How can we get students with varied academic skills and learning problems to work together? Some teachers report their difficulties in managing the heterogeneity of their classes . This is particularly the case when the academic difficulties of certain students are coupled with behavioral problems.
Is forming level classes the solution then? By evoking in October 2023 the possibility of organizing level groups in maths and French for the teaching of maths and French in middle school , the Minister of National Education, Gabriel Attal, relaunched debates on the composition of the classes that have been returning for over a century.
The promoters of level classes focus their arguments on the best adaptation of teaching practices and the resulting effectiveness. For others, heterogeneous classes would be a factor of social cohesion and reduction of inequalities. What is it really? What impact does the distribution of students have on teaching, school climate and learning?
Class composition: effects on student well-being
Many international studies in educational economics have focused on peer effects . This research examines the influence of the characteristics of other students in the class (notably academic level and social level which appear to be highly correlated) on the performance or well-being of a given student. Overall, the latter show that the composition of the class (heterogeneous/homogeneous) does not influence (or with very weak effects) the academic results of students.
Furthermore, even if there is no clear consensus, these studies suggest that students with a high academic level would benefit more from homogeneous classes from the point of view of their academic performance while students with low academic performance would benefit. plus heterogeneous classes.
Regarding well-being and social attitudes, the literature tends to show that heterogeneous classes are more conducive to their development. In France, a recent survey by the CSEN (Scientific Committee of National Education) reveals that, although greater social diversity in middle schools has no impact on academic results, it does, however, have positive effects on the plan of personal well-being and social well-being, for students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.
These studies provide valuable results on the effects of class composition. However, they obscure a key element of learning and classroom functioning: the teaching practices of teachers.
Do level classes change the way we teach?
It is generally accepted that level classes, through the pedagogical practices of teachers, can widen the gaps between students educated in low level classes compared to those included in high level classes. Indeed, teachers would tend to lower the level of requirements and solicit less reflective activity from students with classes perceived as weak .
Furthermore, it has been shown that the higher the expectations of teachers regarding the engagement and level of their students, the more their teaching practices support the motivation and learning of their students.
Other, rarer studies have examined the effects of class composition on academic performance by taking into account the quality of teaching measured from three categories of teaching practices:
- teaching strategies (adjust learning situations, solicit strategies for finding solutions to problems, etc.);
- emotional and social support (encouraging, being available to students in case of difficulties, etc.);
- classroom management (getting students active, preventing disruptive behavior, etc.).
If the results obtained in primary school do not show any effect of the composition of the class on the quality of teaching, they do reveal that, the more heterogeneous the class, the more the quality of teaching has a important role. In other words, teachers’ pedagogical practices would have more weight in students’ learning and progress when the class is heterogeneous.
Furthermore, the first results of an ongoing study of 145 secondary school classes suggest that teachers’ perception of classroom heterogeneity leads to teaching practices with contradictory effects on student engagement. In particular, the more teachers perceive their classes as heterogeneous, the more they support students’ feeling of competence (notably by clarifying expectations and adjusting learning situations), but the less they require high-level cognitive strategies and student autonomy.
The heterogeneous class, a challenge for teachers?
Ultimately, even if the heterogeneous class does not influence academic performance, it has positive effects on the well-being and social attitudes of students. Furthermore, it is in this type of class that teachers’ pedagogical practices seem to play an essential role in student success.
However, professional realities also reveal the difficulties encountered by teachers in managing this type of class which requires differentiating and personalizing their teaching even though the numbers in each class are high. Therefore, several questions deserve to be raised.
First of all, beyond the comparison between classes of different levels or heterogeneous classes, future research will benefit from refining the measurement of the degree of heterogeneity in classes (example: the proportion of students at each level and the gap between levels). Indeed, there is reason to wonder whether there is not an optimal degree of heterogeneity favorable to student progress and teachers’ educational practices.
It also appears that a flexible classroom organization combining heterogeneous classes and level groups can facilitate educational differentiation and be beneficial for students. With this in mind, students who belong to a heterogeneous class can occasionally join level groups for certain learning.
This method of organization is sometimes adopted with middle school students for certain fundamental learning so that students can temporarily benefit from teaching adapted to their needs while maintaining the pursuit of common objectives. This is also the case in primary school, in classes at several levels in which need groups are set up occasionally. From this perspective, attention must be paid to the articulation between pedagogical practices and disciplinary content in the initial and continuing training of teachers to help them develop professional skills allowing better management of heterogeneity .
Finally, it is a question of thinking about the levers which allow teachers to better manage heterogeneous classes and which are effective in helping students progress. In this context, co-teaching (two teachers for a class), even with larger class sizes, appears to be a promising avenue. Indeed, it offers the opportunity for greater flexibility through the sharing of tasks (class management, scaffolding, emotional support, etc.) which facilitates differentiation and the management of heterogeneity.
However, co-teaching does not have magical effects but involves a particular organization of the school structure, appropriate management and quality training of teachers.
Author Bios: Amaël André is a University Professor, Educational Sciences, Jonas Didisse is a Doctor in Educational Economics, Research Engineer “100% Inclusion, a Challenge, a Territory” both at the University of Rouen Normandy and Damien Tessier who is a Lecturer in STAPS, Sens laboratory, sport in a social environment at Grenoble Alpes University (UGA)