Seating and grouping students is a problem for every school and every teacher, and thus is not particular of Newbridge Primary or Miss Amies. Decisions regarding the grouping of students are also not made once and forgotten about for a few days. Because students are constantly in each other’s company in the classroom, whether they work in groups or independently, placement of them around the room requires considerable thought and knowledge of the students themselves. Concentration and learning abilities, friendships, behaviors, and motivation all play unique roles in these decisions as they all significantly affect how a student will respond to certain seats within the room’s layout and near other classmates. Questions of groups for different subjects, like mathematics and reading, also arise, but those may be settled in a more objective manner. If the classroom is organized by tables, teachers then have the additional issue of whether they should be by ability or more random. Miss Amies always had the lowest ability students sit together at the front so she could more easily help them, with the rest of the class mixed throughout the remaining seats. I am not sure that this is the best approach, though. Although these ideas are strong in every classroom, they caught my attention in Miss Amies’s room more than they have before.
As an educator, I am a general advocate for mixed ability groupings. I believe that the lower ability children benefit and learn from the higher ability ones who have the opportunity to teach their peers. There is no better way to ensure that one knows something than to try to teach it to someone else, and by explaining it in different ways and reviewing the information, one learns it more thoroughly. Most importantly, the “lower ability” students will probably be better at some things than the higher ability children will and should have the same opportunity to be the teachers to the rest of the group. Mixed ability seating also teaches children teamwork as they learn to build on each other’s ideas.
The only instance where I would prefer to have separated ability groups would be for guided reading. While lower leveled children may benefit from listening to more fluent readers read, there is no reverse value. It would be unfair to keep more proficient readers down by reading books at a more appropriate level for the less capable reader. Of course, it is equally important to give all students appropriate resources for their level in all subjects, but other areas are more flexible and universal with the content than reading is. Miss Amies clearly does not follow this same belief pattern as she divides students by ability for more than just reading groups.
I am not sure if the rest of the school does this as well, but the two Year 4 classes rearrange themselves for mathematics based on ability. Miss Amies teaches the lower half of the year and the other teacher takes the upper half. This still leaves each teacher with a wide range of students to accommodate, but makes for less of a hassle in planning as the spread of abilities is cut in half. I am not as bothered by this division of abilities as I am by seating in the class or for group projects because all of the benefits I just discussed still occur and thrive in a class of the bottom half of a year, as they are such a wide range in and of themselves. Some students still find the material tricky while others pick it up much faster and can then help their peers. Miss Amies is better able to direct her attention to the needs of this group with more simple questions and repetition, while the other class works on more abstract problems that push their thinking further. Separated ability groups works in this setting, but I think Miss Amies uses it too much throughout the rest of her classroom routine.