Class size doesn't matter – Yeah Right

By Michael Edmonds 19/02/2011

An article in the Christchurch Press today repeats the, in my opinion, flawed suggestion that class size doesn’t matter in our schools. This claim by Professor John Hattie of Auckland University will no doubt draw criticism from those at the coal face of New Zealand’s education system – school teachers.

In the Press article they give the example of a school in Norfolk which has grouped all year 3 students into a class of 70 students. However, this class has two teachers and three teacher aides affording a staff to student ratio of 1 to 15. Hardly a fair example, when the intention of the current government seems to be to increase the number of students per teacher.

While I haven’t had the opportunity to look more closely at Professor Hattie’s research, the examples in the Press describe schools in Japan and Korea having up to 50 students per class. However, the substantially different culture and attitude to education in these countries has to be considered in trying to translate any such approach to New Zealand. In New Zealand school teachers are often expected to deal with the behavioural issues of one or more students in their classes as well as actually teaching. Furthermore, the rules and responsibilities of teachers in New Zealand will differ from those in other countries.

Previously, I posted about education in New Zealand (here), including a video clip from Sir Ken Robinson, a leading proponent for change in the UK education system to encourage creativity and innovation, and to nurture the unique talents of individual students. It seems to me that increasing class size only maintains a production line approach to education – churning out students who make do with their ration of education and most leaving school uninspired and uninterested, while those who don’t fit the status quo fall by the wayside.

Surely if we have any hope of producing a better future for New Zealand it would be by providing an education system which gives students time with enthused and energised teachers who allow children to develop to their full potential?

0 Responses to “Class size doesn't matter – Yeah Right”

  • I think there is a danger in some interpretations of Hattie’s research: potentially it can be seen as reducing teaching into a series of unrelated interventions. It is true (according to Hattie) that class size has half the average effect on learning, but it is also true that teacher-student relationships have the 11th greatest influence on student learning. If a classroom teacher has too large a class it is impossible to develop meaningful relationships with students, so for me these two effects are clearly linked. Consider these interventions independently at your peril.

  • My recollection is that when you ask teachers what the optimum class size is the average is 5 less than they are currently teaching, and they can name them 🙂

    • Simon, you’ve identified one of the challenges of teaching – that there are often a few students who occupy a disproportionate amount of a teachers time, sometimes due to behavioural or learning issues. As class sizes get bigger teachers lose that ability to spend time one these students and they are more likely to fall through the cracks of the education system. Larger classes could possibly work if these students could be diverted into classes that better meet their needs, however, I doubt this current government would see this as an option given it requires more resources (and to be fair previous governments have typically left such services under-resourced.
      And while most teachers will joke about it in the way you have described, I think most of them are sad when they can’t reach these more challenging students because they don’t have the time or the resources.

  • Stephen, Michael – exactly. When I was a classroom teacher, my junior classes (years 9-10) were all around 30. In a 50-minute period I would have had no more than 90 seconds of ‘quality time’ with each chind – IF that was all I did, move around and interact with each of them. But of course, there are a lot of other, conflicting demands on your time in the classroom. I’d like to think I was a good teacher, and I did my best to give everyone in each class the best science education that I could deliver, but equally I know (& was saddened by that knowledge at the time) that I probably wasn’t having all that great an impact in some cases.
    And yes, the relationships & interactions between teacher & students are extremely important. Good relationships –> better outcomes, & such relationships are hard to nurture on <90 seconds a day.

  • In Guy Claxton’s “What’s the Point of School” he references some research that shows that class size is only a significant factor if it is reduced to under 15 students per teacher.

    This makes the debate over the difference between one or two (or even three or four or more) in the twenties as pretty much a waste of time. The only way that we will make a real difference in student learning outcomes with class sizes, according to this research, is by very drastically reducing the numbers.

    I think it would inspire teachers if they won a victory in reducing class numbers by say 4. Their renewed enthusiasm in being backed by the government in their profession would result in more goodwill time and effort from teachers (bringing better results in students). It could result in more burn out as teacher energy resources are over-tapped though…