Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” is a classic and has an analogous example of why putting students into sets is counter productive. We think of success as a product of the work we put in to a particular endeavour. Gladwell takes a different view and cites lucky breaks as more important.
One example he gives is of the professional ice hockey leagues in Canada. If you look at the birth dates of professional players, you see a statistical quirk: there’s a huge bias towards those born in January, February and March. As juniors, a player’s age group is determined by the calendar year. Players born in January are the eldest; players born in December the youngest.
At young ages, this provides a significant advantage. A year’s difference in age is telling. More physically developed, elder players appear more proficient at hockey. Elder players are then selected for representative squads. This results in more game time, better coaching and more practice. Younger players lag behind. Their initial physical disadvantage is now exacerbated by limited game time, coaching and practice. The gap widens as players get older.
By the time players are old enough to join the professional ranks, the gap is so significant that it is obvious in statistics. January, February and March players are over-represented. This isn’t a talent thing. It is luck and opportunity.
Putting students into sets is counter productive
The same thing happens in our schools. Elder students are academically more advanced than younger pupils. They may have spent more time in nursery, so are used to the correct behaviours in school, have had more time to learn and are more mature.
As young as year 1, students are put into tables of ability. Weaker students work at the pace of other weaker students, and the stronger stick together. Any gap that initially existed now widens. Expectations are set higher and more support is provided.
Behaviour also plays a part. Students of troubled backgrounds can exhibit behavioural issues once they get into an environment requiring discipline. For many of these students, this is the first time they are exposed to consistent behavioural expectations. The emotional strain is too much. Teachers perceive this misbehaviour as academic weakness. These students are then on the lower tables.
The gap widens
Once in high school, these students occupy the lower sets. The work is easier, behaviour and attitude to learning poorer. These attitudes are reinforced by peers as they exhibit the same apathy. Teachers see these sets as “no hopers”. In some instances, I’ve seen teachers openly tell these students that. Their academic inability is reinforced and the downward spiral continues.
Removing setting and grouping of students reduces this effect. Students remain in classes where proper behaviour occurs and have examples of how to conduct themselves. Teachers ability to show favouritism to “strong” classes is removed. Students are no longer exposed to the biases of opportunity and luck. They are afforded the same opportunity as the rest. The opportunity to label themselves is removed. Language is a powerful tool. If a student classes themselves as “bottom set” they’ll behave accordingly.
Creating a hierarchy of students doesn’t work. Putting students into sets is counter productive. It favours certain demographics over others. This is a barrier to educational mobility that needs removing.