Differentiated instruction and the pitfalls of ability grouping


Teaching is riddled with ethical dilemmas as a profession that must balance various tensions – evidence vs. intuition, morals vs. institutional structures, caring vs. formality, standardisation vs. differentiation. At university, we have been looking at dilemmas encountered on prac, so I thought I would share mine here:

The dilemma I encountered during my practicum in Kindergarten relates to the use of within-class ability grouping. Despite knowing that there is an evidence base that indicates ability grouping can academically limit some students, I tacitly accepted it when used as a tool to differentiate teaching and learning. “How else could differentiated instruction be provided without grouping students?” I wondered. Differentiated instruction is a key component of inclusive education, seeing student diversity as the status quo by factoring in differences in student readiness, in student learning styles and in student interests (Dixon et al., 2014, p. 3). Grouping enables teachers to provide adequate learning supports for students and can involve the use of tiered instruction and activities. This can raise a dilemma in teaching however, as “differentiated instruction requires grouping students…[but] grouping raises the potential dilemma of channeling students into tracks” (UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 2013, p. 2).

In Kindergarten, students were used to being grouped in various configurations. During their intensive reading program, called L3, students had to be grouped by reading level for instruction to be relevant and targeted. Grouping by ability was also used in maths, where each student was allocated to a group, identified by the sticker on the front of their maths book. Despite the intention that each of these groups should be slightly different, in practice, those students in the lower performing group for maths tended to be the same for literacy. The crux of the dilemma occurred as I was teaching a lesson and asked some students to move to their assigned activity, while I was going to keep another group on the floor to provide with an extension task. I called out the names of two students, and as I looked down at my notes to check the remaining names, a student finished my sentence by predicting the final students in the group. She was correct. It became clear that the students were aware of the class configuration and where everyone fell within it. Was I doing the right thing by providing tiered activities or was I shaming some students by grouping them in this way?

Framing the dilemma using perspectives from policy and research

When viewed within the context of differentiated teaching and learning, it seems intuitive that within-class grouping such as this should increase student achievement by allowing teachers to provide targeted instruction. For this reason, it is often a practice that is supported by teachers and parents (Boaler, Wiliams & Brown, 2000). Using this logic, grouping for differentiated instruction is portrayed as an approach concerned with equity, as it enables teachers to provide focused attention, especially to groups that may need this more. There is, however, a longstanding debate about the ‘in practice’ effectiveness of ability grouping. While there is some evidence to support its use in certain configurations, much of the evidence points to its widening of achievement gaps between students (Tieso, 2003, p. 31). Indeed, there are studies that reach as far back as the 1960s that identify a number of serious issues, including negative effects being far greater for students from disadvantaged backgrounds (Jackson in Macqueen, 2013, p. 295; Hattie, 2009).

Over the decades, these results have been replicated in many studies, with critics of ability grouping arguing that it not only leads to an over-representation of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in lower performing groups, but “for those on the lower tracks, a steady diet of lower expectations leads to a low level of motivation toward school” (National Education Association, n.d., para. 2). Teamed with a paucity of results to highlight any really convincing or consistent effects on learning outcomes for other students, the weight of critical research led to ability grouping falling into disrepute as a practice from the 1980s onwards (Loveless, 2013; Slavin in Gamoran, 1992). One issue of relevance to this dilemma is that, as a result, much of the research on ability grouping is now considerably dated (Tieso, 2003, p. 1).

There is data to indicate; however, that there is now a resurgence in the US, UK and Australia, of ability grouping in classrooms (UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 2013; Boaler, Wiliams & Brown, 2000; Clarke, 2014a). In Australia, some academics have attributed this resurgence to pressure on schools to achieve superior results in high stakes tests such as NAPLAN (Clarke, 2014a; Macqueen, 2013, p. 296), while others in the US suggest it is partly due to the practice of differentiated instruction (Loveless, 2003). As Australian states have not developed explicit policies regarding ability grouping, Clarke argues that it is practiced within the context of a ‘policy silence’, making it a case of practice leading policy. He states “in the absence of an informed, explicit and coherent policy approach to ability grouping, educational practices enacted in response to policies intended to promote quality…are creating de facto policy that is inimical to the goal of equity” (2014b, p. 189). It is for this reason, he argues, that Australian teachers must engage in dialogue and reflection around this educational dilemma, and must see themselves as ‘policy workers’ in this domain (Clark, 2014a, p. 147).

