Does class size really matter?

shutterstock_212523595Class size is frequently a topic for discussion by administrators and teachers. Even when we end up in a school that has lower class size averages compared to other schools, the class size issue does not always appear to go away; we perhaps do not recognize it when conditions are good.

So, why is there such a debate over class size? Firstly, student numbers in classes are perceived to be directly proportional to teacher workload. Secondly, it is claimed that when class sizes are too big teachers cannot give the same individual attention and feedback to students than if there were smaller classes. Subsequently, there is the call for smaller class sizes because this would improve teaching and learning.

Logically speaking, this makes sense but if class sizes were lowered would there be a difference in student learning and achievement outcomes? Not necessarily so, and here’s why.

John Hattie undertook a meta-analysis of factors that influence student achievement. The aim of the study was to analyze as much research as possible to rank the practices that have the biggest effect on student achievement. While his work has been criticized in some corners, we can still draw a lot from it and it is a great starting point for reflecting on what we need to do in our schools to improve student learning.

Having heard Hattie speak some years ago, he upset quite a few of my colleagues when he said that class size does not have much impact on student achievement. Of all the interventions that we could put in place to positively influence student achievement, class size had little impact when compared to other strategies. This is not what teachers wanted to hear at all. Unfortunately, policymakers also misinterpreted Hattie’s research to justify increases in class size or no reduction.

If all schools were to reduce class sizes tomorrow, while pleasing some teachers in terms of their perceived workload it could possibly have little impact on student learning for the following reasons:

  1. If professional practice is poor, the number of students in a classroom may not matter too much, as the teacher is likely to struggle and get mediocre outcomes with 15 students just as much as working with 20. Therefore, a student would be better off having a good teacher in a large class than a poor teacher in a small class.
  2. When class sizes are lower, some teachers do not modify instruction accordingly. Many of the methods used with large class sizes are not always effective with smaller groups.
  3. When it comes to individual feedback, sure, smaller class sizes would help the teacher spend more time with each individual. This, however, relies on the assumption that with small class sizes, the teacher will give more time to feedback. Even then, how do we know if the feedback is actually going to be effective?

Taking a closer examination of the contact hours teachers have with their classes as being more significant in improving student learning may actually be a better way to go than reducing class size. If teachers actually had less contact time / less classes then they can spend more time with collaborative work and professional learning that improves classroom practice. Obviously, this is difficult to do also, owing to the budgets given to schools for staffing.

In essence, if class sizes do not get reduced, there are plenty of ways we can improve, as teachers and schools, to work with the numbers. This post does not mean that class size is not important but without effective teaching it does not make much difference other than to personal workload in terms of marking and, possibly, teacher classroom management. Yes, most teachers do work very hard, administrators work hard too, but we always must ask ourselves the question, as reflective educators, are we working as smart as we work hard?

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