Op Ed

The importance of class size?

Greg Cairnduff, M Ed, BA, Dip Ed, MACE,

Deputy Managing Editor

14 September 2014

The question of class size is one of those age old questions that have long been the subject of debate among educators, parents, school administrators, and school planning authorities. At the core of these debates is the endeavour to get the best out of limited resources for education.

Much has been written and researched on this subject.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s fifth and most recent book, David and Goliath, subtitled Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants [Penguin, London 2013], the Canadian – English author, journalist and staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine, explores how disadvantage can bring about advantage and conversely, how an advantage can be a disadvantage. The book is peppered with interesting and powerful examples, many of which can be imported into education. For example, he cites the example of a poor working class family, where the parents instill into their children the need to be thrifty and not to take for granted the basic necessities of life for granted. For instance, the father brought his children up not to waste electricity, insisting lights should not be left burning in unoccupied rooms. Gladwell looks at the successful move on the children to more prosperous life styles achieved by the children of that family. When one for them becomes very successful in the movie industry, whose children want for nothing, their father laments their lack of appreciation of what they have, and their inability to understand the value of money.

Here in Thailand, I am sure Gladwell’s premise that disadvantage can sometimes be an advantage, may be seen in the happiness and joy of living that comes from some of the poorest communities of the North East of the country. A Thai educator friend of mine one said to me that Esan does not have to worry about the economic term gross domestic product, because they have gross domestic happiness. I know this may be a liberal generalization of the point being made by Gladwell but the strong family ties and family loyalty and personal support found in poorer parts of a country or a city, do tend to show up the fragility of family bonds in more affluent areas.

In my last editorial, I recommended Gladwell’s book Outliers, as being useful to educators; I would recommend David and Goliath also not only for its insights into advantage and disadvantage that are very useful for teachers, but particularly for the discussion on class size which explored in the book.

What is a class size that produces optimum learning opportunities for children? Is it better to have small classes or is it better to have large classes? The jury is out on exactitude with regards to this question.

School populations grow and decline according to a range of socio- economic factors. It would be true to say that most parents would want their child to be as small a class as possible, in the belief that a small class is a better class for learning. In the West, and in Asia, efforts have been made to reduce class sizes in USA, the UK, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, all believing that smaller classes would lead to better learning outcomes, as students in small classes get more attention from their teachers. Using schools in Connecticut, USA where there happened to be swings in class sizes caused by rapidly changes demographics due to real estate prices going up, economist Caroline Hoxby who was able to study the impact of smaller classes on the educational outcomes of the students[1], found that the impact of small class sizes had little or no effect on improving learning outcomes.

Gladwell’s summary of the hundreds of research studies done over the years found that in 15% of the studies examined there was an improvement in student performance, in another 20% of the studies there is no measurable improvement and that the students actually do worse in smaller classes. He goes on the cite studies on reduced class in 18 different countries and there were only two countries – Iceland and Greece where there were “nontrivial beneficial effects of reduced class sizes” [2]

I wonder what Thai teachers being urged to use child centred pedagogies would say if they were asked about their desired class size? Teachers dealing with 45 – 50 sized classes would obviously want them brought down; there would be no argument with that. What about an Australian teacher with a class on 33? I am sure that teacher would want to class to be lower.

Is there an optimum? Of course for different stages of a child’s passage through school, the best class size will vary depending on the stage of education, but teachers know that very small classes have their own challenges and can be every bit as difficult as large classes. One thing teachers need in a class is vibrant discussion and this is what students need too.

So the debate is about optimum sizes of classes for learning, Caroline Hoxby comes down on the mid 20s as a good size for middle school aged children, a size of around 25 where discussion can flourish and where the dominance of one or two students can make learning difficult for others. Her research found that teachers do not like to have classes much under 18 in the early years of secondary school.

There is no doubt that is the class sizes in Thai classrooms in secondary and primary schools were to drop, there would need to be many changes of teaching strategies from the teachers.

One such change would be the promotion of engagement and independent learning among students. This month’s article revisits the importance of questioning techniques in class rooms by looking at Five Powerful Questions teachers should ask their students.

Greg Cairnduff, September, 2014

Greg is Director of the Australian International School of Bangkok

[1] David and Goliath, Gladwell, M, p42

[2] Gladwell, p44

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