Does size really matter, Teach?

An inquisitive adolescent boy posed this complex question to his Sex Education teacher, “Does size really matter, Teach!”

The somewhat embarrassed young educator swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and thoughtfully postulated, “Well, that depends on a few salient factors! And those factors include who are the participants, what their skill and knowledge base is, and what the ultimate expectation is of that experience! So in short, sometimes size matters, and sometimes it does not!”

Not a bad answer for an instructor to a teenage student in an Ontario Sex Education classroom, I would say! And the very same response fits extremely well for this query about the importance of the size of learning groups in the school system, commonly referred to as Class Size.

On January 28, 2019, the Ontario Minister of Education, Honourable Lisa M. Thompson, initiated a renewed look at Class Size in Ontario schools in an effort to fund education responsibly, but hopefully getting a better bang for the taxpayers’ buck. Rumour has it that the caps on class size might be removed.

Class size quotas have been a long debated characteristic of legislation and contract negotiations by Ontario teachers, parents, students and many strong leaders in education and politics. And yet, surprisingly perhaps to a lot of us, the jury is still out on whether, across the board, blanket policies about maximum Class Size has significant bearing on learning outcomes!

Ontario now has one of the lowest student to teacher ratios among the provinces’, writes Jacquie Miller on March 3, 2019 in the Ottawa Citizen. Grades 1-3 is 23 and 90% must have 20 or less. Kindergarten is capped at 29. Grades 4-8 cannot exceed 24.5 with some exceptions and the board average for Grades 9-12 cannot be greater than 22. It should be noted that teacher ratios and class size are not the same thing, as educators not assigned to classes are also included in calculating the student teacher ratios. Hence the actual size of the teaching groups are usually higher than the ratio numbers suggest.

Research on the effects of Class Size on learning outcomes however, is fraught with problems relating to reliability and validity because the isolation of it as a causal factor is difficult to achieve. Some of these studies, despite their flaws, are frequently used to show inconclusive or little relationship between student performance and Class Size. Others are used to support keeping class sizes small.

Diane Whitmore of North Western University, in ‘Does Class Size Matter’(2014) says, "Research shows that students in the early grades perform better in small classes." This is especially true, she says, for those with disadvantaged backgrounds and minority children. It seems they continue to benefit over their entire lifetime.

In England, Peter Blatchford directed the 'Class Size and Pupil Adult Ratio’ project and found that smaller classes seemed to benefit students in the first years in primary school but that the effect disappeared as the children got older.

Sandin Mahraj writes in The Star on January 31, 2019, "There is nothing to gain from increasing class sizes."

In British Columbia, primary class sizes were increased by 10%. Three years later the British Columbia Principals, Vice Principals and School Trustee associations asked government to address the challenges of increased class sizes and lack of support for special need students. By 2016, over 80% of British Columbia’s wanted to restore the previous class size standards.

A 2018 survey of public attitudes found over 60% of Ontario residents believed that reducing primary class size was essential to positive achievement in school.

Sam Hammond, President of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, is quoted in a January, 2019 article by Global News entitled ’Ontario considers removing Kindergarten/primary class size caps’. He holds that, "Increasing class size would have a detrimental effect on the learning environment."

In a February 18, 2019, blog entitled, 'Does Class Size Matter, The Class Size Debate’, the contributor claims that the size of a class sometimes matters but that other interventions can be more cost effective to improve learning outcomes. The blog cites Professor John Hattie in ‘Visible Learning’ who also feels that the size of a class doesn’t really matter and that other factors are more important. It also refers to Andrew Schleicher of the OECD who says that it is a myth that small classes raise standards and suggests that other excellent education systems around the world invest in better teachers rather than reducing the size of the classes.

Malcolm Gladwell in his 2013 book 'David and Goliath’ reports that 77% of Americans think it is better to lower class sizes than to increase teachers’ salaries. He cites a Tennessee Project done in the 1980’s which found ‘inconclusive results’ when primary classes were lowered to 20 or under over a 4 year period. He also reports on studies by the Educational Endowment Foundation which found evidence unclear about the value of reducing class size until the number of students was 20 or under. The other variables of significance were whether the teacher actually changed the teaching approach and then whether the students changed their learning behaviour.

Gladwell says that professional teachers themselves feel that large class size can impact learning negatively but that very small classes can affect group dynamics and learning negatively, as well. He believes that high needs students do better in smaller classes and that ‘the optimal class size will vary according to the makeup of the class and the various learning needs of the students.’

Several of my own experiences as a career teacher in elementary schools in Ontario reflect the realities of the front line, and give credence to many of these findings.

As a young itinerant music teacher I was required to instruct 41 grade one youngsters for 40 minutes three times a week. Trying to keep 41 little ones involved for 40 minutes in my subject where there was no opportunity for independent activities while many needed individual tone matching to help them learn to sing in tune was an incredibly difficult, almost impossible task as you can imagine. Coping with a prescribed period that was well beyond the attention span of 6 year olds and needing to spend several minutes daily with many youngsters one on one, while the other 40 sat there waiting, made 41 in the class far too many.

In this job, class size was an important issue because of the one on one instruction required by a single teacher and the inability of the participants to do much independently, in this particular subject, while that assistance was provided to the children who needed it.

At the same time I ran a mixed choir for grades 4-8, and had to use a regular classroom with 35 desks, a piano and approximately 50 children. I had no trouble at all managing the practices with that size of group because all the participants could focus for 40 minutes by age 9, were interested in the activity and wanted to be there. As well,a choir is instructed as one unit with the varying subsections learning their harmonizing parts. The choir conductor actually needs a large group to get a full sound and everyone benefits by hearing the others learn to sing their parts, at the same practice.

The challenge here was not the size of the group but the size of the space I was expected to do it in!

