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Category archive: Class size

Friday June 20 2008

Professor Michael Reiss writes:

The Ofsted report on science in schools (report, June 17) raises a fundamental question. What happens to young children who start out their school days fascinated by nature, space, dinosaurs and robots? Why are so many of them disillusioned with school science by the time they reach the age of 16?

Teachers are the key to successful education, and specialist knowledge of their subject is the key to inspiring their pupils. However, more students in secondary schools are being taught physics by non-specialist teachers than five years ago and only 2.3 per cent of primary teachers on PGCE courses have studied science, mathematics, technology or engineering to degree level.

Attracting and retaining specialist teachers and ensuring that teachers at all levels can access ongoing professional development in science must be a priority.

Ah yes, a priority.  Presumably what the Professor has in mind is paying more and more money to qualified scientists to persuade them to teach, to keep up with the more and more money that qualified scientists can now get doing other jobs.  But what if the money is duly paid, but the inspired teaching fails to materialise?

To repeat a regular meme here, I suspect that if science teaching ever does revive it will do so as a branch of show business, with vast throngs of people being educated and entertained by a relatively small number of roving millionaire science teacher geniuses, whose DVDs sell by the lorry load to ambitious parents, and even to some children.

I hated school science, and it was the very things that you might think would liven it up, namely “practical” stuff, mucking about with bunsen burners and ancient electrical gadgets, that made it such an ordeal.  I never quite understood what was going on, was never on top of it, and it never seemed at all practical.

Tuesday June 03 2008

The Telegraph reports:

GCSEs are “considerably” easier than tests sat 50 years ago as questions are simplified to make them more relevant to modern teenagers, it said.

Reform, an independent think tank, said the traditional emphasis on algebra, arithmetic and geometry has been dropped in favour of questions focusing on real-life situations. It added that pupils can now gain a good grade with fewer than half the marks needed in 1990.

Reform also claimed that the lack of rigour has led to fewer students studying maths at sixth-form and university - leaving the British economy vulnerable to competition from China and India.

So, it would seem that “real-life” situations are not relevant.  Oh dear.

Here‘s what Reform itself has to say about the report.  And here (.pdf) is the report itself.

I’m an individualist about stuff like this.  It may matter to the Prime Minister than Britain’s children are slipping down the international league tables, but an individual child isn’t going to be unemployable merely because he doesn’t have a PhD in maths.  Okay, less rich maybe, but will he starve?

Maybe the answer is much better teachers and much bigger classes.  In other words obscenely high salaries for the best maths teachers in the country.  That’s only going to happen in the private sector.  So I say, eliminate the teaching of maths altogether from state schools (according to the Reform report good progress is already being made along these lines), and tell the parents it’s up to them to buy it elsewhere.  Just kidding.

Or maybe I’m not kidding.  Seriously, maths as showbiz.  If you ran maths classes in huge conference centres, charged a fiver a head per class, packed them in, but wanted them to keep coming back time after time because the show was actually very good - the children liked it and their parents liked it - what would it consist of?

Thursday May 08 2008

Earlier this evening I was watching a movie called I Want Candy, which is about a couple of aspiring movie makers who get their start by making a porno movie.  In it there was a scene where a lecturer was lecturing a quite large room full of aspiring movie makers, and I was trying to work out just what was so very, very depressing about it.  It absolutely wasn’t merely the teacher, even though he was indeed very depressingly and very well enacted, by McKenzie Crook.

Then I got it.  Teaching a large number of people how to do a job which only a tiny number of people ever get to actually do for real is an inherently absurd activity.  It just doesn’t make sense.  By far the more intelligent strategy for the teacher, if he actually wants to accomplish anything beyond collecting his pay check in exchange for damn all, is for him to start not by doing much in the way of actual teaching, but instead by searching through all the students in the room, and picking out the one or two who look like they are the least unlikely ones to actually make it to being real movie makers, and concentrate all his efforts on making these few even better.

The usual explanations given for why some things are taught in huge assemblages of students, while other things are taught by teachers on a one-to-one basis are that the nature of the skill requires this, or the student is paying for special attention, or the pupil gets special attention by threatening to wreck the classroom otherwise (whcih amounts to the same idea).  But I think another reason is that teaching someone to get ahead in a fiercely competitive trade or profession just doesn’t make sense any way except one-on-on, very intensely.

