Stephen Louw

Variation in the classroom

Problems with a mixed-ability classroom

This is my class. There are 40 of them. They are in the same class because they are all the same age. They are also the same nationality, and they speak the same first language. But in truth, I’m afraid, they really aren’t the same at all! 

Here’s Ford. He speaks English at home and is almost fluent, but he has no investment in our lessons. He races to finish everything as quickly as he can, and then goofs around distracting his buddies. There’s Tan. He struggles to remember the things we studied yesterday and confuses red and yellow, but he enthusiastically always tries his best. This is Phong. She is still learning to write, and struggles with everything, including her Thai subjects. This one is Thongnam – his English is excellent; he has an encyclopedic general knowledge and is as sharp as a whip with math and science but finds our lessons boring so switches off pretty quickly. That there is Rain. He knows every player and the results of every game Manchester United has played for the last 25 years, but on any other topic he has no interest and just doodles or plays about with Ford. 

Then there is that group of girls who are obsessed with cats and get angry with Rain when he talks about football. Those girls all take excruciating care with their work, but I don’t think they have ever finished anything I’ve given them to do in class yet.

Every one of these students is different. There are huge differences in what they know, what they can do, and what they are interested in. How am I supposed to teach them? If I go too slow, Ford is bored. Whatever we do, Phong struggles. If I talk about cats, Rain is bored, if I don’t the girls are grumpy. Can’t they all just be the same so I can teach them in a nice uniform way, they will all be interested in what is going on, and all take the same amount of time to get through the work they are given?

Perfect uniformity

Such a nice, uniform world was imagined by the novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin in his novel We. In the novel, all individuals live and work in groups that are completely homogenous. Nobody has a name – only a number. Streets are straight, houses are in square harmony. The symmetry and regularity of numbers rules life. Reading pleasure is provided by the Table of Hours which prescribes everyone’s day:

And fused into a single-million-handed body, at the same second, designated by the Table, we lift our spoons to our mouths. At the same second, we come out for our walk, go to the auditorium, go do the hall for Taylor exercises, fall asleep.’ 

At dinner, each mouthful of food is chewed the prescribed fifty times in time to a metronome. Everyone is the same. There is no variation. More than that – when the Table prescribes a change of task, everyone moves to the task with energy and vigor. Wouldn’t it be nice if my students would all work on their tasks in perfect unison, and move to the new task, as one, and with such enthusiasm when required.

Spoiler alert: things in this idealized homogenous world don’t end well. Zamyatin’s highly organized authoritarian collectivized state becomes victim to the need for individuals to be individuals, to like who they want, to pursue freedom. One theme across the book is the danger of repressing individuality. Even the cruelest authoritarian government cannot suppress our need to express our individual selves. Of course, Zamyatin wasn’t talking about your classroom – he had his eyes on the Bolsheviks, but the link works well enough. Inept authoritarians everywhere seem to love striving for complete synchrony. 

Streaming students

The need for homogeneity has led some schools to implement a ‘streaming’ (or ‘tracking’) system, in which students with similar characteristics are grouped together. So the 3/3s are better than the 3/4s and so on. It seems like a good idea – teachers can do more complex stuff with the stronger groups and tone things down for the weaker groups. Advanced applied calculus for the 6/1s, and the essentials of algebra for the 6/17s. Marvelous. Because everyone is pretty equal, there is healthy competition, nobody is left behind and there isn’t the problem of slower learners losing confidence.

The problem, though, is that within even these streamed groups, there is massive variation: Bob learns fast, Pete concentrates hard, but Steve just mooches around. Bob is good at math, Pete is not. How did Steve even get into this class? More worryingly, streaming creates an exclusionary culture and risks labeling groups of students as ‘dumb’. 

There is also some evidence that streaming students into homogenous groups can have detrimental impact on students and their learning. If you are interested, you could read this from the UK, or this from New Zealand, or this for a worldwide review, or this if you want something more scholarly. Students don’t benefit from streaming – only the teacher does. Streaming simplifies teachers’ planning and marking. More usefully, one doesn’t need to get to know any students when they are all the same, right?

The benefits of variety

Conversely, there seems to be evidence that students studying in heterogenous classes benefit from the variation in abilities, background knowledge, interests, and motivation. Students can learn from one another through these differences. It’s a source of interest and makes the classroom more colorful. 

So back to the original question. How do you teach a class when every student is so different? Yes, it is a challenge. One answer to this is the large and impressive literature on differentiation in the classroom – a topic for another blog, perhaps. 

Another option, and the one I like, is to fall back on the benefits of a communicative language classroom, and have students work together. They do, and in doing so they help each other, enjoy one another’s company, communicate, and learn. Besides, although we like to be with like-minded people, who wants to spend a whole day with people exactly like us? 

For at least some of us, that must have been some of the motivation to live and work in foreign lands.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


Hello Steve, your blog reminds me of an expression in Persian/ Farsi that quotes: "Five fingers are not the same".
Any way, I learned a lot.

Thank you
Saeed :)

By Saeed, Thailand (26th May 2021)

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