Polar or Grizzly?

Never seen a Polar bear...

Never seen a Polar bear...

At OUDE we’ve been having lots of discussion about ‘ability’ (note the irritating social science ‘quotation marks’). This has given me the excuse I’ve long looked for to read (parts if not all) of a book called ‘Learning Without Limits’ by Hart and others (2004).

The book starts as a hard read.  The difficulty comes not from the style (very readable), but from the uncompromising philosophy and stance behind the writing. The book challenges one of the most firmly entrenched and persistent ‘common sense’ opinions; namely that the ‘ability’ of a child (there are those ‘ again) can be measured and ascertained, that once ascertained it can be used to ascribe them to appropriate groups of similarly able children; and finally that these measurements of ‘ability’ accurately reflect the potential of that person.

The authors describe four explanations of ability labeling, ranging from the pessimistic genetic; which asserts that underlying genetic factors cause fixed differences in ability; to the slightly less pessimistic environmental explanation. This emphasises the role of the child’s environment in the first five years of childhood, which effectively fixes that person’s ability at a certain level at the very age that they start attending school.

The third view argues that different abilities mean that some children are naturally able at some aspects of life, whilst unable to compete in others. The fourth holds that intervention can increase the attainment of those with a low ‘ability’, within the natural bounds of that ability. This latter idea can give rise to some particularly worrying practice – Hart et al. cite a study by Gillborn and Youdel (2000) in which “judgements of fixed potential […] sanction[ed] the practice of dividing pupils into three categories: ‘safe’ ones (who would perform well without extra input), the ‘without hope’ group (who would not achieve 5 A-C passes even if extra resources were to be put in) and the ‘underachievers’, where it [was] worth placing extra effort” (Hart et al.: 10).

Hart and Co. feel that ‘explaining differences in terms of inherent ability is not only “unjust and untenable, but also deprives teachers of the chance to base and develop their practice upon a more complex, multifaceted and infinitely more empowering understanding of teaching and learning processes, and of the influences, internal and external to the school, that impinge on learning and achievement”.

They point out that there are other ways of looking at ‘ability’; that in other cultures the weaker children have ‘more potential’ in that they have more room to improve. They convincingly argue that the ‘science’ of IQ testing is flawed (and if anyone doubts this they might take a look at the very convincing arguments posted by Stephen Jay Gould here .

They go further and argue that “[ability labelling] also exerts an active, powerful force within school” (ibid.: 21); and that this force acts in three ways, firstly to rob teachers of agency, of the power to make a real difference; but also of their power to understand the difficulties that individual students have. Teachers have a ready made ‘science backed’ explanation for poor attainment – it’s poor ability.

The third way in which ability labelling damages the power of students to attain is in student attitudes, to themselves, to their peers and to learning itself. Citing a study by Hargreaves (1982) Hart & co point out that ability labeling “strips young people of their sense of being worthy, competent, creative, inventive, critical human beings and encourages them to find other ways of achieving dignity” (Hart et al: 23), which causes groups with the label of ‘lower ability’ to become “‘ppositional’ and to attempt to turn “the school value system upside down” in an attempt to find alternative ways of achieving status.

Their analysis is more sophisticated than ‘setting good, grouping bad’. Instead they draw on research about the teacher’s attitude to individual pupils, and that pupils “are reacting to the judgements of ability that they perceive teachers to be making about them, rather than to the status of the group that they find themselves in” (25). Fascinatingly they point out the positive effect on attainment that occurred in one study (Hartley 1985) when children were encouraged to ‘imagine you’re clever’ before completing a task.

All of this chimes deeply with things we’ve been covering more recently at OUDE about Formative Assessment (using the frankly inspiring DVD from the SSAT which you can find here) and with my own beliefs about education and freedom.

As Paulo Freire put it; “the pedagogy of the oppressed, which is the pedagogy of people engaged in the fight for their own liberation, has its roots here. […] The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption” (Freire 1970: p.35-6).

And polar or grizzly? This is a question that one of my PGCE interns put forward as a good one for a visiting teacher who was to talk about differentiation at a Grammar school. It was the end of a long day, and one can forgive the daftness. The piece of paper on which it was written was filleted from the others, and sat on my desk for a long time. I guess it has been playing on my mind. I’d like to use it as the final reason for disputing the notion of ability labels.

The reason it’s funny is that one doesn’t get polars and grizzlies together for a fight in the wild, which makes it a kind of ‘top-trumps’ ‘alien v predator’ question. Only humans could bring a grizzly face to face with a polar bear.  We’re weak, unprotected by armour (even by hair in my case), our young require a long period of gestation and of care after birth. We have blunt teeth and spindly arms and legs and quite frankly we look silly in the nude.  Yet, because of our minds you find us all over the world, breaking out of evolutionary adaption, running wild from our genetic inheritance, trapping polar bears, grizzly bears, kangaroos, and erm, other stuff from disparate places. We haven’t always been trammelled by what were supposed to be able to do. We shouldn’t let it happen to us (and especially our children) now.

Black, P. et al., 2003. Assessment for Learning: Putting it into Practice, Open University Press.
Freire, P., 2000. Pedagogy of the oppressed, Continuum International Publishing Group.
Gillborn, D. & Youdell, D., 2000. Rationing Education: Policy, Practice, Reform and Equity., Taylor & Francis/Routledge, 7625 Empire Dr., Florence, KY 41042 ($33.95). Tel: 800-634-7064 (Toll Free); Fax: 800-248-4724 (Toll Free).
Hargreaves, D.H., 1980. Social class, the curriculum and the low achiever. Reybould, EC et al, Helping the Low Achiever in the Secondary School, Educational Review Occasional Papers, 7.
Hart, S. & Dixon, A., 2004. Learning without limits, Open Univ Pr.
Hartley, R., 1986. ‘IMAGINE YOU’RE CLEVER’. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 27(3), 383-398. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.1986.tb01840.x [Accessed November 24, 2009].
Wedell, K.(., Raybould, E.C. & Roberts, B., Helping the low achiever in the secondary school / edited by E.C. Raybould, B. Roberts and K. Wedell, Birmingham :: University of Birmingham.

2 thoughts on “Polar or Grizzly?

  1. Anna

    now i get it about polars and grizzlies. and i think that in terms of Paolo Freire’s ideas one of the issues that I have (and do still) struggled with is where any individual person can most hope to have some sort of impact or effect. I think the possibly ever changing decisions that I make about how to live, work, and just be are affected by this.
    thanks for prompting the thinking – its important stuff. To use another social science term.


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