Maybe class size does matter after all?

The key to a better education system is – by all accounts – to ensure we have better teachers

Hard to argue with that isn’t it? And just for the record I’m all for enhancing teacher quality – who would argue against it? It’s just I’m not keen on the way that the phrase – teacher quality – is being used to underplay all the other factors that feed into education.

Would we be so quick to accept this statement in say Medicine?

The key to a better health system is ensuring we have better doctors. 

I doubt it.

Although of course better doctors would play their part, most of us can recognise that the health system is beset with inequities based on an individual’s geographic location, socioeconomic status and ethnic or cultural background. To simply say better doctors will fix that is simplistic.

But then again, doctors have rarely been used as political objects in the way governments and opposition use teachers.

I’m not saying that the health system isn’t political, I’m saying that the perspective is different.

I recently received an email from a teacher whose school had worked with a consultant to address the disparity between the school’s NAPLAN results and the state average.

The teacher was frustrated, as the consultant seemed oblivious to the fact that having 34 kids in kindergarten all from varying backgrounds might impact on such results down the track. According to the consultant the sole reason for the disparity was – you guessed it – the calibre of the teachers at the school.

Now it’s worth noting that the aforementioned consultant has educational researcher Prof. John Hattie on their side. Well kind of.

Prof. Hattie is purported to endorse the notion that class sizes make no difference and politicians such as our Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne uses this standpoint to play down the issues around class sizes and the inherent funding issues.

The only problem with this of course is that it isn’t that cut and dried.

In this interview Prof. Hattie is asked why he thinks class size appears to make no difference. This is his response:

Well, I think the major argument seems to be when you have teachers in class sizes, like, of 26, 27, 30 and you put them in the class sizes of, say, 18 to 23, and they don’t change what they do, that seems to be the reason why it doesn’t make a difference. So could it make a difference? Yeah, it probably could if we changed how we went about our teaching. But that doesn’t seem to happen.

Wait… what? Did you see that?

So could it make a difference? Yeah, it probably could if we changed how we went about our teaching.

Is it possible that teachers don’t change their teaching because – to be honest – they’ve never had 18-23 kids in their class?

Screen Shot 2013-02-21 at 5.41.12 PMIt’s worth noting that, whilst when looked at in isolation, Hattie’s work suggests that class sizes matter little, many of the strategies that do significantly enhance student learning could be significantly influenced by having fewer students.

Have a look at the table and see which ones aren’t reliant on or couldn’t be enhanced by smaller numbers.

Someone I follow on Twitter, but am still yet to meet in person, is Dr David Zyngier from Monash University. Earlier this year he published a study that found that – in actual fact – generally speaking smaller class sizes are better.

But crucially Dr Zyngier says, that cutting the size of classes does not need to happen in every subject or in every school.

Instead he argues for:

‘‘targeted class size reductions in the early years and in particular subjects, such as literacy and numeracy’’.

So. Where does this leave us?

Certainly not in the black and white world of class size having no impact.

Of course I have a strong desire to continually improve as a profession – both collectively and personally.

But to use the phrase teacher quality in the way many are using it at the moment, coupled with PISA scores does two things:

1. It doesn’t communicate a universally accepted vision of what a quality teacher is.

2. It serves to undermine the profession as a whole.

Sir Ken Robinson put it nicely – as he is prone to do – when he said:

Sir Ken Alienate Teachers Quote

12 thoughts on “Maybe class size does matter after all?

  1. Michael Shanahan Reply

    Of course class size does matter. It is becoming increasingly frustrating that people who do not work in the class room regularly find it necessary to tell us teachers what will work. Class size can work if all kids are equal socially, culturally, spiritually, creatively, academically and physically…….alas they are not. the exciting thing about teaching is that all the kids are different; they have different needs. Who isn’t excited about getting to know these amazing human beings on as many levels as possible. How is it possible to be as effective as required (by the experts) if there are simply too many students craving for learning.

    • Dan H Reply

      Those that can, teach.
      Those that can’t, assume the role of telling us how to!
      Thanks for your comment Michael!

  2. Di Thornton Reply

    I have watched over the years how students have been measured and found wanting and teachers measured and found wanting…..really it is the politicians who do not fund education appropriately…..with our tax dollars…..who need a measure applied to their negligence!

    • Dan H Reply

      I think they call that an election… problem is the rhetoric is so confusing around education, there isn’t any real debate that the average punter can get their head around… so around we go again…. 🙁

  3. Marky Mark Reply

    Having taught in a school with three students (yes!) and then moving back to reality, I know that there is a huge difference that class sizes can make. The reality is that the smaller the class, THE MORE WORK THERE IS ON THE TEACHER. With fewer students, the teacher can then cater for individual needs and strengths. While my workload was extremely high with three students, the rewards were similarly high. As you know your students so well, their individual gaps in knowledge become apparent very quickly.

    Dan as you said above, the vast majority of teachers have never experienced a small class! The truth is that the reality is counter intuitive, that is, smaller class = MORE work, not less work. Plus, there is usually more pressure as expectations are that you will have more time to improve the outcomes.

    My final comment is that I am continually frustrated that when students ‘fail’ it is the teacher’s fault. When students excel it has nothing to do with the teacher. I think that we should celebrate the teachers and help them to keep motivated rather than pointing the finger and blaming them.

    • Dan H Reply

      Hey Marky Mark – thanks for your comment. I appreciate it.

      I’d hate to think that you thought I was implying teachers would see having less in a class as being “less work.”

      On the contrary, I think teachers (for the most part) would welcome the challenges that you suggest above, because – at the heart of it – it gets back to why they went into teaching… to help kids.

      Cheers again,
      Dan

      • Marky Mark Reply

        Hi Dan, no I didn’t mean that at all, and I know you were not leaning that way.
        I feel in the whole argument, there is a lot of information lacking. Do parents know WHY we need smaller classes? Do the policy makers know the advantages, especially in the long term when looking at productive adults, twenty years later?
        I suspect they all tend to think that teachers want it easier, which is why I made my point. If they knew that teachers need to work HARDER then they may then realise the positive impact on the students.

  4. Teachling Reply

    It’s a no-brainer. Yes, my school leaders always quote Hattie when we push for lower class sizes each year, making statements such as “As Hattie says, rather than lower classes sizes – which have little effect – focus on practices around providing quality feedback – one of the highest effects – to your students”. Isn’t it obvious that a teacher’s ability to provide quality feedback to students increases as class sizes decrease? I could rush around giving 30 students some ill-considered, half-assed feedback; or give 18 students informed, carefully-considered and planned, quality feedback. Which would Hattie prefer? I hate when ‘research’ goes against common sense.

  5. Paul Reply

    My current class of 30 is much easier to teach than last years 17. The mix of personalities and behaviours being a big part of the problem. This year I am able to do all the things I did last year: cooking, Minecraft, gardening as well as targeted literacy and numeracy and it is easier. A big part if that is the group of students involved. I also have a teachers aide for part of the week is is a very big help.

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