New Year, New Class
It was lovely to watch our students bouncing back to school on our first day last week. They came laden with new books and emergency food items, but all seemed very keen to get in the gate. There were plenty of big smiles and cherry hellos - and I’m not talking about the parents. Later in the day, at our ‘welcome back’ assembly, I questioned why everyone was so keen to get back to school. Was it to start learning again? Or was it more about wanting to see all of the friends that you haven’t seen for a while? There were a few hands put up in response to the first question, but it seemed that every one of our students put up their hand in response to the second question! Friendship is important at school, of course teachers understand this well, and know that learning at school is a social activity.
Starting a new year can also bring some feelings of trepidation. The new year is likely to mean a new teacher and it may mean separation from friends. As parents we worry. Will he be challenged enough? Will she supported enough? How will he cope without his friends? What about ‘that child’ in her class? How can this be the right class when he is the youngest one?
Making up classes is complicated and time consuming. We consider each individual child and use our knowledge of his or her learning needs, who he/she interacts well with in the classroom, and where there is a choice, the strengths of the teachers in order to make the best decision about which class to place each student in. When parents convey further information, this is also carefully considered before a class placement is made. We seek to place children in classes with others who share at least some of their learning needs so that teachers can more easily cater for those children. As a teacher I know that many of the fears that parents held for their child’s class placement never eventuate. Children do make new friends, and in the process increase not just their circle of friends but also the ability to get along with others and to make new friends. Children grow and change and usually the “problems” that existed a couple of years in the past are no longer relevant.
Multi-level classes are a common feature in New Zealand schools, and many schools choose to organise classes in this way, even when it is not necessary for them to do so. We don’t teach from a book that dictates what knowledge must be learnt at each year level, we teach from a curriculum that guides us in selecting the next learning step, no matter where that is along the continuum of what children need to learn in order to be successful in the future. Our teachers are skilled at identifying what individuals or groups of children need to learn and operate systems in the classroom that allow them to teach different things to different groups. Our teachers know how to take a student’s prior knowledge or interest in a particular area, and build this into a lesson to help children develop new understandings. They know how to support individual students when the work is potentially too difficult, so that they will experience success. It really does not matter if, for example, your child is a Year 4 with classmates who are Year 3, or Year 5 with classmates who are Year 6. Neither does it matter if he or she is the youngest or oldest in the class (someone has to be). Your child’s teacher is there to ensure that your child is safe and engaged in learning. Being in a class with children that your child may not have been placed with previously, should be seen as an opportunity to expand their social networks and develop new friendships. It may not happen in the first week, but with the support of the teacher, it will happen. That children are not the same Year level will seldom be important during the year.
In small schools, it is likely that at some stage children will have more than one year with the same teacher. At Ridgway it may be that some children from a class stay with a teacher for a second year while others move on to a different one. This should never be seen as "being held back" or "repeating" because it is not. There are many advantages for "Judith or John" in staying with the same teacher for a second year, chief among them is that the teacher will already have an in-depth knowledge of what Judith and John can do and what they need to learn next. The teacher will already know Judith and John very well and this in-depth knowledge of the learner is one of the most important factors in success at school.
As a parent I too have wondered at the class placement decisions made by my children’s school. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that things turned out alright; just as their teachers knew they would. My children made new friends. My children have had teachers that I would not have chosen if I'd had the choice, and have benefited from these teachers in ways that I could not have predicted. Most of the benefits were things that are only obvious with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, whereas the things I feared never amounted to much.
In New Zealand schools are funded according to the number of children on the school roll and how old they are. Schools use these funding formulas as a guideline for establishing class sizes, but there are no rules that state the maximum or minimum number of children that can be in one class. Schools must make decisions about how to use the funds they get to ensure that students are well catered for and achieve at the levels expected.
While the government provides 1 teacher for every 15 Year 1 children enrolled, this does not mean that our school will have only 15 children in our Year 1 classes. This is because the government also expects that we will pay for our Reading Recovery teacher from this funding. Similarly the government provides 1 teacher for every 23 Year 2 and Year 3 children enrolled, but expects that we pay for any specialised support teaching in the junior area from this funding.
The issue of class size is not new and there is research dating back before the 1950s on it’s impact. The findings however are not unequivocal. Proponents on both sides of the argument are able to cherry pick the evidence that suits their argument. An often quoted study from the US found that young children from minority backgrounds do benefit from being in a small class. Benefits for other groups of children were not so obvious. John Hattie (Auckland University) published his “Visible Learning” research into the influences on learning in 2008. His work is a study of all relevant and reliable research related to schooling. He ranked class size at a lowly 106 as an influence on learning. Class size, especially where it is the difference of just 2 or 3 children, should not be a concern for us at all. Our classes are still smaller than in many other NZ schools.
What is important in learning?
There are things other than class size that should concern us, and indeed have been the subject of our staff Professional Learning and Development. In 2013 Ridgway teachers worked on ensuring that students have clarity about what they are learning (ranked 8th by Hattie) and using formative evaluation practices effectively (ranked 3rd). In 2014 we will be looking closely at giving effective feedback (ranked 10th), and through our involvement with "Positive Behaviour for Learning", at classroom behaviours (ranked 6th).
The top ranked item in Hattie’s list of influences on learning is “self reported grades”. This is related to students knowing how well they are achieving and being able to articulate it, and also links to students knowing what they need to learn next and setting challenging goals for themselves. With our move towards greater student and whanau involvement in setting goals, and more emphasis on learning conversations during 3 Way Conferences, I am confident that Ridgway School is focused on improving the things that will make a difference to student learning.
These links will help get you started if you are interested in learning more about either research on class size http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2011/05/11-class-size-whitehurst-chingos or John Hattie’s work. http://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/