Last week our school leadership team spent the day with Professor John Hattie from Auckland University and his team from the the Visible learning Lab. John has published his research in a book title Visible Learning and presents at lots of conferences and to various governments on what works to improve student achievement.
He started his presentation on the very topical influence of class sizes on student achievement which I have written about before.
Hundreds of studies have all concluded that reducing class sizes relative to other influences has a very small effect on student achievement. He spoke about the measures the Hong Kong Government took to reduce their class sizes from 50-60 students per class to 30 per class at a cost of about 1 billion dollars – with little effect on student achievement for as Hattie points out they did not retrain their teachers to teach in different ways.
I know this year we had 25% of classes with 30 students and 75% with less than 24 students. The large sizes was one of the biggest issues that the school council had to deal with and they ended up funding a part time support teacher. I think teachers, unions and indeed the government are committed to reducing class sizes but as Hattie questions to what effect. Our student achievement or engagement data hasn’t improved in classrooms with low class sizes which tends to suggest that its some of the actions some of the teachers are doing that are having an effect rather than the low class sizes.
So the question to be asked: So what does make a difference?
Hattie reports amongst his top 10 winners are [effect size in brackets afterwards]:
- self reported grades [1.44]
- Piagetian programs [1.28]
- providing formative evaluation [to the teachers so they can target their instruction] – [1.28]
- micro teaching [0.88]
- acceleration [0.88]
- classroom behavioural [classroom structures] – [0.80]
- comprehensive interventions for learning disabled students [0.77]
- Teacher clarity [0.75]
- Reciprocal teaching [0.74]
- Feedback to student [0.73]
So if class size has an effect size of 0.2 then focusing and spending resources on any of the above will have a bigger influence on student learning. This is not an easy message to hear when for years successive governments, teacher unions and parents have been successfully sold a different message.
I am about to publish our average class sizes at each year level for 2011 and the pressure continues to have them low. Well this will be achieved to a point [range of 19 – 25 students per class with an average of 23.5 students per class across the school] but I have managed to allocate some resources to teacher professional learning [through coaching, mentoring – linked here to a number of influences Hattie indicates have a greater imapct including micro teaching – teacher clarity – feedback], the systemtic collection of formative student assessment data and the allocation of a student well being officer role [prevention and intervention] for classroom behaviour.
At the risk of cherry picking certain influences that Hattie has determined a low or negative effect size [e.g. class size] on student learning I cannot help highlighting number 122 on his list “ability grouping” [or streaming as it was well known as] with an effect size of 0.12 [lower than class size]. We have nearly completed the recuitment process for 2011 reading some hundreds of applications and about 90% of them indicate using or believing in this ability grouping practice. In some cases they were refering to grouping students according to need however when asked how often they assessed students and if the groups were fluid it eventually came out that groups were permanent [laminate coloured sheets which listed student names for at elast a semester] – thus need often just interchanged for ability. Argument here is that we all have needs and depending upon the level of challenge will need small group support or additional scaffolding to achieve our target.
This is another hard sell for teachers.
To explain just a few of the other items above:
Micro Teaching is about targeted instruction to a small group using a variety of pedagogiacl approaches whilst being observed by other teaching professionals followed by a scaffolded discussion – it’s about deprivatising teaching / opening classrooms doors and through observation providing some mutual accountability to improve one’s instruction. Sound familiar to those who advocate flexible learning areas?
Teacher clarity means:
- having clear learning intentions for each lesson
- having an organised classroom
- knowing where your students are at [with constant data being collected]
- having curriculum knowledge about the topic
- knowing what success look like for each child.
I am leaving feedback to another post as Hattie came from an alternative viewpoint that is worth deeper thought.
The challenges to continue to lead communities with many mixed messages continues but Hattie’s work helps provide some data around the discussion.