In another job I had 24 grade 8 students, a very small class indeed in those days. However the range of age, background, knowledge and skill of the students spanned likely 4-5 years with the youngest being 12 and the oldest being 16. As a first year 19 year old teacher, this class was a very real challenge for me .

The number in the class was not the issue here but the age range, the complexity of the group on so many variables, and my own inexperience and immaturity as the teacher.

Another year, I was team teaching with a talented experienced primary teacher in an open concept school. We were assigned 60 third graders as one group for the two of us. Children with special needs were taught in small separate classes with specially trained teachers at that time. We had a relatively homogeneous group in a good neighbourhood with no significant “discipline problems”. We had a flexible expandable space for group work, work centres and quieter areas off to the side for small group instruction by one teacher. In this situation one of us could handle all 60 at times for some activities and subjects taught in particular ways. For example a social studies class where we presented a film on the fishing industry in the Maritimes followed by a note making exercise could easily be done with 60 children while the second teacher accomplished tasks such as marking, planning, or classroom decoration. However, in a Language or Mathematics class one of us usually took out 5-10 weak students to teach individually or in a very small group, while the other successfully handled the other 50 or so who had reasonable focus, decent grade level academic skills and average to superior ability to learn in the subject.

In this case, we were able to have a small group for those who needed it with one teacher and a large group for those who could handle working in groups independently or focusing easily in a large group presentation by a second teacher. Hence the class size of 60 was not much of a variable for learning performance. As well, this group of youngsters had two experienced, competent, hard working teachers who loved their jobs and tried to alter the delivery methodology regularly according to the needs of the participants.

In another position, I recall classes running at about 30-35 in the Junior division in a good economic neighbourhood before the implementation of “Inclusion” of special needs children in regular classes. Streaming was popular then and this school had three grade four classes, three grade five groups and two sixth grade groups and a fifth-sixth grade split. As the itinerant librarian teacher I had each group for one or two periods a week, mainly to cover the classroom teacher who needed planning time. I was involved with every teacher, much classroom programming and dealt with every child.

The classes where all the children were strong learners were a breeze, as one could do anything one wanted with them and it was a real pleasure instructing this kind of group. Their teachers were happy, healthy and loved their jobs. The classes where the children were more or less average were moderately challenging but with correct programming, and more guidance were still a pleasure to teach. Their teachers were happy, healthy and liked their jobs.

The third grouping of weak students, for all the myriad of reasons students do poorly at school still had the same class size but the group was a horse of a different colour, as they say. Many of the children hated school, many could not read or write adequately to work on their own and many, looking back, likely had undiagnosed learning disabilities and emotional and behavioural special needs. As I recall, the very experienced and well qualified teachers of these classes were all on stress medication, took sick days regularly which they absolutely needed, and were obviously unhappy in their jobs. They often started on Monday counting the days each week until Friday, remarked often on the number of days we had until the next holiday, and expressed often to others how long they had to go until their retirement date!

And so in this scenario the class size was not the number one issue but who was in the class, their special needs and the inability of the teachers to cope with the complexity and high needs of the weaker individuals in large groups.

A New York retired elementary school special education teacher whom I met in my travels recently said that even she, with 35 years of experience predominantly in small special education classes felt that five students with special needs was all she could realistically handle, with an extra pair of hands in the form of classroom aid. In her opinion, high needs students absolutely require very small classes and teachers with specialized training, who know what they are doing. She added that she felt “Inclusion” of high needs students in regular classes is more about the needs of their parents than the best interests of such children.

From this teacher’s vantage point, the participants’ needs in the classroom, and the skill set of the teacher should dictate a correct class size.

A retired gifted high school teacher in my network told me of his experience in one school setting where he was assigned 8 students with Individual Education Plans who , under those conditions, were great to teach. This was because he could meet the individual learning and behavioural needs of the students and program the curriculum in Geography to their level and ability. In his opinion, these students, in a regular class of 25-35, would have been ostracized by the regular students because of their deficiencies, and he as the teacher, may never had the opportunity to see their weaknesses in such a large group and adjust instruction accordingly. Chances were great they may have failed the course, dropped out or come to hate the subject.

In this example, the special learning and behavioural needs of the group determined the right class size.

A community college teacher I know fought the prevailing political view of his colleagues that class sizes needed to be reduced. To prove his point he nstead, offered to increase his class load considerably but altered his delivery style to a self directed model. He provided a curriculum guide, all kinds of resources and learning style options, and was available for small group work or individual consultation. He informed the students in detail of the requirements to earn a pass and made it clear that 100% knowledge of the course material was the expectation. Low and behold, with a larger class size, every single student met his requirements and he had a lengthy waiting list for his course!

In this example, the delivery style, the motivation of the participants and their maturity and skill level pointed to the right class size.

The consultation process on Class Size by the Conservative government, currently in power in Ontario, recently closed. Ontarians await the results. They await the findings and the consequential policy recommendations and decisions by the Ministry of Education. They await the changes in our schools that will affect Ontario children.

Honourable Douglas R. Ford, Premier of Ontario, is to be commended for trying to balance the budget in this province. He is to be applauded for trimming waste and excesses. Honorable Lisa M.Thompson, and her boss, like the political leaders before them, at the same time, want the best in Education for every boy and girl in Ontario.

Let us hope they can create the perfect storm in determining policy on Class Size. We need class sizes which exactly suit the learning needs of the group, for each subject they study and align with the knowledge and skills of their educators. We need policies on Class Size that deliver the goods in spades, and allow each child to master the tasks determined to be essential for him or her to move forward with competence and confidence.

Because Class Size matters, may our leaders decisions about it, in Ontario schools, bring orgasmic performance results for our children and the wonderful teachers who dedicate their lives to educating them!