What class are you in?

In casting my mind back to my time as a student, I recall the practice of being allocated to a class based on your perceived academic ability. Classes were streamed and named accordingly for each subject. At the start of the new year, students would typically ask each other “What class are you in?” The responses would obviously be different for each individual. It goes without saying that a response to this question of 8A was delivered differently to that of an 8F.

In my role as principal, I have always enjoyed wandering through classrooms to get a sense of the learning that is taking place. I vividly recall one occasion in which a student asked me the question, “Sir, why are you visiting us. We are the dumb class?” These words sent a shudder through me…

At a time during adolescence when young people are trying to discover who they really are and forming opinions about themselves that can potentially last a lifetime, these labels can be incredibly damaging. Being labelled can pigeonhole students not only while at school but also in future careers. In fact, it plays a vital role in students determining their pathways, significantly limiting their options and potentially shutting the door to possibilities that could otherwise have been truly rewarding. Self-belief is an important determinant of success and if students are continually told they are a failure, they eventually believe this. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A commonly asked question is “do you stream your classes?’ As we prepare for the commencement of the College in 2021, beginning with Years 7 & 8 and growing annually to a Years 7-12 learning community, we have given much thought to the process of streaming. In doing so, we have had to also question the practice of grading students. The real issue is not how but why?

The underlying question is what impact do these practices have on student motivation and learning? Furthermore, what impact do they have on student self-efficacy and self-worth? Alfie Kohn in his book ‘Punished by Rewards’ wrote back in 1993:

“The trouble is not that we are sorting students badly … it is that we spend so much time sorting them at all. As a general rule the goal of sorting is simply not commensurate with the goal of helping students learn” (p. 202).

Why then is streaming classes (sorting students based on perceived ability) so prevalent? The fact is that it, along with grading, has been integral to our education system for several years and, for many, it is hard to imagine life without it. Streaming may be common practice, but it’s based on an assumption that international research has shown to be incorrect.

The purpose of streaming is essentially to sort students based on ability (the reliability of how this is done is often questionable). It is also easier and more efficient for the teacher. There is a perception that teaching can better target the needs of these students when grouped by ability. Streaming, however, does not always mean personalised learning. If given the right support, almost any student can achieve at the academic level. If we are being honest, it is also a marketing tool for some schools to increase their ATARs and attract more academically able students.

In short, streaming has shown to impact negatively on lower to middle ability students with minimal benefits for the upper group. Essentially, the gains from streaming are too small to be significant and it does not improve academic outcomes for most students.

In contrast to this, the damage that can be done to a student’s self-belief can be detrimental to student learning and growth both at school and in future years. Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, has said that while there is no evidence that streaming benefits students’ learning, the effects on equity are profound and negative.

Streaming can force students out of particular subjects and prevents them from accessing certain areas of the curriculum. Students access different content dependent on the stream, but this does not necessarily mean it is the content the student is ready for. Streaming can label, polarise, encourage segregation and set low expectations for lower ability students.  Students are perceptive and they quickly pick up on these low expectations. The process can often be incompatible with our core business as educators of helping students learn.

While streaming (and grading) can be a source of pride for parents, we need to question the assumption of its value for learning. How about we inspire an environment for our young people that instils a genuine love of learning by knowing their needs, passions and interests? One that personalises learning, provides choice and quality and meaningful and actionable feedback that fosters growth. An environment in which mistakes can be made and it is not seen as a weakness to ask for help.

I acknowledge that, while we are faced with the HSC as a culmination of schooling today, we need to ensure we prepare our students for this high school ‘end game’. For those students who see this as a valid pathway to university and their career, we need to provide a learning environment that puts them in the best possible position to access this. In doing so, it may be necessary to consider practices prior to them reaching Stage 6 so they are ready for the structures they will face in their final years.

In the meantime, however, we need to seriously consider the purpose of schooling. As educators, and leaders, the decisions we make impact on our young people and influence their sense of self, passion for learning and future mindsets. Our mission at Catherine McAuley is to co-create learning environments where faith, purpose, fulfilment and joy are experienced by all. If we are to live this mission, and bring ‘joy’ to learning, we need to create a safe place where our students do not live in fear of humiliation and judgement. Instead, they feel valued in a community that honours their uniqueness, particularly in their learning.

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