To Stream or not to Stream?

To stream, or not to stream? That is the question we teachers were asked to consider. Or as Hamlet said in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: To be or not to be, that is the question.

Later, as I drove home, I remembered the day long ago when I found myself in-stream ten, where stream one was the highest-rated, and ten the lowest. It was in a huge Comprehensive School in the middle of England. 

Things weren’t going well with me; my dad was in prison, my mum was in hospital coping with a lost pregnancy, my brothers were in youth detention for misdemeanours, and my baby sisters were in foster care. I was in a children’s home, which, frankly, was a depressing experience. 

I’d been enjoying school, but now school grades had plummeted. It also didn’t help that I was being teased continually for being half Jamaican and half English.

What’s it like being in the Lowest Stream?

Into our Stream Ten class walked (I forget her name but let’s call her) Miss T, smartly dressed with a bright red lipstick smile. Miss T was very short. Most of the ‘Stream Ten’ students were taller and louder. She would try to make her voice heard, but all you could hear were students shouting above her. Poor Miss T, they wouldn’t even look at her.

Her voice wavered as she asked us to turn to page X and complete the typing exercises set out there. I turned to page X and started typing the letter f over and over till I had a full line followed by a string of F’s. I repeated with the letter J and j. Then mixed f, j, F, and J. These three exercises formed the basis for touch typing, which I repeated over and over till I had it perfect with no mistakes.

The Lowest Stream Sucks

Miss T walked up and down the rows, quietly asking students to turn to their desks and work on the exercise. Not one would do as she asked, the noise and confusion just got worse. But I closed my ears to it all and tried to concentrate on the exercise.

Miss T stopped at my desk in surprise. Oh, well done! 

I continued with the exercises each week, learning to touch type amid chaos. 

That was just one of my classes in stream ten. It was not a good time. My family had broken up. It wasn’t easy to keep going to school. I kept on and did become a typist, which at the time felt like a real achievement. 

I later learned other skills and became a cook. Eventually, I went on to become a teacher and a School Principal. Not bad for one who started to get somewhere just by focussing on a practical topic. Teachers, don’t ever give up!

To Stream? Does it work?

In my early days as a teacher, I was trained to the idea that a wide range of Students in the so-called inclusive classroom was proper. Then, one year, my school set-up streamed subject classes in Primary. I objected strongly at the time; I had come to like having my class of kids for a total program, warts and all!

Still, the streaming went ahead. And, as the saying goes, “if you can’t beat them, join them”, so I wholeheartedly got into the programme. Somewhat to my surprise, I found that the students were more willing to take risks.

High flyers can let their ability show and be challenged, without mocking or intimidation from their peers for being ‘clever’. On the other hand, students who were finding school difficult found they could enjoy lessons at their level and be challenged to improve and grow.

“If a child is in a class where other pupils are not as bright as them, the lesson can plod along at a languid pace and they will inevitably lose interest. Conversely, when other children are much faster and a pupil is still floundering with what it is they need to tackle the question, confidence can dissolve and a child can fall further behind. For a teacher, there has always been a range of different abilities within a classroom. The smaller that range, the easier it is to prepare appropriate content and activities to support learning, even when said teacher is skilled in the art of multi-tasking and differentiation!” says Tim Collins, director of admissions, Repton School, Derbyshire, UK.

But it isn’t all simple. Unfortunately, streaming can still lead to students getting labelled “Nerds” and “Dumb” – or worse! I experienced that first hand, for myself as a student. It wasn’t helpful at all.

It can happen even in a well-regulated class where ‘differentiation’ is being used. It seems that students will still end up labelling each other.

Not to Stream? Can the differentiated classroom work?

I’ve taught non-streamed, differentiated classes for many years with great success. In the differentiated classroom, a teacher adjusts the content, the learning process and the end product of his/her lessons.

We need to adjust the content for students at different levels. That does not mean making a million worksheets; one will do.

Adjusting the process is easy. In my class, I use a mix of whole group instruction in 10min mini-lessons. Practical small group tasks follow them. Between, group rotations, I inject mini-lessons, modelling risk-taking to create a whole class culture of trust.

To differentiate the product of the lesson, students can work in mixed ability or same ability groups. Sometimes I have individual students teach another student what they have learned. Reinforcing the expert (like in Jigsaw Groups) who need not be the high flyers. It sometimes pays to pre-teach the low achievers, so they become the experts of new knowledge. I have also found that high flyers like it when they get some time to themselves to work on a project at a high level.

“This diversity is an asset to everyone in the class, whatever their test results. It takes a bit more effort on the teacher’s part to provide a varied approach to learning so that all students can access the concepts covered, but this makes the learning fun and dynamic. Everyone benefits from this”, says Mary-Ann Collins, Physics teacher at Reigate Grammar, Surrey, UK.

Real-World Tasks are more important

At University, I remember one very outspoken professor who always protested if we mentioned teaching strategies, methods, or streaming to be the one correct solution! He believed that using real-world tasks was a more appropriate and compelling way to motivate student learning. Once prompted, students’ learning markedly improves. Later on, I used this approach with great success, finding that student engagement with real-world tasks does reduce off-task behaviour.

Streaming; differentiation that is not overt

We shouldn’t ban streaming as such, as the benefits to the various levels is potentially useful. But to avoid the derogatory labelling, we desperately need to improve how we incorporate streaming. I like the fact that streaming isn’t being considered for all year levels and in every subject. 

How we differentiate should not accentuate differences overtly. I believe from my own long experience, and emerging evidence that we must make sure the tasks, and the teacher instruction, and the learning experiences, are all the best they can be. That way, students in lower levels, whether in the streamed class or the differentiated class, don’t feel dumb while students in higher levels can have peak achievement. 

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I am a K-12 teacher based in Australia, originally from UK. I am happily married and love to paint, draw, sew and travel. I lived and worked for 15 years in the Pacific Islands. During that time I was Principal of a school for 5 years, training teachers, and building a school from the ground up.