If ability grouping is ‘symbolic violence’ then how could it ever be best practice?

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I am ambivalent about ability grouping. Not least, I am ambivalent about the name. Calling it ‘ability grouping’ implies that we can make some sort of prospective assessment of what students will be able to do. Yet my 21 years of teaching experience has been one where students constantly confound any predictions I might make. In the U.K., ability grouping is usually called ‘setting’, but nobody else knows what that means and it is hardly a description of anything. At my school, we call it ‘grouping for instruction’ and I prefer this term but I doubt it will catch on.

A lack of clarity bedevils the whole area of ability grouping. For instance, in some approaches, groups of students stay together for all of their lessons – known as ‘streaming’ in the U.K. – whereas the more common approach, in my experience, is to regroup students for different subjects.

Definitional issues such as these dog the research on ability grouping. So do many other confounding variables. For instance, I suspect it is common for the least advanced classes to be assigned disproportionately more new and inexperienced teachers, which is quite the reverse of what they need, with heads of department snaffling more of the advanced groups. Not only do new and inexperienced teachers have weaker pedagogical content knowledge, but they are likely to have more classroom management problems and this is compounded by the fact that students may be grouped indirectly on the basis of their behaviour and motivation.

Any department area that wishes to group students has to decide the basis on which to do this. Standardised tests are, well, standardised, and so they are more objective. Yet, they are few and far between. So, if used as a basis of grouping, students can stay in the same group for a long time. If we take class assessments and teacher judgements into account then there can be issues of unconscious bias.

Many years ago, as head of science, I went to observe a third set i.e. group three out of four. The students were calling out answers to the teacher’s question or, rather, one student of Nigerian descent was calling out answers to the teacher’s questions. And he was getting them all right. On investigation, I discovered that he had missed an assessment and that this had been recorded by the teacher as a score of zero. When this score was taken out of his average, he looked like he should be assigned to set two. So we made the move. Soon he was in set one. He took physics at A Level and went on to study engineering at Cambridge.

Despite the potential pitfalls, and with no great enthusiasm, I have continued to make use of ability grouping in the departments I have run. It allows a teacher to somewhat tailor the teaching to the needs of students without being placed in the absurd position of trying to teach 4 or 5 lessons simultaneously. Nevertheless, I remain ambivalent.

Which is why I was enthusiastic about a research project at the UCL Institute of Education in London that, as I understood it, sought to investigate best practice in ability grouping versus mixed ability teaching. By ensuring that they tested the best possible version of each model, researchers would be able to strip out the confounds that had muddied earlier research and answer the question once and for all.

However, the team behind the project have now released a paper that has given me pause for thought. It is called, “The symbolic violence of setting: A Bourdieusian analysis of mixed methods data on secondary students’ views about setting.” How will a group that thinks ability grouping is ‘symbolic violence’ be able to dispassionately evaluate best practice in ability grouping?

As is the fashion in education research, the paper draws on the ideas of a French philosopher. This time, it is Bourdieu. Interestingly, E. D. Hirsch has argued that Bourdieu’s influence over the French education system has led to a decline in academic outcomes.

The authors of the new paper conducted a survey of students and how they feel about being in upper, middle or lower sets. The particular lens the researchers used becomes apparent when students give the wrong answers:

“Yet, even among those in the lowest sets, there were relatively few explicit views challenging the fairness of setting (or recognising the cultural arbitrary on which it is based), which we interpreted as exemplifying how misrecognition helps ensure that such processes are seen as legitimate, and are thus perpetuated, often with the compliance of the dominated. “

Falsifiability is clearly an issue when you can interpret any response as supporting your theory.

And so I have to wonder, what will the best practice study find? I think I already know.

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32 thoughts on “If ability grouping is ‘symbolic violence’ then how could it ever be best practice?

  1. I personally like the system of having one top class, one bottom class (the latter a little smaller than the others), and otherwise a mix. But I guess it depends on the subject, too. Probably for Maths and Science, strict setting right down the line is more appropriate than it would be for English or the social sciences.

