We do it as a matter of course, but streaming students looks more and more like it’s detrimental to slower students.
But doing away with streaming isn’t the answer as less accomplished students progress best through structured instruction and the development of basic knowledge and skill.
According to Prof Linda Graham, an expert in inclusive education at QUT, new research “provides yet more evidence to confirm what we already know: streaming students into homogenous groups based on perceived ability disadvantages lower-achieving students by placing a ceiling on their learning.”
“Despite conclusive evidence since the 1960s that ability streaming compounds disadvantage by reducing the intellectual quality of classrooms, as well as the potential for learning through peer-interaction, it remains one of the most common practices used in schools,” she said.
“The aim is to reduce the scope of classroom diversity for teachers and is even mistakenly perceived as an approach to differentiation, a teaching practice aimed at meeting the needs of diverse learners in inclusive classrooms.”
But it does no such thing, says Graham, “The weight of the research evidence shows that streaming has only slight positive effects for higher-achieving students and a major negative effect on lower achieving students. Streaming also has negative effects for teachers teaching the “lower sets” because these teachers have higher numbers of students with learning difficulties, disability, and disruptive behaviour than they would have otherwise.
“It is also quite common for these groups to be given to early career and contract teachers with schools reserving their more experienced, subject-specialist teachers for NAPLAN grades and the critical senior years.”
Andrew Martin, Scientia Professor of Educational Psychology at UNSW Sydney says that; “It is true that teachers must guard against having negative expectations for struggling learners. It is also true that struggling learners must not be denied opportunities for independent learning,” he said.
However research in cognitive and instructional psychology shows that struggling students are best served when they are provided with appropriate structure and support in the initial stages of learning, as well as opportunities for guided practice and rehearsal.
“Through this process of explicit and structured instruction, they develop the basic knowledge and skill. When they have this basic knowledge and skill, these learners are then in a position to engage in high quality independent learning. Importantly, if independent learning is introduced too early in the process for struggling learners, there tends to be poor quality independent learning – this is because these students do not have the basic knowledge and skills to capitalise on the opportunities that independent learning allows.”
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