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

What do we lose when everyone wins?

We won’t grow resilient kids if we only talk about resilience.

Kids need to experience struggle, setbacks and failure if they are going to develop the skillset and mindset to be resilient.

If a child only ever experiences success,

then we as adults have failed.

This is the topic of my latest #OffCampus segment for the Teachers Educational Review podcast.

Check it out here:

What’s happening in School?


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