Posted on 01/20/2017 at 08:19 AM by Blog Experts

What is the BIGGEST Fixed Mindset Message?

Ability Grouping!

Ability Grouping sends a fixed mindset message to students about their ability to learn mathematics and is harmful to students whether they go into the lowest or the highest groups (Boaler 1997; Boaler, 2013a; Boaler & Wiliam, 2001; Boaler, Wiliam, Brown, & 2001).  In fact, the students who are most negatively affected by these fixed messages and ability grouping were those going into the top track (Romero, 2013).

In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, it was found the most successful countries are those that group by ability the latest and the least.  So where does the United States fall at in this practice?  We have the MOST tracking resulting in student achievement with the greatest variability and the strongest links between achievement and socioeconomic status due to tracking (Beaton & O’Dwyer, 2002).

So why does ability grouping have such negative effects?  It all comes down to the fact that it limits students’ Opportunity to Learn, if students are given access to high-level content, they achieve at higher levels.  Educators know this and common sense tells us that in order to learn anything one needs to be taught it.  However, in the United States, millions of students are denied opportunities to learn the content they need, and they could master, as they are placed in low-level classes, tracked, or ability grouped, sometimes from a very young age.  

So what can we do?

We need to teach heterogeneous classes and offer all mathematics courses to everyone.  However, this will not be successful without other changes.  Teaching groups of heterogeneous students requires knowledgeable teaching.   It is very important to offer students the opportunity to take mathematics to different levels and not give them closed math questions suitable for only some students. 

One factor needed to teaching heterogeneous groups effectively is providing low floor, high ceiling tasks to students, which allow all students to access ideas and take them to very high levels.  Jo Boaler’s website has many low floor, high ceiling tasks available for teachers to use in their classrooms (

Another factor that is important to teaching heterogeneous groups effectively are the norms and expectations that are setup for the ways students work together.  This is definitely an area I would love to learn more about as group work in classrooms can fail when students participate unequally in groups.  Elizabeth Cohen, a sociologist at Stanford, observed unequal group work patterns in classrooms and found it was due to social differences in groups, with some students being assigned or assuming status of importance whole others were given a low status label (Cohen, 1994).  From her studies and that of Rachel Lotan, they designed “complex instruction”, a pedagogical approach, designed to make group work equal and can be used with any grade level or school subject.  Complex Instruction can be explored at

Jo Boaler conducted a research study contrasting different approaches to mathematics teaching.  They followed over 700 students through four years of high school.  Half of the students were in schools that worked in tracked groups, through procedural math teaching and testing.  The other half was at Railside with de-tracked classes taught using complex instruction. 

Some important statistics from the study include:

  • Railside students were racially diverse with more EL and higher levels of cultural diversity than the other school.
  • Results of the Pre-assessment of middle school math showed students at Railside were achieving at significantly lower levels than the students in the other school.
  • After one year the Railside students had caught up with the students working traditionally.
  • Within two years Railside students were achieveing at significantly higher levels.
  • Students at Railside also reported they enjoyed math more and continued to higher levels and took advanced classed of pre-calculus and calculus.
  • Railside scores also showed racial inequities in achievement had either decreased or disappeared.

The full research report is titled, “Transforming Students’ Lives through an Equitable Mathematics Approach:  The Case of Railside School”.    Mathematics for equity: A framework for successful practice, a book written by the researchers and teachers devoted to understanding Railside and all of its equitable practices (Nasir, Cabana, Shreve, Woodbury, & Louie, 2014). 

This month’s blog is a tough one and I will not lie.  It is HARD work to eliminate ability grouping but the effects it has on student achievement is HUGE!!!  If you are interested in studying and implementing Complex Instruction in your classroom or at your school, I would love to be involved and provide support as needed (


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