Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Class size or teaching?

I've found that one of the most controversial debates when it comes to education, especially in developed countries, is what is the best way to spend the scarce money we have on education. The debate often boils down to a choice between two things: smaller classes, or better teachers.

Personally, I've always felt it's obvious that we should pay teachers better, especially in Malaysia. There is no reason to hold teachers to a rigid pay scale based on seniority, let alone the pay scale of the civil service. Teachers perform a much more important job than civil servants, and I daresay deal with a lot more stress. It only makes sense to pay them more, and especially to pay the outstanding teachers more.

The argument for smaller class sizes seems rather vague to me, and it's predicated essentially on the notion that it's hard for good teachers to pay attention to more than 20 pupils at a time. While I think there is probably room to rethink the traditional classroom dynamics of one teacher lecturing/supervising a classroom of pupils, I think that diminishing marginal returns kick in pretty quickly past the point of 30 pupils. While I don't have much data, from my personal experiences, the rowdiest classrooms have been those of 35 or more, with not much difference below that, especially not below 30 students.

Recently my attention was drawn to a University of Auckland study, which claims to have brought together 50,000 different studies and looks at a total of 83 million pupils around the world. The study's conclusion is that class size is not very important, and that the quality of teaching easily outstrips class size in terms of importance. The professor who authored the study is John Hattie, who I have not heard of before. He seems to have published quite a bit on this subject, but I was unable to turn up much about this latest study of his, so it is worth taking with a grain of salt.

Nevertheless, I think it's still a question worth asking: what matters more, teaching quality or class size? Obviously Malaysians have some other things to worry about, such as our horrible exam system, but there already seems to be a general consensus that we need to raise the standards of our exams, and try to orient them away from general memorisation of facts. There is, however, nothing close to a consensus on the question I'm raising.

What do you think? Should we spend more money on hiring good teachers to teach to classrooms of 30 or 40, or should we spend more money to hire the same quality of teachers but with smaller classrooms of 20 to 30?


Anonymous said...

without a doubt, hire good teachers. pay them well. a good teacher should be able to utilise the environment and the class size as teaching tools. for context cf. reggio emilia in italy for early childhood education. a good learning process does not require prolonged 'face time' (as a small class room would imply). what is needed is a burst of inspiration, which is what a good, well-trained teacher may provide.

Unknown said...

The most ideal situation is to have more good teachers teaching smaller classes so that the good teachers can pay equal attention to all the students.

A quick check with some of my frens is that most Std 1 classes have an average of about 40 to 50 students. It is very hard even for a good teacher to give equal attention to all students, given that pupils learn at various different paces.

Teaching used to be a very noble profession but many teachers these days no longer believe that they serve a bigger purpose than just to teach what is in the text books.

The low pay, long hours, harrasement by parents and also double standards in promotion have put off many aspiring teachers from entering into the teaching profession.

Still, many parents claim that teachers is Chinese Schools are more dedicated and more discplined. Why is this? Is this due to pay, which I doubt as pay of National Type Schools should not be much more compared to National Schools?

So, why are National Type Schools the prefered choice of non-Malays other than to learn the Mother Tongue and why the preception of more dedicated teachers in National Type Schools. These are some questions that the Education Ministry must ask themselves.

The Government should increase the pay of teachers to attract more qualified ppl with the passion to teach. The teaching profession as the last choice for most graduates but it used to be one of the top choices during my time. So what has changed in the past 20 odd years?

The classical saying, garbage in - garbage out. If we cannot produce / attract good teachers, we will be producing sub-standard students and the vicious cycle is repeated to the extend that one day. What will become of us in the future?

Shawn Tan said...

Spending more money on paying teachers does not get you better teachers. Let's assume that a good teacher is one who is passionate about teaching, knowledgeable on the subject and inspirational to the students. The most important virtue that a teacher must have is that he/she must 'care' for the students well being.

Derek asks a good question - why aren't more people going into the teaching profession. Remuneration is only one aspect of the problem. In fact, you might say that teachers are better paid than most people if you consider the amount of holidays they get. However, I think that the bigger problem lies with the nature of the job.

