The stigma of labels

By Greg Whitby, 10 October 2018


Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

A parent told me recently that her son had been in the “lowest maths class” for two years and that despite putting in the effort and making learning gains, he had not been moved into the “intermediate” class.

One of the reasons given by the teacher was that Lincoln* had not completed all his worksheets and his handwriting was messy. Being in the lowest maths group had become such an issue for Lincoln that towards the end of last year, his mother said he had begun to lose interest in school.

As Lincoln described it, everyone in his year knew who was in the lowest and who was in the advanced maths classes.

What benefit is there to streaming students in school apart from making the work of teachers easier?

The process of streaming students into advanced or intermediate classes, or for academic or vocational pathways, doesn’t broaden learning opportunities for students – it actually narrows them.

There are social implications of separating and labelling students, particularly in primary school, where the capabilities and developmental aspects of the child are not fully identified.

In high performing nations like Finland and Canada (and also in many Australian schools), students are not streamed according to tested ability.

The same content is delivered to all students but teachers are able to tailor lessons to suit the individual needs of each learner and then provide additional support based on what is happening during the lesson.

And the measure of achievement should be each student’s learning gain, not on how neat their handwriting is or their score on a test conducted last term.

In one high school that moved from streaming students to having mixed ability classes, teachers reported that students often in the “lowest class” were able to pick up concepts much faster than the advanced students because lessons weren’t designed around keeping the lowest level students at the lowest level.

Every student is capable of being challenged, not just the “brightest” ones.

What is clear, especially to students like Lincoln, is that streaming stigmatises and this can carry over well into adulthood.

It is possible to challenge every student in mixed ability classes, even the very capable and gifted students. Our world is a diverse one; our classrooms should be the same.

*Not his real name

Greg Whitby

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta


Greg Whitby is the Executive Director of Schools - Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta
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