Friday, February 7, 2014

Does size matter?

This was written by John Scammell who taught high school math for 18 years before becoming a high school math consultant. He blogs here and tweets here. This post was originally found here.

by John Scammell

Defining my terms:

A columnist is someone who writes for publication in a series, creating an article that usually offers commentary and opinions.

A journalist collects, writes, and distributes news and other information, while refraining from bias.

An Edmonton Journal columnist, one who could never be accused of even partially refraining from bias, has been arguing that class size reduction efforts in Alberta have been a waste of money. He cites research and even quotes the head of PISA(sounding dangerously like a journalist), but then conveniently leaves out relevant details that would contradict his argument (he is, after all, a columnist).

Some high performing countries (according to PISA) have larger class sizes than we do. The obvious conclusion is that we should increase class sizes, right? Not so fast, Mr. Biased Columnist. It’s only a logical conclusion if you ignore other all the other factors at play.

Currently, the norm in high schools in Alberta is to have teachers teach 7 out of 8 blocks. That means each semester I see four unique classes of around 35 students, for a total of 140 students per semester. I get an 80 minute preparation period every other day. Because of the already large class sizes, I spend most of my preparation time creating and grading assessments. Very little of my preparation time is spent on actually thinking about how to teach my material better.

Mr. Biased Columnist points out that places like Finland, Korea, Singapore (among others) have class sizes that are larger than in Alberta, and still perform better on PISA (this is fact). What he deliberately neglects to tell us (Logical fallacy of Omission – Stacking the Deck) though, is that teachers in those countries spend far less time in front of students than we do in North America. From the Singapore Ministry of Education:
The workload of our teachers varies across the year, depending on whether it is peak or non-peak periods. Over the entire year, our teachers teach, on average, about 15 hours per week. To deliver classroom teaching effectively, teachers also spend approximately twice as much time on teaching-related duties such as preparing for lessons, providing remediation for weaker students, setting and marking of homework and examinations.
They spend double their assigned time on teaching related duties compared to time spent teaching. I spend 1/8 of my assigned time on teaching related duties compared to time spent teaching.

Singapore has secondary classes in the neighbourhood of 40 students, but based on what I read above, they would only see two of those a day. That’s a total of 80 students per semester, which is far fewer than we see each semester in Alberta. In addition, the Ministry of Education in Singapore indicates:

Some schools also deploy two teachers in a class of 40 students—one teacher brings the class through the curriculum, while the other teacher assists specific students who may have difficulty understanding the materials being covered.

Wow! Singapore teachers actually have less marking to do than I do, more time built into their schedules to collaborate with colleagues and plan good lessons, AND they get to team-teach in large classes? It’s a model I’d be willing and eager to explore. Are they hiring in Singapore?

Mr. Biased Columnist suggests that good teachers will do well no matter how many students we give them. I agree. Under our current conditions, however, they will likely burn out from all the marking and management problems that large classes can bring. We don’t want to burn out our good teachers, do we? One third of new teachers in Alberta burn out within 5 years. Let’s revisit Singapore.

The annual resignation rate for teachers has remained low at around 3% over the past five years. In our exit interviews and surveys, workload has not been cited as a major reason for leaving the Education Service. Nonetheless, we will continue to monitor the workload of teachers through internal employee feedback channels to ensure that workload is maintained within reasonable levels.

Singapore has bigger classes, fewer teaching hours, more collaborative time built into their day and retains 97% of their teachers. Does class size matter? Not nearly as much as teacher collaboration built into the school day.

On a completely different vein, I do need to point out that in my travels across Alberta, I already see classrooms that were built to hold 25 students jam-packed with 40 desks. I don’t know how we can physically put more bodies into those classrooms. Are we going to build a bunch of new schools with large lecture theatres?

Some Resources I Used:

1 comment:

  1. Yes to everything, and in particular the last paragraph. Many of our classrooms in New Zealand schools were designed and built for much smaller people in the 1950s, and now we expect considerably larger people to fit into the same space. We also expect them to be much more interactive than they were back then. And have book corners, etc etc. Which is of course how it should be. But....No room, no room!

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