Most of us can’t ski: Another look at mixed ability teaching

Ok people. We’re at that point in the year where the guilt really starts kicking in. Where you start thinking about your classes and realising, with a knot of dread, that you might have been failing them since September. That the clever ones aren’t being stretched and the not so clever ones are being left behind. It’s the biggest elephant in the staffroom: Mixed Ability.

The Great Mixed Ability Debate is an ongoing storm of guilt, shame, and expectation with a very obvious conclusion – that we aren’t doing enough, never doing enough, can never do enough to accommodate for the wild spectrum of academic needs and ability levels in the unstreamed, unset classroom.

But (and here starts the blog post in earnest) I’ve been thinking.

I’ve been thinking that, despite over a decade of classroom experience, I’m going to have to fold. I can’t do it. I can’t solve the mixed ability Rubix cube. The squares are too jumbled up. I can’t What I can do, though, is what I do every time I step into school. I can have an experience. And so can the students.

See, the thing about us teachers is that we spend so much time angsting over what the kids can (or can’t) do that we fail or forget to worry about what they will (or won’t) do. There’s a huge difference. One of the insights on my tweezer-thin list of insights gained in teaching for ten years is that this whole thing is based in the experiential. Teachers are pilots of experience, designers of being, not orchestrators of activity. We can fool ourselves into thinking that we are delivers of learning, project designers, administrators, thought leaders, lecturers, jumped up babysitters, kids’ entertainers or drill sergeants, but nope, all we are is what we are, people in a room conducting a shared experience and thinking about these experiences before, after and during they happen.

Imagine for a second that you knew each of your mixed ability class with the level of insight that you know yourself. Now forget that each member of your class has a different ‘ability’ level to everyone else. Now start thinking about their preferences for experience, not their learning styles – just how they prefer to experience things in general. This, I think, could be key. Maya Angelou once said something very insightful about people. She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that people will forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Teachers would do well to bear this in mind.

I would argue that the experiential is the biggest single factor in engagement, willingness and ultimately, ‘success’. The best students are the ones who take a lesson, or lecture, or piece of homework or whatever, and morph it into a desired experience, independently. If they like being organised and making lists, they lean into that. If they’re creative, they think creatively around the topic content and sit in silent wonder in the Willy Wonka factory that is their cognitive imagination. If thy love a project, they treat the lesson like part of a greater whole. Et cetera. Meanwhile, the worst students do THE EXACT SAME THING, just with less desirable outcomes. IF they like chatting and avoiding the task at hand, they chat and avoid the task at hand If they like subverting order they probe at the teacher’s private life instead of applying themselves to whatever ‘activity’ has been offered. If they like being in control, they get control, by dominating, acting up, or pandering to you, the boss.

This is so much bigger than ability. I don’t have the statistics to hand because I’m typing this quickly and can’t google the facts, but I would imagine that millions of people across the world go skiing. Hundreds of thousands at least. I am not one of them. Of this number, only the tiniest fraction are what you would call, ‘high ability’. I’m thinking the handful of Winter Olympians who take home a medal (note: of all athletes present at the games, only three per cent will make it to the podium – factoid courtesy of the BBC). This means that the vast majority of skiing humans on this planet are anywhere near good enough to be in the top set.

And yet, millions of of people take to the slopes annually, buying into the lifestyle, the thrill, the cold, the fun, the exercise, the image or whatever it is that constitutes their skiing experience. And of course, many of these people are probably, as we speak getting better at skiiing because of their commitment to the experience, which is a very desirable irony.

I don’t teach skiing, and neither do you, but you get the point. If teachers started thinking less about the ability of their students and more about the quality of their experience, we might be able to stop handwringing over students who can and can’t. So, with day one of half term ticked off, I’m going to stop agonising over the details of what happens in my classroom and throw that energy at what I’ve always been more concerned about anyway: what is being experienced in my classroom, by each person in there. First lesson back, a simple question with no threshold: what do you like to do, and how do you like to do it? Shelve the outcomes, and planning can start from there. Something to think about.

-UF

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