Chapter Seven: Teachers, Students, and Teaching

7.4 Elementary, Middle, and Secondary Schools

The teacher responsible for any given class must be capable of teaching the required subject matter. The usual way of meeting this requirement is to have teachers specialize in some manner, and to organize the students accordingly. Schools deal with this requirement differently in elementary, middle, and secondary schools. It should also be noted, however, that given how schools shift to respond to demographic and educational trends, even though we talk about elementary, middle, and secondary schools, virtually every combination of grades therein exists in how schools are organized. It is also the case that some schools offer multi-age, multi-grade classrooms that span “typical” understandings of grade level, and a few schools organize their work by learning outcomes rather than by grade levels. To that end, teaching and learning are highly complex, and the organization and enactment of curricula can look very different in different contexts.

In elementary schools, a concern for specific content, such as learning to read, tends to be combined with a strong interest in the overall development of each student. The development of academic skills is stressed, but so are behaviour, motivation, and the all-round development of the child. In the first years of education, the school focuses on the students’ need to acquire the ability to do later, more specialized, studies. Young children are regarded as being more dependent on adults. Elementary schools also place considerable stress on students’ self-concept—the sense students develop about their own skills and abilities. Given this emphasis on basic skills and child development, the most common arrangement is for a single teacher to teach most or all of the material; thus, each teacher usually has the same group of students for most of the school day. Within this basic organizational structure, however, it is much more common to see more than one adult in an elementary classroom. Given the recognition that early literacy and numeracy are key to successful learning later on, much more emphasis has been placed on providing team supports to ensure elementary learners acquire the basic skills they need.  Specialist teachers (e.g., languages, music, and physical education), educational assistants, resource teachers and student services personnel are now quite commonly part of the everyday classroom experience of elementary school students.

Middle schools are commonly arranged as a hybrid of the workings of elementary and secondary schools. This arrangement eases the transition that takes place in the general philosophy between elementary and secondary schooling, and the changes in identity, learning, and physical stature that occur in this ambiguous time of adolescent development. Often, middle schools are organized around the concept of team teaching, so that groups of teachers remain aware of the learning needs of a particular group of middle-school learners. These students therefore have a core group of teachers with whom they can identify as they move through the system. It is also common for specialists such as guidance counsellors, mental health workers, and Indigenous Elders to be working in middle schools as supports for the students who are often working through their own identity development at this stage.

In secondary schools, much more stress is placed on specialized subject matter. The secondary school, like the university, often emphasizes content over concerns about learners as individuals. Teachers tend to specialize in particular content knowledge areas, and students often encounter different teachers in each subject. It is now the student’s task to coordinate her or his school program across the various subjects. Work in secondary schools is also influenced powerfully by the organization of teachers into subject-based departments. Science teachers may view issues quite differently from, for example, English teachers, due to their disciplinary positioning and training. Some departments may also have higher status than others, so that the secondary school can become compartmentalized and elitist. Due to pressures with external examinations or the focus on transitioning from high school to post-secondary or employment, cross- or inter-disciplinary work is rarely conducted.

Elementary, middle, and secondary teachers may have rather different views of what their job is and how best to approach it. Elementary teachers more often describe themselves as teachers of students; middle-school teachers view themselves as guides during a development transition; and secondary teachers see themselves as content specialists. These differences in viewpoint can lead to significant differences in school practices such as grouping, instruction and assessment. For example, Canadian elementary schools tend to use anecdotal reporting and rubrics, while secondary schools are more apt to use letter or number grades. The idea of continuous progress is an elementary-school invention; secondary schools are much more likely to see their program in discrete packages where students pass or fail by course.


As has been noted, students vary in their interests, motivation, experience, skills, and background knowledge with respect to what the school seeks to have them learn. If all learning were individualized, such differences might not be problematic. But when instruction is organized around groups of students taught by one teacher, variability can become a fundamental problem, especially since the organization of school curricula implies (in principle at least) that every student should learn essentially the same things. Teachers and schools have always had to grapple with the tension between common goals and diverse people. Guided by the assumption that it is easier to teach students who are similar to one another in skill and interests, schools have usually dealt with this tension by trying to limit the variability in groups of students. The most common strategies used for this purpose are creating subgroups within classes and putting students into different courses or programs.

