I got briefly* involved last week in a little discussion on Twitter on the theme of levels and streaming in learning, and it made me think about this as it applies to my job. There is an argument from the schools sector that the negative impact of children feeling demotivated and disillusioned outweighs any benefits of being taught in a clearly focussed way appropriate for their level of ability. What is crucial for me, and I think for some of the people involved in the discussion, I don’t think it’s a theory that applies to post-16 education. That sort of analysis doesn’t work, because the sector is so very different. To start with the majority of post-16 education is always sorted by level. A skilled and talented 16 year old may progress quickly from level 1 to level 2 in a vocational area within one year, but they are always divided by level, not age group. Ability and knowledge are the primary dividers in pretty much every aspect of post compulsory education. Age patterns exist, of course: the majority of learners on a Level 1 mechanical engineering course are arguably more likely to be mid to late teens, for example, but this is to do with funding which favours that age group, and the realistic ability (in terms of more complex wider commitments) of older learners to commit to that sort of course. I think there is probably the perception for an adult learner that that kind of course is for 16-19 year olds, although clearly no institution would discriminate against an older person who had the means and the inclination to do a course.
So thinking then about functional skills and adult literacy, numeracy and ESOL: could these work with mixed levels? They do, and they have done for many years, although this has generally been a decision based on economy rather than pedagogy. I teach a class in the community which is currently across two entry levels (E1 & E2), and I even briefly considered taking on beginners as well, not because I have any grand ideas about learner well being or that they could all learn from each other, but because the reality of the situation is that the class hasn’t attracted the numbers we would have liked and the opportunity for the learners would be taken away from them due to simple lack of value for money in funding terms. Pedagogy has an impact as well: I teach a subject where student-student interactions are vital, and in that context, a class of eight E1-E2 learners is much easier to manage than four E1.
Economics aside, however, and things become a little more clear cut. In an adult setting learners are less likely to suffer from on-course demotivation based on their ability. Learners are often aware of their abilities, ESOL learners doubly so because it is apparent in almost every interaction outside their home. My experience suggests that in the public sector ESOL context, learners more often underestimate rather than overestimate their abilities. (This is an interesting contrast to the weekly “I three weeks in England, I certificate advanced, yes?” conversations I recall from private sector EFL teaching.)
So really, the self-esteem issues are generally not issues, or at least not issues that mixed level groupings would remedy. Arguably, for an entry level learner who lacks confidence, it could be said that they might feel more disheartened by being in a group with someone who is very clearly more capable. There is certainly enough exposure to high levels to engender motivation as learners form social groups outside of the classrooms and within communities.
The other issue is that in the setting of ESOL and functional skills, a “single level” already represents a range of abilities: what we classify as Entry level 3 could represent people who have just scraped past Entry 2**, people who have been at that level for a year or two and appear to be plateauing, and people who only need to pass one component of the assessment in order to progress to Level 1.
The levels are fairly arbitrary in their divisions: who is to say that a given skill or language area is evidence of a particular level. However, arbitrary or not, a level suggests a selection of knowledge and skills to be learned, and it’s the rare learner who has full mastery of those when they pass the relevant exam*, so a revisit and a review of those is no bad thing. But from a planning perspective it gives the teacher an idea of what to teach, of the gaps missing, and of what is reasonable to expect for that group of learners to learn, and teaching within that level makes it much easier to manage the class, to keep all the learners as engaged, stretched and challenged as much as possible without having to perform magical plate spinning differentiation.
So. Levels. Basically, when it comes to older learners and adults, they aren’t a bad ideas, because the social setting, the contexts, and the reasons for learning are profoundly different. Intake practices are based around ability level, and the management of the courses would become radically different if we take the simplistic school approach of grouping by age. The diversity and the breadth of the FE context would make this simply impossible anyway – the only realistic way to organise these courses has to be around levels.
*”briefly” as in “lurked and made on comment”
**nobody actually thinks that once learners pass an exam they are actually fully competent at that level, right?