Cross-grouping in mathematics
Improving mathematics teaching in primary schools is an ongoing research focus as achievement comparisons in international studies draws attention to shifting achievement levels and acknowledges that “improving educational outcomes is a vital economic necessity” (Wiliam, 2011, p. 26).‘Cross-grouping’ in primary school mathematics (whereby students are shifted across classes to provide ability grouping within a subject), has become a popular option in some New Zealand primary schools (Years 1-8) over the last few years. This is perhaps an unforeseen consequence of the Numeracy Professional Development Project (NDP) that was offered in more than 95% of New Zealand primary and intermediate schools between 2000 and 2009 (Holton, 2009).
My present study has critically examined teacher perception of how (and if) cross-grouping in mathematics impacts upon teacher practice. Research from international studies supports the viewpoint that when ‘streaming’ (in the New Zealand primary school setting, known as ‘cross-grouping’) is adopted, teacher expectations of students are impacted upon and overall student achievement is not improved (Boaler, Wiliam, & Brown, 2000; MacIntyre & Ireson, 2002; Slavin, 1995). At present, there is very little research based in New Zealand schools on cross-grouping. This research may have implications for teaching as inquiry which is considered to be a characteristic of “effective pedagogy (which) requires that teachers inquire into the impact of their teaching on their students” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 35). A 2011 report from the Educational Review Office (ERO) (Education Review Office, 2011) suggested that many schools and teachers were still working towards gaining a clear understanding of the intent of teaching as inquiry.
A qualitative approach applying an interpretivist paradigm underpinned this study, with a narrative inquiry process utilised which allowed the participants’ viewpoints to be heard. Interviews were conducted with eight teachers working in cross-grouped mathematics classes with students aged between eight and thirteen. Findings from the study revealed that all the teachers were in favour of cross-grouping, despite some teachers having some minor reservations. Some of the perceived benefits of cross-grouping were: it was more effective in meeting the needs of students and teachers, it allowed schools to ensure mathematics was actually taught each day, and it permitted teachers to become more confident in teaching a particular level of mathematics. It was also found that cross-grouping was likely to contribute to a more fixed notion of ability and was likely to have impacts upon teacher and student expectations.
In most of the schools, there was little critical analysis undertaken into the reasons for or the validity of cross-grouping which suggests that this would be a useful future focus for school leaders and teachers. Results of the study suggest that questioning some long-held established practices (which are not necessarily evidence based) could be a useful starting point in developing a teaching as inquiry focus within a school. It is expected that this research will reveal ideas regarding the effects of streaming students in mathematics in primary schools and the impacts on flexible and responsive teacher practice. These findings may lead to a larger research project which considers aspects such as student attitude and self-belief or a comparison study which considers developing communities of mathematical inquiry (Ministry of Education, 2012) within some classes.