Elementary and secondary schools have different practices for reducing variability. The most common form of grouping entire classes in elementary schools is by age, the questionable assumption being that students of similar ages have roughly similar skills and dispositions. Of course, as any parent or elementary-school teacher knows, this assumption is only partly true. Each elementary classroom contains students with a wide range of abilities, interests, motivations, and backgrounds. One common response in elementary schools is to create, within each class, subgroups of students based on their perceived ability, and to differentiate the work to accommodate the presumed capacity of each group. This strategy is called within-class ability grouping or homogenous grouping. The problem with ability grouping is that it does not appear to be a very effective practice, and is especially unhelpful to those students who are least successful (Buttaro & Catsambis, 2019; McDool, 2020). In the last few years, more schools have begun to try alternative ways of organizing elementary-school classrooms that are based on mixed-ability or multi-age groups.

Secondary schools often structure courses based on tracking or, as it is sometimes called, streaming. Rather than group students within a class, entire courses are differentiated by presumed level of difficulty, and students choose or are assigned to courses on the basis of their perceived capacity and willingness to do the work required. Most provinces organize their high-school courses into several streams, such as general, advanced, vocational, or university entrance. Students who are regarded as having less ability, or as being less motivated, are pushed toward tracks and courses considered to be less academically demanding. The result is classes that are less diverse.

Although the diversity within classes may be reduced through tracking, the diversity in the school population is not reduced, and this can lead to biases towards and labelling of courses and students. The research on tracking in secondary schools also shows that the practice has negative effects on the experience of students who are not placed in the top tracks. Researchers have consistently found that students in tracks called general, basic, or vocational have less actual instructional time, are assigned less challenging tasks, are often segregated by social characteristics rather than actual ability, and lead to long-term negative effects on income levels after school (Borghans et al., 2019; Scharenberg, 2016).

Herein lies the dilemma of grouping practices. It makes great sense in principle to organize students by interest and ability so as to foster appropriate teaching. But when such organization does occur, there is a very strong tendency for the students placed at the lower end of the continuum to receive less stimulating, less challenging, and less effective instruction. As Goodlad put it over three decades ago, “The decision to track is essentially one of giving up on the problem of human variability in learning. It is a retreat rather than a strategy” (1984, p. 297).

All grouping practices require judgments about students so that they can be placed accordingly. Determining students’ characteristics, however, is not nearly as straightforward a matter as it might seem. Most of us probably remember the experience of a teacher whose belief in our ability brought better results than we ourselves might have expected, or a teacher with whom we didn’t get along and who therefore didn’t motivate us to work as hard. Research supports our experience, showing that grouping is not simply a matter of assigning students based on immutable characteristics, but a matter of judgments made by teachers and schools about students. These judgments are, in turn, powerfully affected by teachers’ ideas about students. For many years, girls were widely thought to be less capable than boys in science and mathematics. Students for whom English is an additional language have been considered less able, even though the issue is one of languages, not ability. Teachers have discriminated against students from particular kinds of backgrounds (e.g., racialized students or students from single-parent families) as being more likely to have academic problems. These preconceptions, however untrue, can have powerful consequences for students (Brown & Tam, 2019; Cui, 2019; Riley & Pedgeon, 2019). Rather than relying on “conventional wisdom,” it becomes more important to initiate discussions and an examination of how  particular groups of students learn, and to incorporate these understandings into differentiating instruction to best suit student needs.

Grouping practices are also affected by the structure of the classroom. The requirement for teachers to maintain order affects their attitudes toward individual students. For example, teachers who place more value on sitting still and working quietly may identify more boys as having learning problems because boys have tended to exhibit more rambunctious behaviour, at least partly because they are socialized to be more active. However, as Jones et al. (2013) note, “Creating a learning environment where all students can thrive academically requires an understanding of the complexities of classroom management. The notions of ‘discipline,’ ‘conformity’ and ‘obedience’ … are no longer sufficient” (p. 4). Moreover, non-promotion in the tracking system may result as much from poor behaviour as from poor academic performance.

Grouping has many other consequences. Because groups carry value rankings—with more academic groups generally seen as more prestigious by teachers, students, and the public—the school must be able to defend the way it has judged and assigned each student. Various kinds of tests and other devices are put in place for this purpose. Counsellors and school administrators may devote a great deal of time to this task. Much of the paraphernalia of testing and grading students has to do with making decisions about grouping. All of this is time and energy diverted from the goal of instruction.

Educators have long been aware of some of these problems, and many attempts have been made to organize schooling somewhat differently. Such changes are not easy to make since they require teachers to organize instruction differently, which is something they may not know how to do should they even wish to. The key point to understand here is that practices of teaching assignment, grouping, and tracking are not simply spontaneous, but arise out of the basic organizational issues facing schools.


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