  2. To be fair, as I’m sure you are aware, ‘symbolic violence’ is a Bourdieuian concept.
    I do hate the misappropriation of the word violence though. In this case for instance it is used to describe something that is precisely not violent but I guess it sounds more violent to call it ‘symbolic violence’ than ‘peaceful compliance’.

    1. Yes, I am aware that it is a Bourdieuian concept. However, the researchers have chosen to view the issue through the lens of Bourdieu and have headlined the concept in the title of the paper. I think it is therefore safe to conclude that they believe setting to be symbolic violence.

      1. I think the point is that it doesn’t really matter if they are using it *ever so slightly* differently to how anyone else might. They chose to use that word, knowing it would be provocative clickbait

      2. Just like racism can be symbolic violence. Read Bourdieu fully to understand the concept. In the work of Pierre Bourdieu, symbolic violence denotes more than a form of violence operating symbolically. It is “the violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 2002, 167, italics in original). Examples of the exercise of symbolic violence include gender relations in which both men and women agree that women are weaker, less intelligent, more unreliable, and so forth (and for Bourdieu gender relations are the paradigm case of the operation of symbolic violence), or class relations in which both working-class and middle-class people agree that the middle classes are more intelligent, more capable of running the country, more deserving of higher pay. http://sk.sagepub.com/reference/consumerculture/n534.xml

      3. David, I think everyone in this thread knows what ‘symbolic violence’ is as a concept, but I certainly question whether it is an appropriate term because it is a) non-violent and b) has the notion of complicity which doesn’t really have anything to do with violence in the first place. I am certainly not anti-Bourdieu but I do believe the words were chosen for shock value and unfortunately they add to the current approach in some circles where almost every interaction could be defined as ‘violence’. Maybe ‘peaceful compliance’ isn’t strong enough (i was being slightly facetious), ‘complicit oppression’??

  3. E. D. Hirsch has argued that Bourdieu’s influence over the French education system has led to a decline in academic outcomes.

    Has anyone else argued this? Seems to me that Bourdieu has a lot of good things to say.

  4. Greg, I was interested to see the evaluation institution for this study, the NFER (I don’t think I’ve heard of it before, but am Aussie, and easily distracted), has a small list of their current projects. Is this a Good Thing for research, do you think, like registering a medical study for the info of the whole community of interest?

  5. My school gives the bottom set a solid set of teachers, with emphasis on control and relationships. In fact they tend to get Heads of Departments. Then they get a course of instruction that does not assume they are stupid, just that they have a lot of catching up to do.

    The result, unsurprisingly, is that they do catch up. Those in the bottom outperform those in the classes above whose parents won’t let them be in the bottom (it’s always the parents, the kids don’t mind — they know their limits).

    Setting is fine. It’s not giving them teachers and a curriculum suitable at each level that does the damage. Heads of Department who hog all the top classes are one of my absolute bugbears (and, yes, I am in a position where I could hog good classes myself, but I don’t).

  6. Given that Paul Kirschner has shown the crucial role of knowledge in our cognitive processes–and given that simple tests will reveal how much a pupil knows about any given subject–I would have thought that grouping pupils for instruction would be a fairly simple business. This of course presumes that the curriculum is rationally structured, which all too often it isn’t.

    Sadly, teaching knowledge and testing–which were routine a couple of generations ago–are viewed with horror by Sir Ted Robinson and his ilk. Quite contrary to what Kirschner and Sweller have discovered, he’s conned us all into thinking that this turns schools into factories and crushes creativity. And setting and streaming offend the equality agenda–never mind that disadvantaged pupils are the principle victims of Robinson’s romantic nonsense.

  7. “Standardised tests are, well, standardised, and so they are more objective.”

