AITSL The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

Not amused

“He speaks to us as if we were a public meeting.” So complained Queen Victoria - using the ‘royal plural’ - about her regular private meetings with William Gladstone, the four-time British Prime Minister. In a tradition that continues to this day, here were valuable opportunities for the reigning monarch and the Prime Minister to genuinely exchange ideas, trade confidences and cultivate a personal rapport. Yet apparently those opportunities were so often squandered owing to Gladstone’s urge to harangue his crowd of one.

That little nugget from my own far-off history classes came to mind when I recently heard Professor John Hattie, AITSL’s Board Chair, discussing the dynamics and learning impact of class size. It has been an article of faith for many years that smaller class sizes must necessarily mean more individualised teacher-student interaction and therefore better learning outcomes for students. And indeed, there is a body of research evidence to support that supposition. Based upon this belief, class sizes in Australian schools have been reduced in pursuit of more personalisation and better results.

In his paper, What doesn’t work in education: the politics of distraction, Hattie takes a somewhat different view. He argues that smaller class sizes could have a positive impact on student learning, but this is often not the case. Why? Because many teachers interact with a class of (say) fifteen students in much the same way as they interact with a class of (say) twenty-five students.

Hattie contends that some of the most powerful in-class learning comes from teacher-to-student dialogue and more especially from student-to-student dialogue. We might like to imagine that smaller classes facilitate increased student-to-student dialogue and learning and greater one-to-one feedback between teacher and student, but the evidence gathered by Hattie suggests that teachers can actually lecture to smaller classes more than they do with larger classes.

I guess that’s where the Queen Victoria-Gladstone public meeting paradigm kicks in with contemporary education. That is to say, if teachers manage small groups of individuals in more-or-less the same way that they manage large groups, then there is no educational advantage in having small groups: teachers are simply speaking to a ‘public meeting’ of a different size.

Hattie argues that enhancing teacher expertise through targeted professional development and collegial learning is crucial to more effectively managing smaller classes so that student learning is maximised. Among other practical things, this would mean that teachers in the classroom resist the urge to take up for themselves the learning time and space that smaller classes can create. As Hattie has remarked elsewhere but with relevance to this situation, “Too many students come to school to watch their teachers work.”

Reflecting for a moment upon the jam-packed classes of yesteryear, students might have thought themselves lucky if teachers spoke a few individual words to them now and then. No-one is suggesting a return to the outsized classes and the ‘stand and deliver’ pedagogy of the past. But like Hattie, I too would love to see our smaller classes used to greater effect.

As always, I am interested in your thoughts.


Submitted by Andrew (not verified) on

Of course class size is irrelevant if the teacher pontificates to the whole class for most of the lesson. However, as is implied, in a classroom in which well-designed collaborative learning predominates, the more time a teacher has per student when she/he moves about the room, presumably, the better the learning.

Submitted by Phillip Nash (not verified) on

excellent article. I cannot agree more and have argued for years that teacher practice is still a far greater impact agent for student learning that simply teacher/ student ratio. We have a maximum of 24 students per class in our school and I don't really see any greater difference in most teacher practice than the 28-30 Class sizes I worked with in New Zealand.

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