35 ”
Give them choice. We always like being given a choice. So do our students. Make things clear to them that they are responsible for their learning and attitude and if they don’t follow the established rules in the classroom they will have to accept the consequences. Having a classroom behavior display is always good so that you can point at it and remind them of sanctions. Here are some ideas on how to implement this technique:
“ Sophia, you can either work quietly with your friend or you can come up and sit with me to do the task. The choice is yours”
“ Tom, you can do the task as I told you to or get a detention as I warned you earlier. It’s completely up to you.”
Another variation to the Choice technique is the Partial agreement technique. While you listen to your students’ concerns it deflects confrontation and avoids any escalation in the issue. For example you could say.
“ I completely understand that you didn’t have time to do your homework. Yes, you had some unexpected family members visiting you yesterday. However, I gave you this task a while ago and you need to learn to organize yourself, right?”
Consider the following situation:
– Student: “It wasn’t me, I swear I didn’t do anything”
-Teacher: “Maybe not – but we know what the rules are about and next time I’d like you to help me reinforcing this, thanks. ”
Another trick that works really well is called “tactical ignoring”. You will find out that some students are looking for attention. They may want to show –off in front of their friends often because they have low self-esteem. Don’t focus your attention on this attention-seeking attitude. Instead praise nearby students who do the work really well. At some point the misbehaving student will start understanding that if he behaves better he can as well receive praise.
Using a routine is also a great tool to redirect behaviors. If you constantly give your students some habits like greeting them at the door when they arrive, using the same routine phrases like a broken-record, using the same signals like clapping in your hands for the end an activity or counting down after a pair-work you will notice that your students will be less-off task. They will recognize the gestures you use and they will respond to them. Having one spot where you stand for praise, one spot for help and one spot for disagreement can also be powerful in some cases:
Using a routine is also a great tool to redirect behaviors.
Treat your students as grown-ups. When you want to defuse a situation, try to engage a discussion with them maybe at the end of the class to avoid any peer pressure.
Don´t underestimate the use of humor. Using humor will allow avoiding situations to escalate. However you need to be cautious with the words you use as sarcasm is not an effective tool, it will have the tendency to make the situation worse.
Bill Rodgers’ works are undeniably some of the most inspirational works I have read and used in my teaching career. I was lucky enough to attend one of his workshops and I can still clearly remember today not only his charisma but also his invaluable tips in terms of effective classroom management.
One of the main tips is to avoid any confrontation with students. No matter the issue, try to preserve the relationship you have with your students. Keep calm and breathe! Easier said than done! Here are some ideas that I use and that are directly inspired from Bill Rodgers’ works.
First of all, try to consider the whole group and not just the individuals whose behavior is challenging. Try to refocus your energy on the ones who are willing to work. Praise their work and reward them. This positive approach will have a positive impact by showing more reluctant students that if they are on task and do the work to the best of their abilities they will as well have the opportunity to be praised and rewarded.
Nobody likes to be shouted at. Let’s face it; finding the energy to stay calm in every single situation can be though. However, you should try to stop shouting and arguing with students about what they do wrong. The first reason is that it only makes things worse. The second reason is that you will end up losing your voice. The more you shout, the louder your classroom volume will be. Instead, when some students are not listening, lower your voice for giving instructions; vary the intonation of your voice according to the message you want to convey. Use a more positive language like: “ Eddy, I’d like you facing the board and getting on with the task… thanks.” Don’t underestimate the use of thanking students. Soon you will realize that you thank them all the time!
Stop. Pause. Breathe. This technique is very useful to bring back some calm attitude within the classroom. At some point –it could take a couple of minutes, your students will acknowledge that something unusual is happening and they will stop chatting. Most of the time students and especially teenagers are daydreaming or in their bubbles and just because you stopped talking they will realize that they have been given a task to do. Once the classroom is calm again, you gain their attention, call their names, use eye contact and reformulate your instruction.
There’s no word strong enough to express the deep sadness and shock felt after the horrible attack of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. I heard the terrible news right before delivering a workshop in Lima and I was profoundly hurt by such violence and by the way people defending the freedom of speech were killed. It was the harshest terrorist attack on the French soil over the last 50 years and the world is mourning these journalists and people who worked at Charlie Hebdo. Why writing such an article will you say? Well, simply because some years ago I used in my lessons some of Charlie Hebdo’s publications to work around censorship, freedom of speech and religions. Charlie Hebdo has been known for his series of controversial publications and the debate around these has drawn many threats over the magazine especially by extremists groups. I am not defending the ideological aspects of these publications nor am I criticizing them I just would like to express the urgency of our role as teachers to teach tolerance and respect.
So, where to start? Whatever the age and level of your group there are ways to teach these values. Today tolerance is synonymous with multiculturalism, which means in other words to understand and embrace differences in terms of ethnical background, religions and ideas. Tolerance means getting rid of stereotypes and prejudices. At a young age children are unaware of prejudices. They can spot differences but they are not biased by adults’ stereotypes. They learn and adopt values and beliefs in their close environment through their parents and peers. In some families children may receive a biased vision of the world and they may find it hard to tolerate others that is why they also have to get a different angle through the education they get at school. Teaching tolerance and respect should help children develop their critical and analytical thinking while broadening their awareness of differences and develop their ability to share and accept differences. Teaching tolerance is a vast topic as it can focus on racism, civil rights, religion or disability awareness among others. What matters is to embed these themes in your curriculum. They can be part of lessons or you can choose to dedicate full lessons around these topics.
Here are some ideas of activities to enhance tolerance and respect. You can work with colouring pencils to teach about differences, use cartoons that show religious and ethnical differences, present famous figures that fought for civil rights or men/women equality. Using songs about respect, showing videos where people express their views about differences, name-calling activities and the impact of name-calling are also good ideas. What is important to remember is to start with what students already know and build on it. Creating community projects where parents are involved are also really important to enhance respect and tolerance to build a better world for everybody.
Beaman and Wheldall also insisted on the fact that children receiving positive verbal feedback tended to be more on task and therefore less disruptive than children who received little. (2000)
There are plenty of ways to give positive feedback. Of course the verbal use of praise is one of the most common but your non-verbal intervention can also be very positive for the learning in your class. If you want to praise an achievement you may think about using expressions such as “Well done, you did the task really well!” “Excellent, you have settled down really quickly and you are ready to work with all your material.” “Good job, now you can work on the extension task” or simply clap your hands in an encouraging way.
Keep in mind that using a positive language has to be consistent and used regularly to generate an impact on your class. It also needs to be individualized. Use your students’ names when using praise. If you are dealing with a shy student a positive feedback out loud may just have as a consequence to embarrass him or her. So, try to offer the praise in close physical proximy to avoid embarrassment. On the contrary a whole class feedback for a low self-esteem student can be a great tool if your student is a bit of a show-off. Your comments also need to be genuine and specific. If your praise is exaggerated your students will automatically feel that it is excessive and you may lose the trust they had put in you. Another tip to try when you are praising your class, always stand on the same spot in your classroom and smile or nod to show your approval. When you are not happy though with their work or attitude move from your praise spot to your warning spot and cross your arms using a harsh look to show your disagreement.
Your comments also need to be genuine and specific.
Non-verbal praise can also be used as a complement to positive verbal feedback. Use body language as much as you can. You can clap your hands to gently applause for a group project for example, use “thumbs-up” to celebrate achievements, nod to approve students’ feedback. Don’t forget to use your face as a means to convey feelings. For instance you can smile to encourage continuation or frown to show that you are expecting more.