The best concert violin students have individual teachers.  The best aspiring athletes have individual coaches.  It’s not the nature of the skill that demands this.  It is the ruthlessly competitive nature of the field that the pupils aspire to enter.  The best violin teachers don’t teach vast throngs of violinists.  They teach a very select few, and lavish tremendously detailed attention on these few.

If someone is teaching a highly competitive trade to a large throng, the chances are that neither he nor his pupils are very good.  If the teacher was any good, he’d pick a few potential winners.  If a pupil was any good, he’d find a better teacher.

If there was a large demand for people who could play the violin really, really well, on a scale approaching the demand for people who are merely literate and numerate, then violin playing would be taught in large classes, just like literacy and numeracy.

In the past, when the demand for literacy and numeracy was not nearly so great, these things were also taught one-to-one.

This has been a thinking-aloud posting, and it may not be right.

Thursday May 01 2008

My main duty at Kings Cross Supplementary is one-on-one teaching of pupils who are perhaps inconvenient to fit into the two big classes - because they are too old, young, clever and impatient, slow and quiet, whatever.  For those who particular like the personal attention that these sorts of lessons bestow, they can also be used as rewards for good conduct in the regular multiple-pupil lessons.  If all I do is a bit of child-minding while the Real Teachers are able to get on with their Real Teaching a bit more smoothly, well, that’s a contribution.  And of course I try to do better than that.

One of the techniques I am refining is the use of paper in these one-on-one classes.  At the end of the class I like to gather up all the bits of paper that the pupil and I have both been writing on or doing sums on and present them to the pupil.  Do with them whatever you please, I say.  Perhaps show them to your parents, to show them what you have been doing (and what they have been paying for).  The children all seem to me to have more than enough homework on their plates, and besides, I am too idle to be bothered with chasing up and marking such homework.  I like to do the lesson and then say to them, that’s it, you’re free to go, no homework, hope you learned something, hope it wasn’t too annoying, etc. etc.  And, here are all the bits of paper we used up.  These are covered in such things as diagrams, writing by them and next to it the same thing by me (often better written but not always), lists of things we (alright: I) talked about, scribbled down by me.  Last Tuesday it was the titles of Shakespeare plays, written out for a ten-year-old girl who wants to be an actress.

Although, as I say, what they do with these bits of paper is entirely up to them, I like to think that some of them do look again at some of these often unruly, sometimes multi-coloured screeds, and thus that some of the lessons referred to on them are reinforced.

I quickly learned that mere scrap paper, i.e. paper blank on one side but with the rest of my scandalously opinionated life on the other side of it, is not suitable for this purpose.  What if a parent read the wrong side?  (Most of my store of scrap paper dates from my time as the Libertarian Alliance pampleteer.) Luckily, blank paper is now as cheap as it has ever been.

Tuesday April 29 2008

This by Matthew Ladner, is interesting:

South Korea in fact engages in remarkably different education practices when compared to the United States. South Korea spends less per pupil, but pays their teachers more. This feat is accomplished through larger average class sizes - which are approximately twice as large in South Korea than in the United States.

Korean teachers however are paid much better and enjoy greater professional prestige than their American counterparts. The McKinsey report cites data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showing that a 15 year veteran teachers in South Korea is paid an average of 2.5 times GDP per capita. In America, the average is a little more than 1 times GDP per capita.

Higher pay and prestige allows South Korea to recruit teachers from those in the top 5 percent of their university graduating classes. Korean schools have many applicants for every teaching job. Meanwhile, in the United States, the low upper cap on the pay fails to attract many of our brightest and most ambitious students. American schools on average recruit teachers from the bottom third of American university graduates.

Additionally, American schools once had a near monopoly on employing bright university educated women. That monopoly has since retired to the dustbin of history and will not be returning. Our national preoccupation with lowering average class size has also impacted lowered the average effectiveness of the teachers we’ve hired. The average class size in American schools has plummeted since the baby-boomers went through the system, but our test scores have remained flat.

Americans have been obsessed with lowering class size, while Korea has emphasized getting the brightest students possible into the classroom while thinking nothing of packing 40 or more children in a classroom. Who made the right choice?

My only worry with this kind of thing is the assumption that test scores necessarily measure educational success.  But then again, if you measure educational quality by real world outcomes (my preferred method), South Korea scores well with that also.

That niggle aside, like I say, very interesting.  Joanne Jacobs found it first, to whom thanks.