Developing Mathematical Inquiry Communities:

04 Mixed ability grouping

Our achievement results for Pasifika children are “dismal, heartbreaking”, says Associate Professor Bobbie Hunter, but they do not accurately reflect their capabilities. Because Pasifika children tend not to talk, their teachers assume they don’t understand and put them in a bottom group. Once there, they become trapped in a self-reinforcing cycle of low expectations.

Key Content

Lynne Hutchinson of Otumoetai Intermediate explains how she asked Bobbie to run two days of PLD for handpicked teachers. One outcome was that the teachers were challenged to abandon the practice of ability grouping. This was scary, as teachers worried that they would not be able to meet the needs of all their children.

But what has happened is that the children are now explaining and justifying their strategies, are learning from each other, and have accepted much greater agency in their own learning.

Evidence in Action

This video provides a window into:

  • the role that school leadership can play in recognising the need for, initiating and supporting pedagogical change
  • the use of demonstrated external expertise to create dissonance that leads to productive change
  • the 'how' of scaffolding reciprocal or alternating tuakana teina roles in student group work
  • effective mixed-ability grouping as a key to accelerating improvement and promoting equity
  • Respectful engagement with teachers when existing theories are being challenged.


Because ability grouping has for so long been accepted as the norm in New Zealand schools:

  • it is what parents expect (and often want)
  • expertise in working with mixed-ability groups is limited
  • shifting to mixed-ability groups can generate huge initial dissonance for teachers
  • the experience of DMIC teachers and leaders is an important resource for supporting colleagues contemplating the shift.

Using mixed-ability grouping requires expert pedagogical and curriculum content knowledge, and capability to work simultaneously and effectively with diverse learners.

Key Evidence Informing Action - References

Specialist providers and New Zealand Ministry of Education and central government education agency staff, can contact the Ministry of Education Library for access to the key evidence. For anyone else requiring this material, you can contact your institution or local public library.

DMIC Videos

  1. Alton-Lee, A., Hunter, R., Sinnema, C., & Pulegatoa-Diggins, C. (2012, April). BES Exemplar 1 Ngā Kete Raukura – He Tauira: Developing communities of mathematical inquiry. Wellington: Ministry of Education.
  2. Anthony, G., & Hunter, R. (2015). Challenging ability grouping in New Zealand primary mathematics classes. In K. Beswick, T. Muir, & J. Wells (Eds.), Proceedings of 39th Psychology of Mathematics Education conference (Vol. 1, p. 146). Hobart. TAS: PME.
  3. Civil, M., & Hunter, R. (2015). Participation of non-dominant students in argumentation in the mathematics classroom. Intercultural Education, 26:4, 296-312.
  4. Cohen, E. & Lotan, R. (2014). Designing groupwork: Strategies for the heterogeneous Classroom, (3rd ed.). Teachers College Press: New York.
  5. Educational Assessment Research Unit & New Zealand Council for Educational Research. (2015). National monitoring study of student achievement, mathematics and statistics 2013. Ministry of Education: Wellington, New Zealand.
  6. Gamoran, A. (1992). Synthesis of research – Is ability grouping equitable? Educational Leadership Special Issue: Untracking for equity, 50 (2), 11-17.
  7. Hanushek E., & Woessmann, L. (2006). Does educational tracking affect performance and inequality? Differences-in-differences evidence across countries. Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, 116(510), pp. 63–76.
  8. Hunter, R. (2007). Scaffolding small group interactions. In J. Watson, & K. Beswick (Eds.), Mathematics: Essential research, essential practice (Proceedings of the 30th annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia, Vol. 2, pp. 430-439). Adelaide: MERGA.
  9. Hunter, R., & Anthony, G. (2014). Small group interactions: Opportunities for mathematical learning. In P. Liljedahl & C. Nicol & S. Oesterle & D. Allan (Eds.). Proceedings of the 38th Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education and the 36th Conference of the North American Chapter of the Psychology of Mathematics Education (Vol. 1). Vancouver, Canada: PME.
  10. OECD. (2016). PISA: Low-performing students: Why they fall behind and how to help them succeed. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: Paris.
  11. OECD (2015). OECD economic surveys: New Zealand 2015. OECD Publishing: Paris, France.
  12. OECD. (2014). Educational Research and Innovation: Critical maths for innovative societies: The role of metacognitive pedagogies. OECD Publishing: Paris, France.
  13. OECD. (2012). PISA 2012 results: What students know and can do. Student performance in mathematics, reading and science, Volume 1. Chapters 2 & 3. Trend: p. 55. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: Paris.
  14. Schleicher, A. (2014). Equity, excellence and inclusiveness in education: Policy lessons from around the world. Paris: OECD.
  15. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies results for 2010/11, 2006/07, 2002/03 and earlier can be found on the TIMSS section of the Ministry of Education's EdCounts website. Trend data for Year 5 students in New Zealand and further information is available from the BES Spotlight on Mathematics/Pāngarau.
  16. Webb, N.M. (1991). Task-related verbal interaction and mathematics learning in small groups. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 22, 366-89.