With a large classroom, the teacher spends more time playing baby-sitter than actually teaching. This is a great passion sapper. Teaching and baby-sitting requires two different approaches. So, it is also important to reduce the size of the classroom, just so that teachers can actually teach.

With a large classroom, the teacher has a huge marking workload, which some teachers end up doing after school hours. Again, this affects a teacher's output and a higher teacher:student ratio can help alleviate some of the extra work.

So, in order to get better teachers, you actually need to have smaller classrooms too. Otherwise, the good teachers will end up as bad teachers sooner, rather than later.

As for why there is a perception that SJKC teachers are more dedicated, all you'd need to do is look at how these teachers became teachers in the first place. Many started temporary teaching first, before actually becoming teachers.

However, their quality is still suspect simply because the classroom sizes at SJKC schools are bursting. You'll easily find 60 students per classroom in an SJKC today.

vikraman said...

30 students per class is feasible with minimal financial investment. Personal experiences tell me that classes with more than 30 students become difficult to control especially where younger students and students who aren't that academically interested are concerned. It should be dollar for dollar though. For every dollar which is spent on improving teachers, one dollar should be spent on reducing class size. Once the optimal range of 27-32 is reached more money should be spent on improving teacher quality.

WY said...

you failed to highlight that prof Hatie's research concludes three most important factors in improving teaching:

1. regular feedback & self-reporting
2. step-by-step evaluation and cognitive development
4. micro-teaching via video analysis of lessons
5. acceleration program

and prof hatie smartly discounted:
1. small class size
2. testing/test methods
3. homework.

Hence, reading deeper into the research, you and i can conclude that all the 5 effective teaching strategies are all indirectly related to class size, whilst directly related to teachers' quality. Not being able to measure teachers' quality properly, one of the policy instruments for national leaders is controlling the number of teachers (bad or good) and class size.

Good article by John Lee (from infernal rambling i presume) that provoke readers to think and respond. I would suggest everyone to read more carefully into news-publicised research output though, as often, journalists have no idea (nor the intellect to understand) of the research content

Anonymous said...

no doubt spending more money would not 'guarantee' good teachers, but it would go a long way towards that direction as (1) teachers get better training through better teaching schools (facilities, new methods); (2) higher remuneration means potential teachers will be further incentivised to choose it as a profession. ofcourse, one will argue that remuneration should not drive the choice but passion and genuine love for the profession, but let's get practical: it will get people to start thinking about it and perhaps be actually good at it.

U-Jean said...

I think we need good teachers. And better people to be good teachers and not some chapalang. And to have better people, we need better teachers. Hmm.. How now?

Some (lot of them actually) teachers and lecturers need to go for communication a.k.a. how-to-make-lessons-interesting classes. Even prof madyas need this. Passion and knowledge is one thing, ability to communicate this is another

Anonymous said...

U shd hv attended the lectures by the faculty of education. Their lectures so boring make you sleepy. And you want these idiots to teach you how to lecture? Haiyaaa..
Good teachers are borne with the ability

Anonymous said...

Conduct a research in SRJK and SRK, no matter how pack is the class, the parents continue to send their kids over to the pack like sardin SRJK, and not the 20 to 30 student per class room in SRK, including those who are not willing to learn Maths and Science in mother tongue.

I love this blog, full with luxury of choice, this is the place where we can live like a dreamer.

Anonymous said...

I would just like to ask for help. I am a Filipino and I just want to know what website can i find statistics of Malaysia's current average class size for elementary public schools.

Wayne5491 said...

Hey.. I just happened to come across this post. Please allow me to speak a word or two.

Well, no doubt, hiring good teachers with better pay is a good solution but how do we define a "good" teacher?

I was fortunate to have excellent teachers when I was doing my STPM. They were hardworking, dedicated and helpful. All my classmates love them. However, none of them were chosen as the "Guru Cemerlang", whereas those whom students complained about, were chosen.

That's why I feel that if providing a better pay to the good teachers, is to be done, the officials should run questionnaire among the students to find out who are the really good ones and who are the "good" ones.