Dylan Wiliam’s argument against reducing class sizes

January 18, 2011 at 2:59 pm Leave a comment

by Alec Patton

Education researchers and teachers diverge on the subject of class size more than they do over anything else I know of. Among teachers, it’s generally agreed (to the point of being a platitude)  that kids would be getting better educations if class sizes were smaller. Among education researchers, it’s a truism that shrinking class sizes won’t improve outcomes.

The researchers’ belief is the more surprising one, and to be honest it’s one that I’ve never understood: surely a teacher will be able to give students more individual attention if they have less students in their class. The mathematics seem pretty straightforward.

So I was interested to read Dylan Wiliam’s argument for why shrinking class sizes won’t improve outcomes, as reported by Peter Wilby in the Guardian today:

As for class sizes, if they were cut from 30 to 20, the average pupil would gain four months’ learning a year. But classes of 20 would mean recruiting an extra 150,000 teachers to English schools and, assuming they were all weaker than those we now have, pupil progress would fall by five months a year.

This is rather different from the argument as it’s normally been presented to me. I’ve been told ‘shrinking class sizes doesn’t improve learning’, but that’s not what Wiliam is saying. He’s saying ‘shrinking class sizes WILL improve learning, but if we did that we’d need to hire a bunch of mediocre teachers in order to meet demand.’

But Teach First shows that wider recruitment need not mean lowering standards, and I find it hard to believe that the UK, a nation of 60 million, doesn’t have 150,000 people who A) could be good teachers, and B) are not yet teaching.

So Wiliam’s argument reframes the debate usefully for me (it’s not about whether a particular teacher could teach better if they had less students in their class, it’s about drainging the labour pool  if ALL teachers have smaller classes), but I’m not sure I buy it.

However, I AM sure that no government’s going to cut class sizes by a third for at least the next few years.

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Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services.

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