Moving beyond ‘fixed ability thinking’

by Sara Bragg, University of Brighton


‘Fixed ability thinking’ takes various forms, involving ability labelling, setting and streaming. It is a residual form of the discredited belief that intelligence is fixed and genetically transmitted. It persists as the ‘common sense’ of school thinking and practice, despite extensive research documenting the negative impact on young people’s learning, identities, relationships and outcomes. See for example ‘The blue table means you don’t have a clue’ and other articles.

There are however accounts of classroom approaches that dispense with such labels. Good collections of case studies and examples can be found in the book Learning without Limits  and a special issue of the popular education journal Forum

The idea of offering learners a choice of levels of challenge is one attempt at an alternative approach. This method, known as Choice and Challenge, has been developed by staff at Wroxham School. Headteacher Alison Peacock has been committed to ‘learning without limits’ and avoiding ability labels throughout her teaching career. Her primary school now has considerable experience of implementing ‘Choice and Challenge’ and offers training to other schools in the approach and its principles.

‘Choice and Challenge’ involves teachers providing children with a range of options set at different levels of ‘challenge’, and allowing them to work through the activities themselves, in dialogue with teachers and peers. It is an alternative to teacher-led differentiation. It aims to motivate children in more enabling ways than grades and ranking, facilitating children’s own reflection on and awareness of themselves as learners in a collaborative and non-competitive environment.

Our research suggests that if used in contexts that encourage understanding of the principles of learning without limits, ‘Choice and Challenge’ is a powerful tool. It can develop new practices, relationships and identities in the classroom, as these Year 3 and 4 children suggest:

I like the challenges because…

  • … if it is too easy you can move up a level and if it’s too hard we can move a challenge.
  • …. you get to choose your own challenge that you want to do. I didn’t like it when the teachers chose it for you.
  • … everyone has something to do and it’s fair.
  • I used to feel trapped inside and I wouldn’t have any confidence but now I do!

 It can also allow schools to evolve improvement strategies in keeping with their own values: one school moved from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’ in under a year and the inspectors cited the ‘challenge curriculum’ as a contributory factor. In other schools, teachers have been surprised to find children challenging themselves and tackling choices that they would not previously have been offered. ‘Challenges allow us to push ourselves but before we could only go as far as that work let us.’

Offering genuine choices and challenges does require high levels of skills and subject knowledge. Both English and Maths need rich, complex, creative, open-ended tasks with multiple entry and exit points (see the Nrich website for discussion of the ‘low threshold, high ceiling’ task in maths).

Our research showed that problems could occur when ‘lower’ choices consisted of closed, undemanding and less creative tasks than ‘higher’; or where ‘more challenging’ simply involved ‘bigger numbers’. Sometimes the vocabulary of ability lingers on and teachers try to dictate children’s choices for them. In one school, streaming continued alongside the experimental use of Choice and Challenge. This was quickly identified as a problem by some Year 4 children:

  • You get to choose your level because some people have more ability at maths than others. I go for the hardest because I am in the top stream for maths.
  • For circles, [the teacher] will choose for them, because they are the lowest [ability group]

Choice and Challenge is therefore as much about teachers shifting their perceptions about what children are capable of, as it is about children’s self-perceptions.

Successful implementation of Choice and Challenge is often accompanied by other changes towards more democratic, open-ended and child-friendly processes. These include, for instance:

  • children choosing their own learning partners;
  • student-led ‘circle time’ to discuss issues relevant to the school and learning;
  • students writing their own progress reports;
  • ‘Philosophy for Children’ approaches that emphasise extended discussion and reflection;
  • topic-based learning that enthuses and excites children and teachers.

Some teachers summed up that, as a result, they experienced the excitement of ‘having genuine conversations about learning’, not being ‘stuck in the national conversation’.

You can read more in this recent book bookcover2_small

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