Double-edged sword of streaming

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  • Thursday, 31 Jan 2019

THIS question or argument has been discussed many times in educational circles. The argument usually centres around the two extremes of the high-performing and low-performing children and what is best for these two groups.

Parents of the high-performing child want streaming while those whose children are average or below want mixed ability classes. Sometimes, parents of the low-performing child would also be happy with streaming.

What are the benefits of streaming? The teacher is able to focus the lessons on a particular level which allows for steady progress of that group. The students are in a class with others who have the same learning level although not the same learning style or attitude. The teacher still has to provide the content in ways that cater to each learning style.

What are the negatives of streaming? Students know they are in the low-performing group even if the classes are named by colour, animal, flower or any other method. This can create a self-defeating cycle for the lower group of students that will slow down their learning acquisition. Basically, streaming creates a group of students who know they are weak in studies and so they decide “why bother”.

The other negative of streaming is assuming that a student who is good in Maths is also good in languages, Art, Music, Science and etc. This is certainly not the case, and it is detrimental to their learning.

The issue centres around how streaming is controlled and managed across subjects and also individually, student by student. Schools often take the easy way out and stream based on Maths and/or language, and then use that grouping for all subjects. This creates a situation where children, who may be poor in language but excel in other areas, would not be given the opportunity to show their ability and would often “act out” by causing disturbance in class because they are bored.

Streaming has its place but must be managed carefully. There must be means that enable teachers to identify students who are showing growth in a subject and who should be moved to another class. This again causes problems for schools that do not plan properly, in that they work on the basis of “if one child is to move up a class then another child must move down as we do not have the space”. Each class that is created should have two or three spaces to allow for children to progress due to hard work, maturity or just starting to like a subject. Also, streaming is of no use to the child or teacher when a year group is small, such as having only two or three classes.

On the other hand, if the year group is too big, like there are 10 or more classes, streaming would be too cumbersome and would create logistical problems with time tabling and resources.

In large schools, there tends to be one or two top classes, a mass of mixed ability classes, and one or two lower classes.

So what is the answer – to stream or not to stream?

The motivation and planning have to be clear for both ways – not streaming means teachers should plan differentiated lessons for every class they teach, and the school administration should keep a close watch on the performance of all the students using standardised tests. Teachers should also be monitored carefully.

When classes are streamed, teachers need to be monitored to ensure they are providing opportunities for students to show their abilities. The school administration must also ensure each child is in the right class for each and every subject. The use of standardised tests and monitoring of students and teachers should also occur in streamed situations.

There is also concern over where to place “good” teachers, as parents and students have their preferences. This concern again is double-edged. Do you put your best teacher with the top class or the lowest class? Parents want the best teacher with the top students but this is not always the most educationally beneficial to the school. Usually, the middle-of-the-road teachers would be placed in the top class, new or inexperienced teachers with the middle classes and the best, most experienced with the lowest classes.

There are many variables to be taken into consideration but the situation must be managed with detailed planning and quality assurance guidelines.



Kolej Yayasan UEM

Tanjung Malim, Perak


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