Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Education and WHY are we obsessed about class sizes?


Just lately I have been corrupted by watching a bit of TV. Lateline and QandA.  http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3546943.htm You can watch it here.
All heady stuff and it sent my trigger fingers itching for a keyboard to pound out my ideas and answer in to the question being repeatedly asked by the shadow Education minister Christopher Pyne. Now Christopher must have been in a school where class size does not matter, because of other extenuating circumstances in the academic paradigm.  To be honest there are many aspects of classroom dynamics that come into play when we discuss student learning and the quality of the education experience. There are the following just for starters:
1. Student backgrounds and how learning is perceived in the home. Is academic achievement highly valued or not?
2. Student capability and the way students learn. Students are individuals and each student is a unique individual with his or her challenges, weaknesses or strengths. A good teacher recognises that.
3. Quality teachers - meaning a teacher who is dedicated to education, knowledgeable in his or her subject area, an organised and proficient multi-tasker who is above all able to engage students in the subject and inspire them to learn. Empathy for students is a desirable quality. Not all teachers have it and a teacher can be a good teacher without it. Once I heard this comment from a student to a teacher who was leaving for another school, 'Sir, you were the bestest teacher ever. I loved your classes. We had such fun. We may not learned much. But gee, you were great. (sic)' I thought at the time, gee I am glad I did not learn with that sort of teacher. Good learning  and progress involves more than just having a good time and playing around in the classroom.
I was scared of some of my teachers and loved some. The one that taught me the most, was a calm and unflappable Art teacher called Mrs Stent. She was brilliant. I loved her.The next teacher was a doughty Scots woman called Mrs McDonall who taught us English in years nine and ten. We were scared of her. But she was great and boy, did we work in her class. You dared not slack off. I did have an English teacher in year 11 who bored me to tears. All I remember of her classes was her reading the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and thinking to myself 'Why doesn't she make it a bit fun or let someone else read?' She had a monotonous voice. We had small class sizes as I went to a small boarding school in Warwick. Our classes were 20 or less.
I have started work on an article on class sizes in the private education sector as opposed to the public sector. I have spoken with several private schools today and the research has become quite interesting. One school I spoke to has in place in years 7 - 8 class sizes of 30 that are team taught by two teachers. One of the teachers is the educational specialist, meaning that they teach English, History, Maths, Geography or Science or IT for example and the other teacher is a generalist teacher who supports the students in that class and who goes with them to a number of different classes. Thus this second teacher is then very familiar with all the students in that particular class and is able to view the students over a wide range of subjects and understand the students' individual strengths and weaknesses in a number of KLA's. I would imagine that this is a very effective model both for students and for teachers. The specialist teacher would be preparing the class learning and topics for the term for a number of classes and year levels and the other teacher who is their learning mentor would be able to assess the students' progress and challenges in several areas.
Elective subjects would be dealt with differently I imagine. They are usually smaller classes anyway by the very nature of the classes.
The student teacher ratio is then 15 students to one teacher as a general rule. This makes for very effective learning and the students are able to be guided much more effectively than if it were a class of 30 students with one teacher. Yes the quality of the teacher and the teaching or tuition quality does have the greatest impact on student outcomes and student learning, but even the best teachers will have trouble in a larger class of students without adequate support. I would be interested in how the school mentioned above does their reports.
When I teach I actually make notes on student's work both in class and on home work handed in as well as ability to handle the level of work and the workload. There are many aspects to effective teaching and I believe, I could be wrong, that it is more than just 'quality' teaching, class sizes and school populations. Good teachers in one school can be dreadful in another school. It depends on support from your colleagues and how you are perceived as well as how you interact with students and other staff members. However most good teachers are good in any setting unless they come across a supervisor who actively dislikes them and then that can be a problem for all concerned. Most mature adults can work with people they do not particularly get on with, because they understand that it is in the interests of all concerned that they do do so.
Class size is not the B all and end all of everything, but I think we must recognise that class size or more to the point, good teacher student ratios are important to student successes in learning. Students need to feel that they have the support of their teacher and are able to call on their teacher for guidance and support. If you are one teacher with a class of say 35 students and there are 34 other students competing with you for teacher attention or assistance, it becomes a nightmare for the teachers and the students, especially when there are students with learning difficulties in that class along with students who need to be challenged. One of the hardest classes I have ever taught had six boys (who the head teacher of the English faculty described as 'Oh Ilana, these boys are the lowest in the Standard English class. Lights are on but nobody home, if you know what I mean.' I didn't understand, so maybe my lights were on but nobody home too.) She gave me these six boys doing the HSC Standard English plus four students doing a Life Skills course to teacher along side each other. Life Skills is a separate course for students who find the Standard English course beyond their capability. Now there I had only 10 students but they were doing two different courses. I complained and was told that I was probably not a good teacher if I could not handle that situation. I could not and left. As soon as I left, they dumped the six boys back in the Standard English Class and gave the Life Skills people to the so called Literacy Advisor who knew nothing about literacy.
I would rather teach the one course to 20 plus students and work on my teaching strategies and style to ensure that all students' abilities were catered for by the mode of instruction, activities planned and assessment tasks than teach two completely different courses to 10 students concurrently. It can be done at higher learning levels but definitely not for the needier students who need more teacher time and instruction one on one.
I would be interested in feedback from people with regard to their educational experiences. What do you think makes a good teacher and what is a bad teacher from your experience? You do not have to leave a name. I am just interested and willing to learn from your experiences.

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