The dichotomy of “ability” and “high expectations”

Differentiating for ability. If you teach in the UK, chances are that you are asked to do so quite often. You are also asked to have high expectations of high students as it is argued that high expectations of students lead to higher achievement of those students (originally Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1968). 

What a shame, then, that ability and high expectations are entirely dichotomous.

There is no easier way to explain this than by looking at “ability” in the case of English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners. Imagine a student from Poland, who had just arrived in the country. Prior to this, she was a high achieving student, with 5s and 6s (A/A* equivalents) across the board. Basically, “super-able”, right? Okay, speed up the clock. They are currently in the UK. She might’ve had “5” in her mainstream EFL lessons in Poland before, but using English for everything in life and everything in the English curriculum is an entirely different ball game. The requirements are entirely different, and our student finds that being able to show off their prior knowledge is highly challenging. A month before, in Poland, they were “super-able”. Now, a month later, they are a “low ability” learner.

So what’s changed about this student one month to the next? Why has she suddenly become “less able”?

A-ha! It’s the context that’s different! That’s what’s disabled her! It’s the situation that has changed, not the person. If you moved to France with your monolingual child, and your child’s school in Paris began to insist that he is a “low ability” learner (where previously he had been a high flyer in his KS3 class in Bournemouth), you would know different. This is what we’re talking about here.

The field of sociology distinguishes between dispositional and situational attribution. Attribution refers to the ways in which people arrive at explanations of causes of events. Dispositional attribution assumes that the behaviour of a person reflects his/her internal dispositions (e.g. personality, attitude, beliefs). Situational attribution considers that a person’s behaviour is influenced by the environment or culture. I am sure you can see where I am going with this: if you consider that an EAL learner is of “low ability” without stopping to reflect on the fact that it’s the context, situation, that has robbed them of the ability to express their thoughts and knowledge fully through their L1, then you are committing what has been termed as Fundamental Attribution Error, i.e. locating the issue with  a person himself/herself rather than with the situation that has influenced them. In schools, it could be blaming an EAL learner for “not talking to me” (when they are still in the silent period), defining them as “struggling readers” (not considering they could be amazing readers in L1) and “being rude and not looking at me when I speak to her”. The list could go on, of course.

Context can, therefore, “enable” or “disable” learners. The further a learner is from what is perceived “the norm” of schooling (espoused values, language used [including academic language], the culture, level of literacy, etc.) the more disabled they tend to become. Looked at in this way, “support” provided in school becomes a way of normalising learners in – you guessed it – the mainstream. Main stream indeed. Perhaps being fluent in a language other than English in an anglophone country, where other languages have become minoritised (following Ofelia Garcia’s way of thinking here), is perhaps more “disabling” than being different in other ways. But, of course, being on autistic spectrum, having dyslexia and being on pupil premium (low SES status) can be equally as disadvantageous.

Before we move on to how this relates to high expectations of learners in the classroom, let me sum up my thinking so far. “Ability” is not a fixed trait, which is what it’s presented as. Far too often do I meet governors, school leaders, teachers, teaching assistants and other education staff who use the term “ability” without reflection. What you are “able to do” depends on where you are, who talks to you, how they talk to you, which language they talk to you, the pressure they put you under and how close you are in the first place to what is expected of you. I find it quite audacious that teachers, who do not tend to see any one learner for longer than 3 hours per week (primary teachers will be different, but it is certainly true at the secondary stage of schooling) can actually claim to know what the learner is able to do.

  • Have they seen how this learner helps their sister?
  • Have they seen that child in their school in Russia and how they operate when learning is delivered in their L1?
  • Have they seen them in a shop?
  • Have they seen them using reading a manual for their favourite game?
  • Do they know what books they like outside of school?
  • Do they know what they do in their supplementary schools if they go to one?
  • Do they know if they help out in a mosque or a church if they go to one?
  • Do they know how the curriculum they had followed in their home country compares to the English one?