In unpicking this issue, it is worth noting that while it specifically relates to within-class grouping, my prac school also practiced whole-class ability grouping, or ‘streaming’ from Years 3 to 6. While we, as teachers, will have some control over the use of ability grouping within our own classrooms, where it is a school policy we will need to navigate evidence-based practice while balancing the demands of our employers. Clarke best summarises this tension in stating, “the phenomena of ability grouping may place teachers in an invidious position, insofar as they are often required to work with ability grouping practices that may well conflict with personal and professional beliefs about teaching methods or commitments to equity” (2014a, para. 3).

The gap between intentions and outcomes when grouping students

In looking at the particular focus on differentiation in this dilemma, it appears that there is a divergence between ‘good intentions’, and what can actually play out in the classroom. This touches upon a point often made in the academic literature, that the issues with ability grouping lie not in its theory, but in its application – which is often marked by an inaccurate allocation of students to groups, an inappropriate pace of instruction, and lower expectations for lower ability groups (Jackson in Macqueen, 2013, p. 296). Therefore, while the theory of differentiation suggests it is best practice for teachers to be attuned to student difference and to design their curricula to address those differences, in practice, teachers could be unintentionally perpetuating harmful grouping structures without really knowing the long-term impact. While there might be guiding principles in the literature, such as allowing for frequent reassessment of student placement and more appropriately varying the level and pace of instruction according to student needs, whether teachers succeed in achieving this is where the risk lies. The reason this may not often happen is that matching instruction to the learner is not straightforward and can be compounded by the number of learners in each classroom and the complexity of their needs (UCLA Centre for Health Policy Research, 2013, p. 2).

Issues to explore more deeply 

It can be difficult to differentiate learning for all students without some form of grouping. With conflicting evidence on the impact of ability grouping and no clear policy direction, how should we, as teachers, approach the evidence?

How will we know if our grouping practice in the classroom aligns with inclusive education best practice, or is actually harmful? What safeguards can we have in place to align our practice with our intentions?

How can we understand what students internalise from the way we manage the classroom?


  • Boaler, J., Wiliam, D. & Brown, M. (2000). Students’ Experiences of Ability Grouping – Disaffection, Polarisation and the Construction of Failure. British Educational Research Journal, 26(5), 631-648.
  • Clarke, M. (2014a). Novice Teachers Challenged by Ability Grouping Contrary to Evidence. EduResearch Matters, 27 Jul. 2014, Melbourne: Australian Association for Research in Education.
  • Clarke, M. (2014b). Dialectics and dilemmas: Psychosocial Dimensions of Ability Grouping Policy. Critical Studies in Education, 55(2), 186-200.
  • Dixon, F. A., Yssel, N., McConnell, J. M. & Hardin, T. (2014). Differentiated Instruction, Professional Development and Teacher Efficacy. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 37(2), 111-127.
  • Gamoran, A. (1992). Synthesis of Research / Is Ability Grouping Equitable? Untracking for Equity, 50(2), Oct. 1992, 11-17.
  • Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.
  • Loveless, T. (2013). The 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning? The Brown Centre on Education Policy, 3(2), Washington DC: The Brookings Institute.
  • Macqueen, S. E. (2013). Grouping for inequity. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17(3), 295-309.
  • National Education Association. (n.d.) Research Spotlight on Academic Ability Grouping: NEA Reviews of the Research on Best Practices in Education. Washington DC: NEA.
  • Tieso, C. L. (2003). Ability Grouping is Not Just Tracking Anymore. Roeper Review, 26(1).
  • UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. (2013). Matching Students and Instruction: The Dilemma of Grouping Students – A Centre Policy Brief. Los Angeles: UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

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