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Tag: Barzun

Big isn’t better, better is better

We spent quite a bit of time in the 1960s singing “When will they ever learn…?” and I find myself humming it again quite a lot lately.

I have just read a recent Malcolm Gladwell (he of Tipping Point and Outliers and What the Dog Saw fame) called David and Goliath. He pursues the view that most things conform to an inverted “U” curve in which there are clear gains for a time but then they fall off.

One of his case studies is the issue of smaller class size and its impact on student achievement, noting that dozens of countries have clear evidence that smaller classes do not impact on raising student achievement even though eventually they might. But, he suggests, that point is nowhere near being reached in most western systems.

Put another way, there is room in western systems for class sizes to be increased and for the resources that are freed up to be diverted to more focused activity that lifts teacher quality.

Of course there is screeching from certain sections of the profession about this – this too, Gladwell says, is a feature across those countries which like us have concentrated over the years in increasing the number of teachers in the system

But the sad and sorry truth of this approach is that the basis of the increase is usually through student teacher ratios. This is as blunt an instrument as you could wish for and as unfocused an approach as you might find. Pouring more teachers into a system to do more of the same work will inevitably end up with more of the same results. If you don’t believe this then simply look at what has happened in New Zealand, Australia, the US, UK and so on and so on over the past few decades.

Looking at the use of teachers in other systems might encourage us to believe that until teachers are able to work in teams and to bring different skill sets into the classroom, increasing teacher numbers is simply to throw good money after money that has been unable to effect improvement in outcomes for many students.

Furthermore, increased flexibility for students would allow approaches that are more able to allow those teachers to target students in programmes matched to the needs of the individual student.

So the incessant campaign of the teacher unions (and they have once again persuaded the Labour Party to head into an election with such a policy) seems to become an argument against lifting teacher quality (and school quality don’t forget) rather than “investing in educational success” (the Government’s words for it) through the provision of quality leadership from our best teachers and principals. It was interesting to see a recent media poll that showed that vox populi was siding with the quality side of the issue rather than the class size position.

Jacques Barzun captured something of this in his argument that “teacher competence is not the issue, competent teachers doing the wrong thing is.” That sums up the issue somewhat. Throwing increased numbers of competent teachers at the system will not effect improvement unless there are changes to what those competent teachers do. Wasting such an opportunity by lowering class size defies both belief and the evidence.

History is larded with examples of great teachers working with large numbers of students – but often this reflected idiosyncratic character and/or approaches. Universities would claim to be able to effectively teach huge numbers but schools are different. School systems are measured not by their performance at the top achievement levels but by their success in giving all students equitable outcomes. Ironically, school systems are regarded for both achievement and equity – that’s an unpalatable truth for some in New Zealand. But it is a truth.

Last week I saw classes of 50-60 students being taught with purpose and enjoyment. There was not enough furniture to go around so a third of the class sat on the floor. The teaching was lively and I sensed that learning was occurring. Where was this? Samoa. This is seldom seen in New Zealand and that might be a good thing. But perhaps our best teachers should be supported to have more reach than the ratio-allotted number.

But as I have often said – in these issues the truth is in the middle, at the top of Gladwells’ inverted-“U” curve. Class size could easily be increased under certain conditions and for positive reasons but they can’t get huge.

Everyone knows that.