What’s the best class size?

Answer: about 2 acres with a beach, a woodland and a vegetable plot but  no height limitation! Many a truth told in jest but most seeking an answer to this question are thinking in terms of numbers, as if children are numbers. For the secondary teachers’ union, ASTI, the number 5 and multiples thereof seem to be the perfect number according to the union’s website. Strange, particularly since if children ever get the chance to collaborate and share ideas, one would expect an even number to be more practical. Four is a more complete and whole number but perhaps the teachers’ union are looking at it from the teachers’ point of view, not the children’s…

Do numbers matter or are attitudes to learning more consequential? The facilities, the environment being bright and cheery, using colourful books rather than dull monotone black and white books, how well fed and rested the child is,- or buzzed up on caffeine drinks and coloured sweets, if they walk to school or not, whether the mother, being an ambitious and pushy mother has her five year-old up since 6am practising the HPAT every morning till the child is drained of interest for learning and full of resentment, the competence of the teacher and the teacher’s preparation for class are surely more significant than the numbers game?

Guy Claxton (What’s the Point of School? p.44) says class size is not a magic bullet for raising standards (and nor is streaming/setting). Class size doesn’t matter until we get down to about 15 per class which is not economically viable except in some private schools.

Malcolm Gladwell (David and Goliath, p.55ff) quotes economist Eric Hannshek’s The Evidence on Class Size as being definitive although many studies say class size mattes, as many say they don’t while others are non-conclusive. Hannshek concludes there is no reason to believe there is any consistent relationship between class size and achievement.

Gladwell concludes with the original comment that class size only matters if teachers change their teaching techniques accordingly as class size reduces, but human nature being what it is, teachers merely end up doing less work!

What’s more interesting is that economists are the ones deciding what’s good about class size. I had the impression we had too much economics in education already but maybe I’m wrong… What is also interesting is that much of the debate is teacher-centric, not pupil-centred and is teaching focused rather than learning focused.

Sara Mosle writing in the New York Times cites a survey by the journal Education Next and Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance that found that 42 per cent of teachers would gladly accept a $10,000 raise to forgo a three-student reduction in class size. Yet perhaps more striking, 47 per cent of teachers said they would turn down this substantial pay increase to have just three students fewer in class.

Reducing class size for those needing extra help may be beneficial but for many others, as shown in the Brookings Institute research, spending on class size reduction didn’t pay.

Whatever the best scenario is, no-one has mentioned that once students leave classes, no matter what size, they can end up in university lecture halls overflowing with students to the point that many attend lectures outside the lecture hall. Cope with that!

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