Monday, March 05, 2007

streaming and intellectual discrimination

Recently, Trisha talked about the topic of streaming, and Piper has talked about how everybody wants to have their say about education, and how it should be done.

I would like to talk about streaming too. When streaming is discussed in public discourse, there usually are very few pro-streaming views. Perhaps everyone who saw Jack Neo's I Not Stupid will agree that our education system and its streaming policies are responsible for promoting academic elitism and the social stigmatization of academically weaker students.

If streaming is so intrinsically bad in the first place, why then does MOE implement streaming in the first place? Perhaps some people would be quick to sarcastically cry "Meritocracy!" After all, our government wants to create elites because it is the elites who will be our future leaders, and streaming is part of that process to identify and separates the elites from the peasants. Although I suspect there is some truth in that assertion, as mentioned by Piper (in the comments thread), there are also good pedagogical reasons for streaming.

For a teacher, it is easier, and more effective to teach a class of students who are approximately of the same academic aptitude, then to teach a class with a very wide range of academic abilities. The weaker students will have difficulty catching up if the class is taught at a pace catered to the rest, and the stronger students will become bored and unmotivated if the pace of the class is catered to the weaker students. Someone noted to me that most of the critics of streaming have never seen a normal (technical) or a normal (academic) class during an actual classroom lesson before, and have never experienced how much a teacher struggles just to keep the class in order, and still yet have to finish a teaching a fixed portion of the syllabus within that class period. (Perhaps Piper can share some of her experiences?) It also makes pedagogical sense for weaker students to study a simplified syllabus, given that a teacher needs to spend more time to get through the same amount of academic material for weaker students. And also, if weaker students take the same tests and exams as the stronger students, they will inevitably just get horrible grades, and this too does not do wonders of the students' self-esteem.

But how about elitism and social stigmatization? Yes that is a real issue, just like WSM was a real phenomenon. But streaming is not the only factor behind this issue. Streaming labels students as "Gifted", "Express", "Normal (Academic)" or "Normal (Technical)", but perhaps it is not so much the labels themselves which causes elitism and social stigmas, but it is our attitudes towards such labels.

Streaming or not streaming, there will be some individuals who qualify for University and some individuals who don't. There will be some individuals who will be more bright, and some individuals who will not be as bright. I absolutely believe that there are different kinds of intelligences. I also believe that someone who appears "stupid" may in fact be extremely gifted in other kinds of intelligences. I also believe that academic grades may not be the best metric for intelligence. All absolutely true. But if you claim that "No one is stupid. Everyone is equally intelligent, just intelligent in different ways.", then I think you are fooling yourselves and that is a lie you tell yourself because you don't have to deal with the word "stupid".

In the same sense, the claim "there are no differences between races" is a lie so that we don't have to deal with racism, and in reality this lie just exaggerates the problem. In the same way, this issue is really about discrimination. "Intellectual discrimination", if you will. Yes, being academically bright will give you a higher chance to succeed in society, than if you are not so. But is this sufficient reason for us to treat intelligent individuals as if they are superior human beings, and not so intelligent individuals as inferior beings?

Imagine this scenario: there is still streaming in schools, but all the individuals involved (parents, teachers and fellows students) treat "normal (technical)" students with the exact same kind of respect and love as "gifted" students. In such a scenario, will the "gifted" student grow up to be elitist? Will the "normal (technical)" students grow up feeling inferior about themselves?

Perhaps some might say: students are still young. It is only natural for young students to feel superior and prideful about themselves if they are academically brighter, and it is only natural for academically weaker students to feel inferior about themselves. That may be true, but I believe it is precisely because they are so young, their attitudes toward others and about themselves are the most malleable. Recall the movie I Not Stupid. When the EM1 kids bullied the EM3 kids, did you think the EM1 students were more to blame, or was it the teachers and the parents, who themselves looked down on the EM3 kids, who failed to prevent the EM1 students from developing such attitudes, or perhaps even encouraged such elitism through the display of their own attitudes?

