Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My two cents on class sizes

Class sizes are a hot topic right now. Kate Gainsford, PPTA President and teacher, wants class sizes to become at election issue. In contrast, Education Minister Ann Tolley, who has no real experience or understanding of education, just spouts off whatever John Hattie tells her, and unfortunately he has told her that class sizes aren’t a priority. This blog post will briefly explore why class size does matter and why governments should reduce class sizes for teachers. 

I know that John Hattie’s work has shown that reducing class sizes has minimal effect on the achievement outcomes of students. I do understand his research; it’s really interesting research, and I can actually relate on a personal level to his findings about class sizes because the two most challenging, stressful classes I ever taught had less than 20 students in each of them. But when Hattie looks at student achievement he doesn’t actually look at teacher welfare in relation to student achievement, and I do believe that taking teacher welfare into consideration is a fundamental aspect of a good education system.

Below are three major reasons why, in my opinion, class size does matter, and why classes in both primary and secondary schools should be capped at 25 students:

1)      Marking. A teacher who has 35 students compared to a teacher who has 25 students in their English class has a lot more marking to do. Marking takes time, so the larger the class, the more marking there is to do in each assessment. This means that teachers are less inclined to run assessments, such as formatives, and they are also more likely to spend their non-contacts and planning time (and evenings and weekends) marking, as opposed to planning. Ah assessment, you always seem to pop up in my blog posts, grrr.

2)      Feedback. Right at the top of Hattie’s effect sizes table is feedback; feedback is the most important factor in improving student achievement. But how good a quality feedback can a teacher actually give each student when they have five classes of 30-35 students? In a secondary school, period times are 50 minutes to an hour long. That’s not enough time to give students daily, individualised, verbal feedback. Similarly, there are only 24 hours in a day, and that’s not enough for the teachers of those classes to give high quality, written feedback for every student, every day because teachers have to eat and sleep and organise finances and families, just like everyone else. Having taught classes of both 35 and 20 (and everything in between), I can honestly say that I’m much more likely to be inclined to give quality feedback on a regular basis for a smaller-sized class.

3)      Last, but definitely not least: Teacher workload. Teachers are over-worked, so why do governments wish to make teacher workloads even bigger with even more students to educate and assess in each class? Do we actually want teachers to have mental breakdowns?! Do we really want to drive out people from the profession who are passionate about educating young people?!? Because when governments under-fund schools to the point where a school has 35 Year 13 students sitting in an English class, those amazing teachers who for so long have struggled so stay on top of their workload will go elsewhere for a job - possibly to a richer, more well-resourced (possibly private) school, where class sizes are smaller - or they will leave the profession, because there’s only so much stress a human body can actually take.

I know there are numerous other reasons why class sizes are important (for example, guaranteeing authenticity of students’ work for one – I realised this yesterday, whilst discussing plagiarism with lovely teacher friends; how likely are you to pick up on a student who has plagiarised their Level 3 research report when there are 35 students in your class? Less likely that if you have 20 students in the class… Also, which schools actually have classrooms with space for 35 desks? I bet there isn’t one school in the entire country with 35 computers in a computer lab…) and I could go on and on and on, but I won’t because super-lengthy blog posts are quite annoying and I believe in the art of being concise (heh).

So, there’s just a few reasons why class size counts. Obviously, Tolley has no empathy nor respect for teachers; Hattie possibly does but his research doesn't really show it, and Gainsford is working hard in the fight for both teachers and students.

I know who I won’t be voting for this election.

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