Mixed-ability classes bore students, frustrate parents, and burn out teachers. The brightest will never summit Everest, and the laggers won’t enjoy the lovely stroll in the park they are perhaps more suited to. Individuals suffer at the demands of the collective, mediocrity prevails. In 2014, the UK Education Secretary called for streaming to be made compulsory. And as the former British prime minister David Cameron said in 2006: ‘I want to see it in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works.’ According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 98 per cent of Australian schools use some form of streaming.
Despite all this, there is limited empirical evidence to suggest that streaming results in better outcomes for students. Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, notes that ‘tracking has minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative equity effects’. Streaming significantly – and negatively – affects those students placed in the bottom sets. These students tend to have much higher representation of low socioeconomic backgrounds. Less significant is the small benefit for those lucky clever students in the higher sets. The overall result is relative inequality. The smart stay smart, and the dumb get dumber, further entrenching social disadvantage.
In the latest update of Hattie’s influential meta-analysis of factors influencing student achievement, one of the most significant factors – far more than reducing class size (effect: 0.21) or even providing feedback on student work (0.7) – is the teachers’ estimate of achievement (1.57). Streaming students by diagnosed achievement automatically restricts teacher expectations. Meanwhile, in a mixed environment, teacher expectations have to be more diverse and flexible.
While streaming might seem to help teachers to effectively target a student’s ZPD, it can underestimate the importance of peer-to-peer learning. A crucial aspect of constructivist theory is the role of the MKO – ‘more-knowledgeable other’ – in knowledge construction. While teachers are traditionally the MKOs in classrooms, the value of knowledgeable student peers must not go unrecognised either.
It is amazing to watch a student explain an idea or skill to her peers in ways that their teacher would never think of. They operate with different language tools, different social tools and, having just learnt it themselves, possess similar cognitive structures. There is also something exciting about passing on skills and knowledge that you yourself have just mastered – a certain pride and zeal, a certain freshness to the interaction between teacher and learner that is often lost by the expert for whom the steps are obvious and the joy of discovery forgotten. As a teacher, I often find I do a better job teaching material that I am not overly familiar with. In these circumstances, we hit authentic learning snags where I am not an expert-knower, but become an expert-learner, and we all have to negotiate the learning together.
Having a variety of students of different abilities in a collaborative learning environment provides valuable resources of relative-experts who are able to help each other meet their learning needs, never mind the benefits to communication and social skills. Look to the old adage: the best way to learn something is to teach it. If so, streamed classrooms reduce authentic opportunities for peer-to-peer teaching and learning, with both less and more capable students disadvantaged. And today, more than ever, we need the many to flourish – not suffer at the expense of a few bright stars. I go on a hike with a motley array of student once a year. It is challenging. The fittest students realise they need to encourage the reluctant. There are lookouts who report back, and extra items to carry for others. The laggers – who have never walked more than a kilometre their entire life – struggle, blistered, chafed and out of breath. But they also inevitably surprise themselves. We make it – together.