Sunday, September 4, 2011

What's in a word: low ability or low achieving?

While working on a paper I'm writing, one of my teachers suggested I change the words 'low ability' - as in 'low ability students' -  to 'low achieving'. The thought 'need to be politically correct' popped up immediately - but then I did a double take ... is it really just about using socially acceptable labels? Or does changing one word actually make a difference?  Reflecting further, I've come to be conclusion it makes a huge difference - especially in the context of mathematics education. 

"low ability students", "low ability classrooms" : says there are limits to what can be achieved with these students, says there is a limit beyond which further effort from the teacher is wasted.  "Low ability" says there is a limit to the learning that is possible for this student.

"low achieving students", "low achieving classrooms" : says the students are not meeting the outcomes we would expect students of this age group to achieve. "Low achieving" forces us to consider why they are low achieving. Are there problems with engagement? with effort? with attitude? with learning strategies? with the teaching? Are the outcome expectations reasonable? We no longer attribute low achievement to limited student ability, or at minimum, we are prepared to consider other factors are at play. 

Almost all secondary school mathematics faculties sort students into streamed classes based on previous mathematics achievement. Although the sorting is based on achievement, it is all too easy to accept this a proxy for mathematics ability - and it doesn't take long before we talk (discretely) among ourselves about our "low ability classes" and our "low ability students".

By focusing on the 'achieving' word, rather than the 'ability' word, we can better access other important teaching and learning ideas in our mental framework:

  • Andrew Martin's work on student motivation and engagement, which encourages students (and teachers!) to see performance as a result of effort, strategy and attitude;
  • Anders Ericsson's important work on expertise and ability - which shows how even the people we think of as having 'natural ability' require serious effort in deliberate practice to reach their potential;
and more fundamentally,
It's more than changing one word - it's changing your mindset. You won't hear me saying 'low ability' ever again.


  1. I think your last paragraph captures the malaise that I have seen this year. i.e. the word has been changed, however, for many teachers the mindset hasn't changed.

  2. The mindset doesn't change because the 'ability' belief is very firmly held by both students and teachers. Everyday experience suggests it is true - so we adopt this truth and then make mental shortcuts to make navigating our world easier. I think changing the word does help - at least it reminds us to watch and challenge our habitual thinking - and maybe, just maybe stimulates conversation. But if the mind is completely closed to the idea that all students have potential - then as you point out the word change just washes over.

  3. You have hit the nail on the head. We are too quick to label kids and then treat them accordingly. It is possible that these kids are low achieving because they have never been taught using techniques that match their interests and learning styles!!

  4. This is helpfully written. While I'm an English PGCE student, this area is something I'm intrigued by.