After learning about the cognitive and affective domains with regards to learning in an input in my Discovering Maths module, I have been thinking about how maths groups based on ability and their seemingly neutral names may be affecting the way children feel about mathematics.

Do ability groups still have a place in a modern classroom? Are there other options?

We should have ability groups because…

It is almost guaranteed that in a typical class, there will be children from very varied backgrounds – some nurtured and encouraged to learn but also some children who have extremely difficult home lives with little to no encouragement and support,  This is reflected in a child’s attainment through their learning journey and unfortunately, there is a significant ”attainment gap” between those living in the least deprived areas and the most.  (Scottish Government, 2018)

So, because there is an attainment gap between children in most classes, surely we need to group children by ability in order to provide enough support and to differentiate within lessons?

We shouldn’t have ability groups because…

The children know what they really mean.  Whether their group is named ”The Triangles” or ”The Circles”, there is evidence to show that children see right through these seemingly harmless and neutral names – right through to ”top” or ”bottom” group.

An article published on independent news website The Conversation delved into how children feel about ability groups and quoted one child as saying “I’ve always been last in every maths group … I’ll just be low now in my next school, too.” (The Conversation, 2016)

Reading this article made my heart sink a bit, to be honest.

This relates directly to our learning about the relationship between a child’s cognitive and affective domains. (Hiebert, J., & Grouws, D. A. (2007)

In other words, content knowledge and feelings respectively.

As shown in this diagram, a child’s development has affective and cognitive domains which both need to be nurtured in order for them to thrive academically and socially.

The quote above tells us this might be a child who’s affective domain has been attacked by feelings of negativity and inadequacy in mathematics which, unfortunately, might hinder his academic progress as he moves into secondary school.

Surely, as educators, we wouldn’t want any child to have such negative feelings towards their ability in a subject?

So, are there other options?

Drum roll please…

YES.  Plenty, in fact.  Across the world, schools have come to different conclusions about how to create the best learning environment for their children.

Maths Mastery resonated most with me as I could easily link it to Liping Ma’s 4 fundamental principles of mathematics (2010);

  1. Inter-connectedness (understanding how concepts are related)
  2. Multiple perspectives (ability to adapt and use alternative methods)
  3. Basic ideas (foundational knowledge)
  4. Longitudinal coherence (developing understanding through time)

The following link explains Maths Mastery in more detail but in a nutshell, it has the whole class working together on a particular concept until everyone is confident, albeit with some mistakes along the way.

Although I haven’t seen this approach in action, I can almost picture a bustling classroom filled with children helping each other and sharing their own ways of working which would undoubtedly support their affective development more than just accepting that they are destined to be in the ”bottom” maths group.

Perhaps there are aspects of both approaches that will be useful in my future classrooms.

I’m looking forward to finding out.


Dweck, C., Walton, G. M., Cohen, G. L., Paunesku, D. and Yeager, D. (2011) Academic tenacity: Mindset and skills that promote long-term learning. Gates Foundation. Seattle, WA: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Available online at: Accessed 24/09/18

”Children put in the bottom maths group at primary believe they’ll never be any good”, The Conversation.  Available at (accessed 22/09/18)

Ma, L., (2010) Knowing and teaching elementary mathematics (Anniversary Ed.) New York: Routledge. (Chapter 5, page 122)

Scottish Government (2018) Scottish Attainment Challenge. Available at (accessed 22/09/18)

1 thought on “Maths Ability Groups: Good, Bad or Ugly?

  1. Jonathan Brown

    Nadine you have set a very interesting question here. I really like how you have linked your learning from Discovering Maths to the issue of mixed ability grouping. This is a great example of using the learning from the module as a stimulus to investigate other areas of interest.

    You have written in an appropriate tone for a blog and I thought the post was a good length with a lot of content. Next time try investigating writers who hold the opposite opinion from you as this will help you to develop a fuller perspective and create the opportunity for some discussion. I would also suggest having a fuller concluding paragraph, this is your opportunity to summarise the point that you are making.


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