Against Ability

Schools should ditch the idea of ability. This isn’t the first time that I’ve said this, but test-driven education hurtles on and we need to keep stopping to notice what’s wrong with that.

Ability is a staple of education policy and guidance; it is part of common sense; it is a cornerstone of the meritocratic idea that we each get what we deserve (ability plus effort equals merit); and it is a key organisational and explanatory device in many (most?) schools, structuring the everyday landscape and experience of schooling.

Ability is one term in a wider lexicon – intelligence, IQ, potential, aptitude, capacity, capability, talent, gift – in which what a person can do is an interior quality of that person, and often one that is seen as natural and enduring. A focus on prior-learning, pre-existing skills, preparedness, or readiness might have the potential to shift this, but these often still rest on the idea of ability. Advocates of ability (or IQ) claim it has a ‘normal distribution’, just as educational outcomes are expected to have a normal distribution. As David Gillborn has shown, when these measures show uneven distribution of IQ and outcomes across race and class groups, advocates either suggest these are simply difficult truths or sweep them under the rug to do their insidious work.

There is a lot of education research that shows the harm done by ability. When we were doing the research for our 2000 book Rationing Education, me and David Gillborn were privy to this conversation between the Head and Deputy of a London Secondary school:

Head: You can’t achieve more than you’re capable of, can you? Can you? There are kids who surprise you, but I’m not sure that’s quite the same thing.

Deputy: If you can under-achieve why can’t you over-achieve?

Head: What does over-achieve mean? That you’ve done more than you’re capable of doing? You can’t do more than you’re capable of. You can do less than you’re capable of, as most of us do most of the time. Don’t we?

For us this distilled the underpinnings, and dangers of ability as it works in schools.

Ability is used as the basis for sorting, selection, setting and streaming in schools. Research by people like Sue Hallam at UCL Institute of Education shows that using ‘mixed ability’ groupings is better for everyone, but policy continues to mandate setting by ability.

Setting by ability not only sorts and separates, it makes hierarchies – when selection and setting based on ability are part of the fabric of an education system, some of students come to be ‘better’ than others. Children in bottom set know they are in bottom set, and, as Claudine Rauch’s research shows, children sat on the ‘circles table’ know what is implied by the fact that circles have many less sides than hexagons. My own research shows how, through mundane everyday practices ability makes differently valued learners. Day-in, day-out, schools and teachers recognise some students as good learners, and others as difficult, troubling, or troubled learners – modes of recognition that become bound up in students’ sense of themselves: the child recognised as bright understands herself as bright and manifests her brightness in the classroom, while the child recognised as struggling understands himself as struggling and manifests his struggles in the classroom.

Ability is used to predict and fix – many schools pay large sums to private education companies that predict students’ subject-by-subject outcomes in terminal exams based on measures of their ability years in advance. And ability is used to explain (away) inequalities, making them natural, unavoidable and completely down to the individual.

Ability is also used to allocate resources, and when resources are limited and performance indicators drive not just a school’s reputation but its continued autonomy and even its continued existence, ability is used to perform ‘educational triage’. When me and David Gillborn first observed schools performing what looked to us like educational triage in the late 1990s we were shocked – schools were not prioritising the most disadvantaged or lowest attaining students as we had expected. Instead, these students were treated as ‘hopeless cases’ and the often more socially and economically advantaged students performing on the borderline of the performance indicator – the ‘suitable cases for treatment’ – got the resources. These once shocking practices are now standard in schools.

Finally, but perhaps most profoundly, ability stops us think differently about learning.

Throughout the long debate over ability – its existence and what should be done with it – there has been a persistent claim that ability is real and we have to deal with that. This is perhaps seen most boldly in research in intelligence or IQ. Robert Plomin’s lab has been a key site for intelligence research and has asserted the genetic phenomenon of generalised intelligence or ‘G’. Twin studies and more recently genome-wide association studies (GWAS) underpin the claim that variance in intelligence is hereditary. In the early twin studies 50 to 60 per cent of variance was identified as being hereditary, but in genome-wide association studies this figure drops dramatically, down to as low as 2 per cent. While for people like me who see ability as divisive and damaging this is potentially good news, the Plomin lab puts this down to the limitations of the data and the newest study has pushed this back up to 10 per cent.

David Gillborn has engaged in detail with recent research that asserts a major hereditary influence on intelligence, and with policy that makes this its bedrock. He reminds us of the long history of connecting differential intelligence to different races. He explains that, despite popular misconceptions, heritability is about variability across populations and not individuals, and that even intelligence researchers wouldn’t want to speak to the influence of G in an individual child’s school achievements. And he shows how measured IQ has been going up over time, but that it is ‘re-normed’ to sustain a ‘normal distribution’ with an elite group at the top and a hopeless group at the bottom, and the rest in the middle, meaning that distribution of IQ doesn’t tell us anything about what a person can do – just where they sit in a hierarchy.

Sociological research in schools shows that differences in apparent ability (however that might be being observed) and in what children do on particular tests is not about a generalised genetic intelligence – it is about experiences of different forms of advantage and disadvantage; about institutional and every-day, business-as usual racism; about being recognised (or not) by teachers as someone who can learn.

I find it useful to insert epigenetics into thinking about ability and what schools can and should do about it. Epigenetics suggests interactions between the environment and the body’s DNA that effects gene regulation and expression, that is, what cells actually do. To date ‘environment’ in epigenetic research has tended to mean the uterus, mother-child relationships, experiences of trauma, and different forms of environmental toxicity, all of which have been shown to change the functioning of cells. Researchers interested in the epigenetic influences on children’s development and learning offer findings that are useful for supporting a move away from ability as it has been put to work in schools. They stress the massive capacity for ongoing epigenetic changes in the brain and so the brain’s functioning. They highlight the potential for relationships beyond the mother-child pair – perhaps including children’s relationships with their teachers – to have epigenetic influences. And they show how differential epigenetic susceptibility means that those most adversely affected epigentically by environment are also most likely to benefit from positive intervention.

Not only does this epigenetic work offer a very different view of the molecular biology of learning than is offered by a GWAS of intelligence, it also invites us to expand our sociological accounts of what environment might influence. Instead of focusing on ability or IQ as something in a child that we need to identify and measure, it invites a focus and what the influences on learning might be and how these might interact (see the image below for my suggestion of the key influences that we need to understand).

When ability is embedded in our thinking our pedagogies, the learning we offer to students, our relationships with students, and the way we think about ourselves as educators all suffer because ability sits as a block on them all.

What happens (could happen) if we ditch ability and think in different ways about students and learning?

When I asked this question of the staff of the University of Birmingham School last week, it was clear that ditching ability was opening up exciting ways of working for them. It underscores (again) that performance in a test does not tell us anything fundamental about a child, including their capacity to learn. It frees children and teachers from the fear of failing, either through a lack of ability or by not living up to someone else’s idea of promise. It opens up a new space that, while it might feel risky, is a space in which potential might be limitless, where everyone is a learner, where teachers and students can have rich and caring pedagogic encounters, and in which expansive thinking about learning can replace the endless pursuit of test results. It provokes us to consider afresh, what education is and what it is for.



One thought on “Against Ability

  1. Dear Deborah
    Given my career-long support for teaching mixed-attainment groups and therefore my utter opposition to setting by notions of ‘ability’, I was delighted to read this blog. Two questions – could this piece be submitted as an article for Mathematics Teaching (journal of the ATM)? Did you know about the secondary mixed-attainment mathematics conference which the University of Birmingham, via Tom Francome, have kindly offered to host on Saturday 28/01/17?


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