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Is a perfect class size the magic to student learning?

Spoiler: The unions want you to think so.

Sabrina Zuniga PhD. Montreal QC

Spoiler: The unions want you to think so.

Thank goodness the PC government is evaluating the Ontario school curriculum. Are you glad? You should be. The current curriculum is outdated, restrictive, and weighs down student learning.

I have spent my professional career teaching, engaged in student learning, and studying student learning. Schools should be all about student learning. Everything that happens in the school, and everyone associated with a school should be part of increasing student learning.

Pretty straight forward you say? So why do we spend so much time discussing class sizes like this is the main factor that is going to magically change student learning? Sure, every teacher would love to have classes of 15 students, but that is simply not practical. And every teacher would prefer to not have more than 30. But, depending on the nature of that year’s group of students, 31 wouldn’t make a big difference.

What about other numbers? Does it really make a difference if the class size is 22 vs 25? What about 20 vs 24? What is the magic number? Study after study consistently come to the same conclusion – teacher ability is the magic – the key factor – that most influences student learning. Better teachers always have better classes and better student outcomes.

Why then do we hear so much about class sizes and why did the previous Liberal government put in hard caps on size? Why is any discussion of student learning so focused on class sizes?

Well, for one, it makes intuitive sense. It’s like the argument to eat fat-free. This seems to make sense so people buy into it, but the real story for healthy eating is much more complex.

In the same way, a focus on class sizes is not the full story when aiming to improve student learning.

There are many variables to consider and this is the job principals do. Putting hard caps on class sizes actually hampers the principal. Variables to consider are things like, class dynamics, teacher ability, special needs students, and even classroom size, to name a few.

The reason class sizes are discussed as the magic answer is because with hard caps, a school can be forced to hire more teachers and this is what the teacher’s unions want. Unions look out for their members, and job security, along with an increase in the number of jobs, is their top priority.

How does this relate to the outdated curriculum? It is all about control. Unions need to control their members and, in this case, they see teachers as part of an assembly line approach to education. Each member on the assembly line must do their part or the end product is messed up.

But, in education, we are talking about people, about children, about the most vulnerable, precious part of our society. Kids do not think and act like an assembly line. We should not treat them like there is a most desired end product.

Historically, when the Industrial Age really got going, children were not needed to be part of the workforce. Unions helped, then, to get laws changed to disallow children from working full time. Our entire education system changed from one for the few, to one for the masses. Since the assembly line system worked in factories, kids were also put into this kind of system.

As you know, we now group kids by age and furthermore, judge their intelligence and ability based on some perceived norm for that age. Everything in that method is fraught with difficulties. Today, we know so much more about how brains work, and how students learn. This entire way of thinking in our education system needs an update.

We can start to update our system by treating teachers like the professionals they are. Their unions do not treat teachers this way. Right now, in too many classrooms, teachers are not allowed to be their best. The system is controlled by the unions and not by teachers.

Too often when a teacher presents a new idea for the school or their grade, the senior teachers turn the idea down saying things like ‘that’s not how we do it here.’ And if a parent tries to offer a suggestion, the response is an even quicker no. If an idea for a before school math club, for instance, would need teachers to work before their stated beginning time which the union says they can’t do.

To really respect teachers and their creativity and drive to teach, we can start by updating the curriculum in simple ways. Let the restrictive curriculum loosen – the curriculum that gives teachers a cookbook of recipes to follow for each grade. Instead, we can allow the teacher to follow the class interests. Let the class imagination drive what subject is used to teach writing and math, and even science.

Does it really matter if Medieval History is taught in grade 4 or 6? For Science, every year should explore, ask questions, get messy, and do experiments. Exactly what is taught in each year for Science does not matter, it is the thinking that matters.

And finally, let’s use some of the successful aspects of the one-room schoolhouse, and group various ages of students by knowledge level, or by subject interest for at least a portion of the school year. Some schools have had a lot of success engaging students with four days of ‘regular’ learning and one day each week with a completely different structure.

Why do we accept conformity as the gold standard for teaching? For our students?

There is no such thing as a perfect student and no such thing as a perfect teacher. Even the best student can have an off day, or off week, because of illness or whatever. Even the best teacher will have one unit that they aren’t stellar in, or don’t do with as much gusto because of illness or life issues.

Our education system should NOT punish because of this. The number one thing we know students need to learn is the ability to learn. Let’s teach them how to find solid information about the ocean, or poetry. Let’s teach them how to know when there is more information to be gathered. Let’s teach them to analyze and think.

We can do this. We have wonderful teachers in our school system who hold their tongues, quiet their voices, wait their turn to offer an opinion. Let’s create a system where we allow each and every teacher to be the best they can be.

We can bring our education system into the modern era with just a little bit of political will. Worrying about the class size is a distraction and not a solution.

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