No. They have determined their “ability” (which too often is equated with a very narrowly defined concept of “intelligence”) by observing that child in one context, for 2-3 hours per week. If they’re lucky. 

Of course, as I wrote in my previous blog, it gets even worse for EAL learners because L1 is often seen as “the wrong language”. Over the years I’ve heard the following about EAL learners from everyone ranging from university academics down to classroom teachers: “a nuisance”, “trouble”, “they can’t access”, “they don’t belong in my class”, “they don’t even speak English”. The English language is then seen as “normal” and anything else is seen as abnormal. On top of it, there’s “a right kind of English” within the English language. Deborah Cameron writes the following about language and authority in her 1995 book Verbal Hygiene (p.12):

Linguistic conventions are quite possible the last repository of unquestioned authority for educated people in secular society. Tell such people that they must dress in a certain way to be admitted to a public building, and some at least will demand to know why; they may even reject the purported explanation as absurd and campaign for a change in the rules. Tell them, on the other hand, that the comma goes outside the quotation marks rather than inside (or for that matter vice versa as is conventional in North America) and they will meekly obey, though the rule is patently as arbitrary as any dress code.

And then (same page):

How is that people can combine a strong concern for value in language with a near-total lack of scepticism about the criteria normally used to measure it?

“Standard English” is, of course, one of these unquestioned areas. So not only are languages other than English downgraded in status; on top of it, the “ability” to use “standard English” is expected in order to be successful: this excludes a number of students, including many British-born students, as their English language is the “wrong” one. Does this mean that if you have a different language or a different dialect, that you are “less able” or “unable”? If your language or your type of language does not succumb to the social language pressures, your non-conformity will be seen as a sign of inability. In other words, language tends to often be seen as the same thing as cognitive and/or academic skills. 

The fact that “ability” is used as a fixed trait to define people is dangerous because it recreates the same social power structures. If you define an EAL learner as “a struggling reader” and “less able” and place them into bottom sets, you are barring them from reaching higher. At best, their journey will now need to be long because you have made that journey longer by placing them lower to begin with. Secondly, “ability” suggests a state that is unchangeable – you have placed a ceiling above which they will never rise (basically, at this point, you could just go home). They are “able” to do less: the teacher has decided that already, and the learner is now sent a message that, by comparison to other learners, they are mediocre. Just because they are Chinese or Polish or come from a background that is different to other students from overprivileged backgrounds? The context (anglophone country, anglophone school, standard English required) has been equated with low ability. And look at how we’ve just replicated the existing social power structures! 

Let us now move to high expectations. When a teacher differentiates in his/her class for ability, this means they have already determined that “these students can achieve only so much” and “those students are going to do considerably better”. Then, as often is required by many a school in this country, not only are they going to tell them this, but they will also make it public by displaying these levels for all to see on the board / classroom screen. You could just as well tell your children openly “You guys can do it, but those guys will never get there”. Oh, and “I’ve decided that already.” So, rather than differentiate by the amount of support you provide, you differentiate by predetermining where there is their achievement ceiling. When I look at the children in my class, I do not believe that any one of them is unable to do what I ask them to do. I already teach children who understand that their English language barrier is significant – do I now add to it by grading them into non-intelligent, of average intelligence and extremely intelligent? I think not! They all can reach what I am telling them to do, and I will help them get there. 

Of course, what I am saying here is that I have high expectations of all of them by expecting them all to carry out the same task (but it’s the teacher support that varies). You cannot have and will not have high expectations if you tell some of them “you can only do so much”. That’s not high expectations – that’s a downgrade! If you do that, you’ve just thrown equality out of the window. That’s where the dichotomy lies – the moment you tell children that they can only do so much whilst the others are so much better than them because they can achieve more, your expectations are profoundly low. You’ve replicated the mechanisms existing out there in the society (think: Grenfell) and you have thrown chances for education to be the “great equaliser” (that some profess it to be) out of the window. I will not let that happen in my classroom. 

