Action research with G&T pupils didn’t produce the results Peter Leyland expected, but he found it had great CPD benefits

Two years ago, together with 19 other teachers from schools across the country, I was awarded a research grant by the now defunct National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY). My research was to consider whether mixed-ability teaching challenges the most able in a primary classroom. It was a subject that had intrigued me for many years, not only at primary but also at secondary level. As most of my experience is in 9-13 middle schools I neatly cross the divide.

My first action was to draw up a research plan. I arranged to observe selected pupils to confirm their identification as able, and then to interview these pupils about their preferred groups for learning. The plan was approved and developed by Sue Hallam of the Institute of Education, who assisted me in the initial stages of the research. She suggested that I interview parents of the pupils as well.

I needed someone to assist me in the research. Using part of the grant from NAGTY, I was able to involve Helen Wratten, the gifted and talented (G&T) consultant for Luton. She observed selected pupils from two Year 6 science classes who were working on interdependence and adaptation, a unit from KS2 Science, Life and Living Processes. I was using an idea from the DfES G&T website. This was to produce an information resource based on an enquiry into the needs of plants and animals that pupils had identified in their locality.

Helen and I refined a series of questions before interviewing the children:

  • What do you think about being in sets for school subjects?
  • Should you be in sets for everything, or just maths and English?
  • Do you prefer working on your own or with a group?
  • Do you think you work better in a set or in a mixed-ability class?
  • Do you prefer open tasks where you set the pace or teacher-led lessons where the teacher does?

Helen agreed to carry out the interviews to get a more objective response from the pupils. The interviews were carried out in groups, three boys from one of the Year 6 classes that I taught and four girls from the other. Permission to carry out this process was sought and granted by the parents in advance.

Parent interviews
We followed this with interviews with parents to ascertain their views. Again I used a group interview method. This time both Helen and I asked the questions, having planned them together as before:

  • Are you aware that the school has a register for G&T pupils?
  • How has the school made you aware that your child is able, eg setting?
  • How does homework support able pupils and would setting improve the teacher’s ability to tailor it?
  • What do you think of testing and is it important for setting?
  • How could provision for G&T pupils be improved, eg by setting in more subjects?

It was an interesting experience to hear  how parents view education. Setting was by far their preferred style of grouping and this provided a real challenge to my hypothesis that mixed-ability teaching was suitable for able pupils.

Background reading
As part of my brief from NAGTY, I also had to find out about and comment on other educational research. I looked at studies by the National Foundation for Educational Research, and academics such as Sue Hallam and Judith Ireson and Jo Boaler. Most of what I found suggested that the setting of pupils, able or otherwise, did not improve their educational performance.

Dr Boaler’s research is of great interest in its own right and I would recommend it to all teachers with an interest in the question of mixed-ability teaching and setting. She originally carried out studies in the UK but then spent time at Stanford University in California.

Although the research is yet to be published here, while at Stanford she carried out a five-year longitudinal study involving 700 students from three high schools in Palo Alto. She used a range of qualitative and quantitative methods for the research, which was conducted every year, and more than 600 hours of classroom observation. Her study found that in the school using mixed-ability teaching methods the students ‘learned more, enjoyed mathematics more and progressed to higher mathematical levels’.

Conclusions
My research exercise was useful in several respects. First, the pupils who were selected for interview responded well to the fact that I was acknowledging their ability. This was particularly true of the girls. When, at the end of SATs testing, I used the science lessons for a more adventurous topic using the TASC (Thinking in a Social Context) framework, all of the girls produced outstanding work (for further information about TASC go to www.nace.co.uk/tasc/ tasc_schools.htm).

Second, I was able to find out what parents of these pupils felt about the identification of their children as gifted and talented. One parent said she was pleased that when her daughter joined the school she was put into top sets for English and maths. Another hoped that teachers would explain at the next parents’ evening what they were doing to help her gifted and talented son.

It is important that we support the parents of able pupils as well as the pupils themselves. Organisations such as NAGC (see www.nagcbritain.org.uk) provide information on how to do this.

Finally, the research was useful to me as an exercise in CPD. I would have liked my research to show that mixed-ability teaching suits able learners, but it didn’t prove that. Nor, however, did it prove the reverse.

What the research did was allow me to follow and understand the rigours of the research process, to encounter the work of academics such as Dr Boaler, and to reappraise some of my own teaching. It led me to try out new ideas with my science classes, using the TASC framework to extend the boundaries of the way in which pupils learn. 

And was it worth a research grant? Yes, as a teacher committed to CPD in the field of G&T education, I think it was.

Peter Leyland has more than 30 years’ teaching experience and works as a G&T coordinator and lecturer on G&T issues.

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