When we label students by ability, we limit their potential to learn

University educators have a responsibility to debunk the myth that intelligence is fixed, says Claire Taylor

December 4, 2015

Recently we learned that England is to get its first “new” grammar school for five decades after ministers allowed an existing grammar school to build an annex in another town.

Although there has been a ban on the creation of new grammar schools in place since 1998, schools are allowed to expand if there is sufficient demand. Taking account of this convenient legal loophole, Weald of Kent school in Tonbridge will open a site in Sevenoaks, Kent, neatly side-stepping the ban.

Government ministers have been quick to say that this move will not open the floodgates to more schools being allowed to select by ability, but there is no doubt that this development has put the spotlight once more on the merits and demerits of selection, streaming and ability labelling. Those who are pro selection by ability argue that such an approach brings an element of opportunity and choice, while those who are against it call the practice unnecessary and divisive, saying that social mobility is hampered and educational opportunities for the poorest pupils severely curtailed.

At the heart of this debate are deeper issues around notions of ability, the labelling of achievement and the potential to limit learning capacity. Therefore it is important to pause and consider the legacy of such practices for learners embarking upon higher education study.

Ability labels attempt to explain differences in learning and attainment by invoking a fixed description of intellectual endowment. A person described as being of “low ability” now, in the present, is assumed to have more limited learning potential than those who may be judged to be “more able”. Furthermore, the expectation is that these differences will continue and will be reflected in comparable differences in academic performance in the future. This means that future outcomes are deemed fixed, predictable and inevitably based on the present.

By this author: Strategic plans are a world of superlatives and meaningless aspiration

The problem for young people labelled in this way is clear. What is conveyed is an assumption that each child has a pre-programmed capacity to learn, and for the individual who at age 11 has had their ability judged, marked and labelled, in preparation for school selection, it can mean a predestined future marked by low aspiration and a paucity of opportunity. To illustrate the legacy of this approach for learners entering higher education, I give you the example of Sam.

I first met Sam about 15 years ago. She was embarking on a work-based foundation degree, entering higher education in her thirties as a mature learner, having previously left school at 16. As Sam’s course leader and personal tutor, I remember sitting down with her to talk through the feedback she had received in relation to her first course assignment.

She had done well; this was her first piece of assessed written work and the feedback comments noted areas of strength as well as areas to take forward in the next assignment. But however much I tried to focus Sam on the formative comments, and however much I congratulated her on her achievement, she was completely fixed on her grade. It was the case that her percentage mark equalled a “C” grade, and for Sam this underwrote a lifetime of being labelled a “C person”.

Her words to me at the time were: “I’ve always been a C person.” My overwhelming reaction was one of shock and surprise, because Sam seemed content, happy even. Sam thought she had achieved as she was expected to achieve, while I knew that she could do so much more. I sensed from Sam evidence of an impoverished attitude to learning, a lack of resilience and resourcefulness in terms of independent learning, and the barriers of self-limiting learning capacity – all because she was labelled early in her school career.

We have all met students such as Sam, who, because of previous experiences of labelling, often as the result of a selection exercise, now inhabit a mindset of limited capability. Such an attitude can have devastating consequences for success at university, not least the fact that the student who believes that their ability is fixed and unable to be changed or grown will see little point in making effort to work hard and apply themselves to study in order to improve.

Read more: How to spot different sorts of potential

As university educators, we have a responsibility to debunk the myth that intelligence is fixed, and in doing so we should offer an alternative pedagogy of hope to those students who have laboured under the misapprehension that things can’t ever get better. An alternative approach should be based on the premise that success is not dependent on a predetermined scale of ability but is dependent on students and educators expecting that learning capacity can be transformed, grown and enhanced through external intervention.

Such an approach has the potential to be hugely motivating for students as it will enable them to see the benefit of putting effort into their studies. If student effort is more evident, then university educators will be more committed to the educability of all students and to providing formative activity that supports student engagement. Motivated and supported engagement with learning opportunities will result in more effective learning and an optimistic, rather than a limited, approach to growing learning capacity. This will lead to good rates of retention, high levels of achievement and an increased likelihood of entering graduate employment.

The recent announcement that England is to get its first new grammar school for five decades may not open the floodgates to more schools being allowed to select by ability, but it should raise important questions around the place of selection and ability labelling within our education system.

At the very least, let’s pause and remember the legacy of selection and ability labelling for young people and adults alike at all stages of primary, secondary and post-compulsory education. And as university educators, let’s do all we can to reverse the damage done to generations of students whose higher education success has been compromised by a misguided assumption that learning capacity is prophetically pre-programmed. Rather, let us offer a pedagogy of hope, optimism and limitless learning capacity.

Claire Taylor is pro vice-chancellor (academic strategy) at St Mary’s University in London

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Reader's comments (2)

Much of what you have written has my support Claire but your post lacks conviction; sorry but that is my impression. You seem to project those beliefs which do not belong to you. Rather, you write those beliefs which come across as those which your position dictates. "Sam thought she had achieved as she was expected to achieve, while I knew that she could do so much more". You 'knew' no such thing Claire; you probably had some inkling that she could do better, some suspicion based on your judgment, some gut feeling about this student; but there is a big difference between thinking something and knowing it. Unfortunately your Sam example has as much educational value as those pretending to 'know' that selection at 11 is appropriate; you see those protagonists don't 'know' either Claire.
Of course intelligence isn't the only influence on student performance. But the author is simply incorrect when she says that it is not (a) stable and (b) a very major influence on academic performance. As far as the first is concerned, Deary, Whalley, Lemmon, Crawford, & Starr (2000) found that intelligence scores were remarkably stable (0.73) over a period of 60 years within a large representative sample. And general intelligence correlates massively with performance at school (0.83 in the huge sample analysed by Cavin, Fernandes, Smith et al 2010) whilst many of the gene variants which have a sustantial influence on human intelligence (0.7 heritability) are also the ones which have a substantial influence on school performance (which has 0.51-0.81 heritability; Calvin, Deary Webbink et al, 2012). There is also a consistent literature showing that intelligence is a better predictor of educational performance than parental social class, and so it rather surprises me why policy-makers ignore this. It goes without saying that we should make every effort to make sure that every child achieves their full potential. But we also need to recognise that there are real biological differences between children which will influence their academic performance - even though many of us would wish it otherwise.