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Op-ed On John Hattie's Finding About Class Sizes

Op-ed On John Hattie's Finding About Class Sizes

By Laurie Loper

A small class equals better outcomes is the kind of common sense effectiveness equation that's been around now for such a long time people believe it. Eventually beliefs of this kind become policy, certainly the teacher unions have made this one a policy of theirs. Of course if there's no truth to this belief, making it a policy is obviously a fraught practice.

But what is the truth of this belief? It isn't true, but then neither are a lot of other common beliefs about learning. That's the problem with beliefs, common sense has this habit of elevating them to the status of fact, Science's more exacting scrutiny often tells us differently, revealing there are gaps in our knowledge that need to be filled. In this instance, the gaps are somewhat greater than anyone in the education sector is prepared to acknowledge, let alone try to fill. Better leave well enough alone is obviously their strategy, rocking the boat will upset too many people and disturb vested interests.

That behaviour is perfectly understandable. To accept the truth of John Hattie's research, is to put at risk a whole bunch of infrastructure that would be hard to dismantle, to say nothing of the upheaval that would result and the mess leftto clean up. Even harder would be the task of deprogramming the beliefs of the entire education sector, to say nothing, if you are the Minister of Education, of those held by the voting public, who likewise possess the same beliefs.

It just so happens John Hattie isn't alone with his finding of the low relationship of class size to better achievement outcomes. New Zealand is by no means short of world names in classroom research. The late Professor Graham Nuthall has succeeded in unraveling education's oldest conundrum, the twin mysteries of the relationship between teaching and learning and how learning works as a process in classrooms.

Ranking up there, I'd say, with Rutherford's discoveries, if the Hattie findings are giving the education sector and the public indigestion, none should be allowed to read Nuthall's findings, unless certified as not in danger of suffering a heart attack. Relevant findings supporting Hattie's class size finding included, students do the learning – teachers contribute hardly anything to it. Inexperienced teachers taking the same lesson achieve the same outcomes as very experienced ones. Classmates have much more influence over any student's understanding than teachers.

I liked John Hattie's confession that he didn't understand his own finding either. To me that means he carries in his head the same model of learning everyone else believes in. That's the one that makes teachers into such busy learning managers, they're far too preoccupied to notice what's going on. That's that very inefficient one that's causing the achievement gap. That's the one causing all the uneven outcomes we see in such things as dropouts and the unequal national exam statistics. That's also the very same one causing half the overall learning capacity of the entire student population to lie undeveloped on the classroom floor.

Adversity makes strange bedfellows but I couldn't help having a chuckle at John Morris' contribution on RadioNZ to this debate. If I heard the Auckland Grammar principal right, he said that if you have students who are both attentive and compliant, class size at the secondary level matters little. Now whatever you may think about what he said, he's highlighting an important truth, how we think learning happens very much governs what we do to promote it.

With John Hattie being the head of an institution that prepares teachers for classrooms, his class size finding puts him between the proverbial rock and a hard place. But isn't the resolution of the seeming impasse over what best promotes student learning to be found, not in class sizes nor in any of the other of John Hattie's 138 factors, but in a better understanding, both sector wide and nation wide, of how learning actually works in classrooms. As far as I'm concerned, there's only one authority here and he's not even getting a look in.


Laurie Loper, Reg Psychologist, Tauranga


Ian Leckie.: Smaller Classes - Opinion Piece from NZEI
Association supports debate on teaching excellence - Press Release: NZ School Trustees Association

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