Sunday, November 9, 2008

Ethical reasoning and streaming

Streaming is a difficult topic as it raises a number of questions regarding student capture, teacher judgement, assessment, and social justice.

Student capture for me is the most critical aspect of a classroom. Capturing a student's interest is a perpetual task, a combination of selling your subject and moving fast enough to keep their interest, yet slowly enough to allow them to fully grasp a subject. For some it can be done through connections with the teacher's personality, others through mathematics success, others through contribution to the class and others by connections with peers. If you can capture a student and get them to consistently have a positive attitude towards your subject then this is the first criteria met for a student to be placed into a difficult mathematics class. Streaming captured students into a class can greatly assist in improving possibility for success.

Teacher judgement is the next criteria. Does the student have the intellectual horsepower to complete the work? No amount of mathematics tutoring will assist a student that has extreme difficulty in reading a question, has too many holes in their skill base or takes too long to understand a new skill. A teacher needs to be able to identify that bit of extra practice that will move the student from being able to use a skill when directed, to be able to apply a skill undirected, to be able to identify the right skill from a range of available skills. It is possible that having to continuously assist a student on a continuous basis will destroy the flow of a class and disadvantage all within it especially in upper range classes.

Assessment is the next criteria. Assessment supports teacher judgement not the other way around. To stream purely on assessment is a recipe for disaster. This is especially true for students riding the end of their ability curve and coasting or loafing. These students, when they hit the wall and finally need to study can be hurt, confused and looking for those to blame for their lack of performance. If these students have not been properly coached before the 'big drop' in results, they can drop morale in a class at a rapid rate. Sometimes (especially in this case or the case where students are having external difficulties) it is best to ignore assessment and use the first two criteria to stream students.

Social justice is the final criteria and it has to be very carefully applied. An injudicious use of social justice to students when streaming will produce weak streams and deprecate the benefits of streaming. Just because a student has a legitimate reason for underperforming does not mean that in time a student will perform. Some say that streaming a class is a social justice issue in itself but watching students being unable to complete work that the rest of the class is working on and suffering self esteem issues or dumbing a class down to the lowest common denominator is not a solution to my mind.

The hardest part of establishing a stream is that it is not an exact science. A student performing at an optimum level with one teacher may not perform at all with another (this is especially true with boys). When creating a stream (especially in small class sizes) team dynamics play a large part - if you can create a team of peers and the teacher anything is possible. It's why I think traditionally the upper classes have been sought after - despite requiring the most skill to make work - they are the ones where there has been most flexibility in construction.

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