I am not saying it is okay to call children or students "stupid". I think it is not. That is because "stupid" is no longer just a descriptive word, but a derogatory one. You cannot call someone "stupid" without insulting them. I believing that there are individuals who are more intelligent than other individuals, and we should not deny this fact. But I think we should never use the word "stupid" to label those less intelligent, since such a label is nothing but destructive.

If the real problem behind social stigmatization and elitism is not the labels conferred upon students by streaming but instead, how we choose to react to such labels, then are we not pushing the blame to something else when we criticize streaming for being the cause of such problems? Are we, and not the system, the ones to blame?


yanjie said...

I agreed with what you said about the students feeling prideful and inferior.

If those around them, parents, relative and teacheres were to keep their attitude in check when they are in EM1 or to encourage them so that they wouldn't feel inferior when they are in EM3, we wouldn't have such problems.

Then again, such "show-off" behaviour is deep-set in their family. How many times have we heard housewives showing of their kids if they won something or entered GEP? What are they transmitting to their kids?

kwayteowman said...

Well said. There are good reasons for streaming.

The current problems with streaming are a result of two key problems:
(a) systemic problems in the implementation (it's not easy lah); and
(b) the laupokness of our people. :-P

Some people need to look in the mirror. :-)

piper said...

Both the system (and how it encourages such discrimination etc) and us are to blame.

Have to study now so perhaps I shall take up your invitation to write later. :)

z29 said...

My wife is a sec sch teacher with both normal and express classes, so she told me....

Streaming also makes students perceive themselves as either smarter or "less smart", so they adjust their behaviour in class accordingly (such as playing truant, not doing homework, failing tests or exams on purpose, etc.) to fit that perception.

Schools worry about ratings, so some discourage normal students from taking 'O' levels, since they are likely to pull down overall result of school. Idea was to let normal students finish their 'N' levels and leave the school (at least the school my wife was in, now she change already).

Fearfully Opinionated said...

Dear all,

Thank you for commenting. Those of you who suspect that I am simplifying the issue is quite right. There was originally a second part to this article, but I thought this post was long enough liao, so decided to write the second part later. Nevertheless, the main purpose of this article is to point out there is a very strong aspect of us (society's views) which is at fault, and not just the system.

You are quite right. But it is precisely such attitudes of parents we should be discouraging.

you're alive!! we all thought you got buried underneath too much chow tar kway teow. Nice article on SA. Good for people like me, who know nuts about budget. =)

Please write. The views of an actual teacher will be held in much higher regard than some young punk like me. =) But also study lar. Later your students say "cher tell us to stardee but herself never stardee one." =P

You've raised a good point. This is called the rosenthal effect. Mr Wang talked about it some time ago. Partly because of this, and partly because of the problems in implementation, I'm not quite as sold on streaming in primary school, although I think it is somewhat a necessary evil in secondary school.

I think what you said about the school administration is true and may be a serious problem for many schools. I suspect some teachers (Piper?) might have more to say about this. I'll try to talk about this in my next post on education.

kwayteowman said...

Fearfully Opinionated,

Thanks for your warm wishes. The KTM is still alive (but only barely surviving lah). ;-P Maybe things will improve by next week?

You know nuts about the Budget? That makes two of us. :-P

The Budget this year is so confusing that it's amazing that we have people out there claiming that it's "good ah, best budget I have ever seen".... Not that the KTM thinks it's bad lah, but would be good if someone can exprain why it's GOOD, SO GOOD. Mr Brown is hilarious. Hehe. :-P

Siti Aisyah said...

hi, I'm currently doing an essay on streaming, and am glad to come across some finely discussed points in your blog. Do hope you wont mind if I could use you as one of my references in my essay. Thanks. ;)

wilson said...


Understanding that such streaming also leads to discrimination at times. Therefore, is there anyone who has got any suggestion in how we can solve such issue(s)?