Classes Set By Ability Can Hurt Students’ Self-Confidence

A new U.K. study reveals that grouping children into classrooms based on ability can severely affect their self-confidence.

Researchers from the University College London (UCL) Institute of Education, Queen’s University Belfast and Lancaster University, looked at more than 9,000 adolescents (ages 12-13) who participated in ‘setted’ math and English classes (when classes are grouped by children’s ability).

They found that not only is there a “worrying” self-confidence gap between students in the top and bottom sets, but, for those in math sets, the gap in general self-confidence in fact widens over time —which is “deeply concerning,” according to the researchers.

Commenting on their findings, Professor Jeremy Hodgen of UCL Institute of Education stated that the study has “potentially important implications for social justice,” with the growing gap risking “cementing existing inequalities rather than dissipating them.”

“Low attainers are being ill-served in schools that apply setting, and low attainment groups are shown to be disproportionately populated by pupils from low socioeconomic backgrounds and from particular ethnic groups,” said Hodgen. “Our results have important implications for interventions directed at addressing disadvantage in education.

“In terms of social injustice, our findings suggest that setting is indeed promoting both distributional and recognitive injustice.”

The study was conducted via student surveys in 139 U.K. secondary schools (divided into intervention or control groups), and involved initiating work with and monitoring student groups from the beginning of Year 7 (11-12 years old) to the end of Year 8 (12-13 years old), focusing on their experiences and outcomes in English and mathematics.

The findings show that when compared with two years prior, there was a general trend that students had higher self-confidence in the subject area of math or English if they were placed in the top set and significantly lower self-confidence when placed in the bottom set in math when compared with an average student in the middle set.

This trend in self-confidence remained for general self-confidence in math and those in the top set in English and crucially remained after controlling for attainment level.

In other cases, the trend was reduced, but in no case reversed.

Dr. Becky Taylor of the Institute of Education (IOE) added that the labels associated with ability-based classes affect children’s self-perception in regard to their learning, subject identification, and feelings about themselves, as learners, and about their place in school.

“We do not think it unreasonable to hypothesise that these trends in self-confidence likely impact on pupils’ dis/associations with schooling, and in turn on pupils’ perceptions of their futures,” said Taylor.

“The ‘ability set’ label snowballs as it builds momentum and impact via the various practices, understandings and behaviours on the part of the pupil, on teachers, parents, peers, and therefore the school and its practices.”

The report acknowledges more research is needed to better understand how self-confidence impacts children’s futures, and recognizes that there may also be a range of different psychological factors and processes which mediate the effects between the receipt of an ‘ability label’ via tracking, and self confidence in learning.

“We recognize that there may be other issues associated with bottom set groups that might also impede the development of self-confidence over time, such as absenteeism or exclusion — albeit it is worth noting that these may also be precipitated by designation to a bottom set group and the disassociation with schooling entailed,” said Hodgen.

The study findings are published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education.

Source: Taylor & Francis Group


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