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Views: Removing streaming will benefit all students

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Mixed ability classes will likely lead to students who won't think they are not good enough

Significant change is on the horizon for the Singapore education system.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said secondary school streaming will end in 2024. It will be replaced by subject-based banding.

Mr Ong said streaming was implemented in the 80s to mitigate the huge number of dropouts who could not read or write by the end of primary school.

Singapore's education and literacy rates have come a long way since then, with little need now for streaming examinations and education to be based on students' individual pace of learning.

Subject-based banding allows students to take different levels of subjects based on their strengths.

While streaming may not allow students who develop later to take classes that challenge them, subject-based banding will combine what learners find enjoyable with what they also find difficult.

Choice is an incredible motivator for teens and one many academics have referenced. A study of Japanese high schools noted that involving students in content and class choices allows them to feel more mature and independent, and to take ownership of their learning.

Allowing teenagers to have choice in their learning raises motivation, ownership of the learning goal, and ability to reflect, which are all necessary aspects of successful learning.

Streaming can be demoralising, leading to self-fulfilling prophecies where students believe they cannot achieve and eventually do not.

For example, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar, an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC and a former mathematics teacher, recently spoke of how it broke her heart when one student said: "We cannot do maths. We're Normal Tech."

No student at 15 should feel they are incapable of learning, and this certainly was not the intention of streaming when it was introduced.

With further studies on growth mindsets and the powerful belief that intelligence is not fixed, students do not need to only learn at their assessed level.

Stanford University's Carol Dweck, who studied the differences between mindsets, said it is the difference between asking yourself: "Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet?"

Too often streaming causes children to believe they are not smart enough. Instead, mixed ability classes where students are generally unaware of exam results, are more likely to lead children to think, "I haven't achieved this yet, but I will".

When students are motivated, they will believe in their abilities. If students are motivated to come to school, they will learn better.

If they are in school more, they will learn more. If they feel comfortable to ask their peers when they have questions, they will understand more. If they understand more, they will do better academically.

This kind of learning is called hidden curriculum - the knowledge or skills that are passed to students inadvertently - and impacting it is difficult.

However, creating positive social environments not based on current abilities but the belief in the student's potential abilities furthers a growth mindset.

It is not only students who are affected by streams.

A common academic principle, the Pygmalion effect and its adverse, the Golem effect, notes how teachers also treat students they believe to be weaker or stronger differently.

Low expectations lead to a decrease in performance, while students internalise positive labels and succeed accordingly.

Putting students of different abilities in the same class may occasionally be difficult for students and teachers, but ultimately all students benefit.

We practise this at the British Council and have consistently seen good results.

The MOE changes will lead to more motivated, engaged and successful secondary students ready to enter tertiary education and the workforce.

The writer is head of secondary courses at the British Council in Singapore. The British Council is Britain's international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities.