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Class Size Matters

I see a lot written about how class size doesn’t make a difference. John Hattie, I’m talking to you.

The argument seems to be that class size doesn’t make a difference because teachers still teach in the same way. If you accept this argument you must think teachers in incapable of learning. Even without a distinct change in methodology, the argument only makes sense to me if you’re comparing a class size of 25 with one of 22. But what about comparing a VCE English class size of 25 with one of 15? The argument here is usually that you need a certain number of students to ensure they benefit from mutual discussion, sharing of ideas etc. I don’t buy it.

Why do students seek out tutors? To get one-on-one help. It’s much more likely that students will get personalised attention in a class of fifteen students than in a group of 25. Not to mention the impact on teacher workload and the resultant time savings than can be used to improve teaching (collaborative planning, preparation, more time spent on providing feedback to students etc). In my experience these things matter a great deal for teachers who are prepared to use the luxury of smaller class sizes to provide more individual support to students and to improve their practice. Hattie’s research indicates that the biggest single bang for your buck in improving learning is the quality of feedback, with an effect size of 0.74. I think it’s self evident that the size of a class impacts directly on the capacity of a teacher to provide feedback to students; more time for 1:1 discussion, more time to assess and provide detailed advice on how to improve etc.

If you want evidence if this, look at the median VCE results of most small rural schools. The key driver of the impressive results in those schools is, in my opinion, the smaller class sizes and the personal knowledge of students that is typical in those settings. I’ve led a small rural school and a very large regional school. The difference in class size and teacher workload is immense. This is driven mostly by the greater amount of per student funding available in small schools, which is there to ensure students have broad curriculum access. It’s an advantage we should extend to all students by additional funding to employ more teachers.

One open question is whether you’d use that funding to reduce class sizes or to reduce the number of classes a teacher has. I’d probably be inclined towards a combination, with a focus on the latter and a good plan to ensure teachers used that additional time well for collaborative planning, moderation of student assessment, more 1:1 support for students and so on.

For more on class size I suggest you read this from David Zyngier https://journal.anzsog.edu.au/publications/9/EvidenceBase2014Issue1Version3.pdf

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