Tag Archive | grouping by ability

The Problem with Intelligence

Creating an education system where all students reach their full potential is a statement you will find somewhere in most school prospectuses. How we do this is a subject of debate.

A discussion was started in LinkedIn which touched on this topic has led to some interesting comments. This is how it started:


Set to fail: why do we continue to group pupils so that their learning and achievement are limited?


OK , the question presents itself as a fact and we need to be cautious of such hazards (of responding as if it were a truth or fact).  It raised in my mind what I see as a critical aspect of the way we comment on, and how many appear to view, education and intelligence.

Grouping in education is most often seen as a function of intelligence with the reasoning of putting equally intelligent people together so that they can learn at the same pace. But it is not as easy as that, is it? To many this is the “production line” or “Victorian” model of education which uses conformity, consistency and standards as its principles of design and implementation.

I have copied one of my contributions to this debate because it deals with my concerns and I think it needs ‘airing’ in a wider forum.

“Intelligence as a trait or ability is not as easy to recognise as physical prowess. Intelligence can go unrecognised or even subjugated so easily and as a result of the most innocuous comment or action. It develops or presents itself in different ways or in different forms and at different times and there is no clear indicator. Some can feign intelligence just as some can hide it. We must not allow ourselves to see intelligence in the same way as we do physical prowess which so easily presents itself. Not being good at sport does not carry the same risks as not being good in class.

It is for these reasons we must avoid the label that leads to classification. We must be careful that they do not ultimately lead to closed routes or pathways and limited learning opportunities.

It is easy to point to the extremes and say how unfair the mixed ability arrangement is, but this ignores the benefits of the opportunities offered to the majority. Sensible mixed ability is a much more equitable arrangement and worthy of consideration. Having your flowering intelligence recognised, in whatever form it presents itself and at whatever stage in your development it does so, and being provided with the opportunity and pathway to explore it is a fundamental right. It is this alone that provokes my rejection of selection and of labelling without mobility.

I believe it has been proven that IQ (the most common form of measure when talking about intelligence) alone does not predict future success in life or career and so to select or group on this single criteria alone must be a fundamentally flawed proposition. Emotional intelligence has been suggested to have a greater part to play on a person’s future success so should we group or select on this basis?

If of course we judge the value of education through league tables or examination success rates then we can so easily make the case for selection for we want these people to be successful. After all a reputation may well be at risk. There will always be a problem whilst we have differing range of abilities and a single simplistic measure of one narrow ability.

We owe it to our children and to society to make the most of every ability, no matter what form it takes or when it presents. Our past failures to do this surround us and we must not be drawn back to the past with a promise of better. The latest Nobel winner, Sir John Gurdon may attest to this since he was ‘too stupid’ for science.”

report card Sir John Gurdon

The key points I am trying to make are:

  • We do not have a single measure of intelligence and nor do we fully understand how it develops.
  • Labels are seductive in education, especially in a “Victorian” model and we must avoid them.
  • By wrongly labelling we can as easily prevent an individual reaching their potential as we can attempting to ensure they do.
  • Labels are driving the curriculum and many are “historical” in nature. 
  • A traditional single measure of intelligence ignores other “intelligences” or traits that make us successful in life.

A follow up comment I made in response to my comments highlights my call for caution.

“I have offered a warning of sorts, not aimed at you but at the manner in which such simple terms can be so easily applied to the situation we face in education. ‘Standards’ is the alter on which so much is being sacrificed and having spent time with teachers I can tell you it is destroying the profession and limiting the opportunities of our children. Using simple analogies is tempting but they do nothing but undermine what is a very complicated situation by pretending it is otherwise. I caution all for doing so.”

The echoes of the past are still with us in education. References to “standards”, “conformity” and “consistency” are all by words for the industrial age as are “academic” and “vocational” for a Victorian model of education.

Teacher and Class 3


Finally a most apt quote for this simplistic approach to education.


For my ideas on intelligence see the introductory article on “Learning Quotient”  @ http://wp.me/p2LphS-3p

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