12 June 2017
Your child should be aiming to be towards the head of the pack in mathematics from early on. The later it’s left, the harder it is to catch up.
Some schools start ‘streaming’ students into higher- and lower-level mathematics groups way before they start actively talking about career pathways. This presupposes that students in lower level maths streams will not study Maths Methods or Specialist Maths in years 11 and 12. (What exactly are Methods and Specialist?)
Note: ‘Streaming’ is so commonly conflated with ‘setting’, that I’ll just be calling everything streaming. But here’s a nice explanation of the difference.
Should schools stream?
There are studies (like this for example) of the effects of streaming but, at root, the arguments become philosophical. The struggle here is balancing individuals’ best outcomes with society’s best interests. And no matter what the data say, people will have different priorities.
- On an individual level:
- Streaming can be beneficial to those who are put into the higher streams.
- Whereas, it is less beneficial to those in the lower streams.
- On a societal level:
- Segregating students based on early ability very clearly widens the achievement gap. The best students do very well, and this can easily carry on into a socioeconomic gap.
- On the other hand, keeping high and low achieving students together brings the average achievement up. But perhaps fewer students will achieve the to the highest heights.
Of course, these are general tendencies, and some schools might actually implement their streaming quite effectively – high expectations and encouragement across the board, precisely targeted teaching, easy upward mobility – but unfortunately, it seems that in most cases students are just expected to stick in their stream through to the end of school… and beyond!
The justification for streaming in mathematics?
The justification for streaming is that higher streamed students have their abilities coached to higher levels, while lower streams can be taught more efficiently to their level. This is great for those kids who have already come into their own in maths classes and whose teachers have recognised that. They’ll be streamed highly and be more likely to achieve highly. However, those students who have come to believe they are better than the lower streams because maths comes easily to them, when they reach the point where they need to put more effort in to progress keep up with senior maths, they can sometime fall into a big confidence crisis.
And on the flip side, too often it’s the case that putting students into lower streams sets low expectations for those students’ potential: self-expectations, peer-expectations and even teacher expectations. Rather than holding a mindset that they are capable of moving up in the streams with effort and perseverance, they start to believe that they just don’t have what it takes and could never be like those ‘smart’ kids.
It’s not fair to pigeonhole pubescent and pre-pubescent students. It’s a time of great changes in growth, thinking, maturity, development, attitudes… They may not yet see how maths fits into the bigger picture of their future. Stuck in lower maths classes with no expectation of promotion, the only horizon they can aspire to reach is the top of their lower-stream class. They are surrounded only by peers who are in the same boat, while the higher streams with the best maths teachers strive ahead. Students never even see what it’s like to be in a higher-level maths class, so how can they aspire to that, let alone achieve that?
So, in summary:
- We’re all for targeted teaching!! – but the devil is in the details.
- At ELC our default position is that all our students are headed for Maths Methods in years 11 and 12. If they then strategically choose General Maths instead, great. It was their CHOICE.
- If your school streams early in maths, advocate for your child to be in the higher stream. Rather be bottom of the top, than top of the bottom.
- If they don’t stream, that might be better for a more equal society. But your child can still learn beyond their peers, with no year-level limits at ELC!
Also helpful to know:
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