    No, no, no and no!!! Please don’t fall into the “objective” trap. If those tests were objective, poor and minority kids would have the same performance distribution and affluent white kids (unless you want to make the argument that poor and minority kids really are inferior, in which case, please own that). Standardized tests as designed by subjective human beings for subjective purposes using subjective “measures” [sic]. The biases and subjectivity are just baked into the clay. The whole notion of sorting human beings and stack-ranking them against each other is inherently subjective and it’s dangerous to pretend otherwise. If we believe that the tests are “objective”, then poor performers earned their low score and, hence, they really are less qualified and worthy and we can be justified in treating them differently. If that’s what you believe, I think you need to re-think teaching.

    1. I’ll agree that we really need to re-think teaching–the main reason why poor and minority kids don’t have the same distribution is that they don’t know as much. And it’s not hard to see why when you see how little teaching goes on in most primary schools, and hence how much their education depends upon parental input. Funny how poor and minority kids actually do extremely well in KIPP Academies.

    2. “If those tests were objective, poor and minority kids would have the same performance distribution and affluent white kids (unless you want to make the argument that poor and minority kids really are inferior, in which case, please own that).”
      I’ve heard this argument before and it didn’t make sense then either. How you can be more fair by being more subjective?
      I know your baiting here (the insinuation that someone is advocating streaming students in kindergarten for chimney sweeps or something) so it is tempting to not say anything but I will because I believe people like you shouldn’t get to think you own leftist discourse with your views that almost certainly keep poor people down while shuffling around dominance in the middle-class.
      I don’t think that poor or minority kids are inferior in intelligence or are destined to perform worse (hell I was one). Performance may sometimes be hard to define and difficult to stay purely objective but that doesn’t mean we give up on that. Just because an assessment correlates to SES doesn’t mean that it is not objective. It could be showing exactly where we need to up our game, what we need to expose poor students to and what knowledge, skills and concepts we need to explicitly teach that have been ingrained in affluent students since birth.

      We need to call out non-meritocratic selection rather than endorse it and stop giving under-performing middle class kids a leg up over average-performing poor students. Which is exactly what we are doing when we abandon the idea of objective measures.
      I don’t think anyone here thinks that a poor performance, even when it is ‘earnt’, means someone should be marked as “not smart never to be employed beyond menial tasks”. It means they are not where they need to be at that exact moment in time. If you think that in a moment like that the rules should be changed to suit them I think you need to re-think teaching.

    3. Poor and kids aren’t “inferior”. That’s a straw man to make sure no-one contradicts you.

      They tend — tend — to be less clever because they inherit their brains from their parents. And smart people earn more.

      They are far more likely to come from families that devalue education. Again the parents are poor because they are unskilled.

      They live in areas with worse schools. They are far more likely to be burdened with progressive ideas too.

      That may offend your moral sensibilities, but you cannot just write out genetic and cultural inheritance because you don’t like them

      The thing is, standardised testing was introduced to help the less well off. Before that it was which school you went to and the contacts you had. Your race, sex and income are irrelevant on a test.

      Minority students, meanwhile, don’t mind the tests. Chinese, Hindu and Jewush kids love them. That’s how they started to crack previously exclusionary systems!

      You mean Black. Then we are back to poverty and social attitudes to education.

      Quotas don’t fix the problem. The racial ones are taken by middle class kids. No-one offers them much to the poor.

      The solution is to change attitudes to education, give more resources to poor areas and lose progressive ideas of teaching. Blaming the one thing in the system that cannot tell your origins is to direct your anger the wrong way.

      I teach at a school with a large mix of incomes and races. There poor kids and “minority” kids do very well. They are well taught and are led to expect success. Their background is irrelevant when they hit the exams.

      Do countries without standardised testing do better by their poor?

      1. This is an excellent comment. Standardised tests show us where we need to improve our teaching and our schools. The fact that they are not always used that way is the fault of teachers, administrators and bureaucrats – not the faults of the tests and certainly not the fault of the students.

        Where they are used correctly, countless thousands of poor & minority kids benefit every year from earning qualifications that allow at least some aspects of their ability to be judged objectively, rather than being judged by surname, ethnicity, suburb, social class or school.

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