Three years ago, in the spring term of my PGCE training, I was asked to complete a research study into an aspect of inclusion. I wanted to investigate an important issue in primary education, so it would have a wider relevance and application than my own practice. I recalled something that my mother had said when she was working as a Teaching Assistant, ‘The teachers never say it, but even the Circle table have worked out that the more sides you have, the better you are. They know Hexagons are the best.'
Reflecting on this now, through the prism of fixed/growth mindset training á la Carol Dweck, I can see the irony. My mother was despairing of the practice of setting children by ‘ability’, even into table groups, as she believed that it limited and demoralised the as-yet lower-achieving groups. Yet she implicitly agreed with the Circles’ assessment of themselves as the ‘worst’ at maths, and the Hexagons as the ‘best’. As such, I decided that my research project would focus on setting by ability and investigate alternative arrangements.
I chose ‘the impact of setting in mathematics on children’s self-esteem’ for my study. I wanted to gather evidence around ability grouping, and whether it was damaging to children’s self-esteem (as I felt instinctively) or not. After preliminary reading of previous studies, such as Boaler and Hallam et al. (2000), I decided to focus my research on Year 6. I chose 10 pupils from each of the three sets to complete a questionnaire, designed to discover their self-assessment of ability and confidence in maths. The questionnaire also asked children about their understanding of how the groups were organised, and what hope the children had of progression across the groups. Finally, I interviewed the two children from each group, whose answers were the most extreme, to clarify my understanding.
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