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Best Practice in Grouping Students


A research project funded by the Education Endowment Foundation.


Nurturing learning or encouraging teacher dependency? A new project paper

By Becky Taylor, on 11 April 2018

Post by Dr Anna Mazenod

A new project paper ‘Nurturing Learning or Encouraging Dependency? Teacher Constructions of Students in Lower Attainment Groups in English Secondary Schools’ has just been published in Cambridge Journal of Education. We have here summarised key points from the paper – the full article is available here.

The paper examines teachers’ expectations of students in the so-called ‘bottom’ sets. Prior research has identified that there can be considerable differences in the content and pedagogy of lessons between different attainment sets, and that teachers tend to have lower expectations of students in the lower sets. Earlier studies have also drawn attention to the way in which students in these lower sets may be unintentionally directed towards a ‘learned helplessness’ rather than enhancing independence in their learning.

Drawing on survey and interview data with English and maths teachers in schools participating in our study we wanted to find out how teachers perceive students placed in the lower attainment sets in comparison with other students, and whether there were differences in their approach to lessons depending on which set they were teaching.

In line with earlier studies, findings from our survey of 597 teachers show that the majority adopt different pedagogical approaches depending on the set they are teaching.  We then interviewed a sample of teachers and from the 34 completed interviews and found similar patterns. One of the English teachers for example described a lesson delivered to a lower set as being ‘unrecognisable’ from a similar lesson delivered to a top set. Whilst there were exceptions, teachers typically did not expect students in the lower sets to be able to follow a similar pace and format to the lesson as delivered to students in higher sets. Most teachers felt that students in the lower sets were not able to access learning independently from their teachers.

A strong narrative emerged from the teacher interviews about the perceived need for students in the lower sets to be nurtured and protected in their learning to a greater degree than other students. There are clearly positive aspects in the extra support and nurture provided in many schools to students in the lower sets for example through more one-to-one interaction with teachers and/or teaching assistants facilitated through smaller group size. However, intertwined in many of the teacher narratives of nurture and support, there were also discourses of dependency: of students in the lower sets being ‘more dependent on people’ and students in the higher sets being ‘independent learners.’

As independent learning is a key skill for students to make the most of their continuing education, we argue in the paper that it is important to support all students in enhancing independence in their learning, regardless of their set level. There is thus a delicate balance to be struck between nurturing and supporting students, yet also enabling them to gradually become less dependent on their teachers in accessing learning opportunities.

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