Oh, and kids know this. They so know this!

Please don’t use “ability” and “high expectations” in the same sentence with me. Again, there is no “ability” as a fixed trait, outside of context – if our society didn’t rely so heavily on reading and writing to pass on and exchange thought, ideas and knowledge, you might just find that people with dyslexia would be on top and other people at the bottom (and I would then argue equally so that this wouldn’t mean they are “unable”). If the UK was a truly bilingual country, for instance, where both English and Urdu were languages of instruction and children would learn in a truly dual-language education fashion, you might just find that those EAL learners who were not able to access lessons would suddenly jump to the top. 

There will be some that will think of “high expectations” as related to the type of pressure you would put on children to do hard work in their classrooms. This, precisely, is dichotomous: pushing kids to work hard to constantly improve, but tell them you can try hard alright, but I know you can’t be better than this at the same time is sending two completely different messages to them. If you think about it, it’s quite mean, really: first tell young people to excel, but then squash them at the same time.

Of course, it’s not like I just came up with it myself. There’s ample research to suggest that ability streaming / setting is detrimental to large groups of learners in Britain (usually from, what a surprise!, disadvantaged groups. Here is one: The Guardian reports on an IoE research: “School streaming helps brightest pupils but nobody else” (one has got to love the fact that title itself falls into the very same ability trap – “brightest”?). There’s also an OECD report, which will prove to you (well, it should) that “streaming” or “setting” is very far from being usual in Europe: 95%+ students in Albania, the United Kingdom and Ireland attend schools where students are grouped by ability across classes, while less than 50% of students in Greece, Austria and the Czech Republic attend such schools. The report makes a comment, based on its findings, that if certain schools expect  their learners to attain minimum performance standards by giving them eaiser tasks (bottom sets?), students tend to report that they think they are good at maths. But then, it turns out later, they can’t get into universities because suddenly “their good at maths” is simply not good enough. 

But, then, how bad is it if you come from a country such as Greece, to England, where what schools expect you to achieve is similar for all learners (i.e. you are are “levelled” into sets based on perceptions of your “ability”), and you excel in Maths, and then you are downgraded to “inability” (because of your English language skills) and placed in a bottom set. In some ways, this is more cruel than the situation for an English native speaker placed in a lower set because at least they haven’t been pushed down the ladder of success in the middle of their lives. Such EAL learners – and I assure you there are many – have just been shown “where their place is” in the social stratification system. If you are not English, we’re not letting you up there.

I would love for the word “ability” (and “full potential” for that matter) to be banned from education. It stands in the way of high expectations, it prevents anyone who doesn’t fit “the norm” (English language, middle class, standard English…) from excelling. It allows schools to reproduce inequality regardless of their usually good intentions, and in so doing it stands in the way of eliminating or even reducing the achievement gap between different groups of learners. It is a remnant of the IQ Galton- eugenics-type of thinking which attempted to divide the society into “desirables” and “undesirables”. Bertrand Russell suggested the use of colour-coded “procreation tickets” to prevent the gene pool of the elite being affected by inferior human beings. In 1912, at the International Eugenics Education Society Conference in London (attended by Winston Churchill among other powerful figures in Europe),  Charles Darwin’s son attempted to convince the British government to set up groups of scientists with the power of arrest to identify the “unfit” with the hope to segregate them and sterilise them (see here for more). Clearly, the situation is now is not as vile as that, but the idea, the notion, that some people are “more able” than others because of their race and power they wield, and therefore more worthy of preserving does remain. Fact-like statements about other people’s (innate) abilities is a proof of that. It’s there in the common language, and what’s even more worrying is that half the time it’s unrealised, unthought of. And it determines so much of our learners’ fate.

EAL learners would be so much better if “ability” went away.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please confirm you are human: *