Ned's latest thoughts, stories and opinions

Size Matters

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

 Imagine for a second that you are given the task of supervising a group of teenagers. On your own. Not only have you been given the task of supervising them but of imparting some information (call it knowledge) as well. The information/knowledge is most likely to be of little or no interest to the teenagers but you will be expected to soldier on anyway.

You had imagined that there would be a reasonable cap on the number of teenagers you will be supervising but are surprised to learn that numbers don’t matter. There could be 25 or 45.

The teenagers will come from a variety of social backgrounds. Some will have been taught to respect the person responsible for their welfare, some will have been told they are free to behave as they feel like and others will have so exasperated their parents that they have given up on them and handed them over to you to do the best you can. For quite a few of your group English is a second language so they might struggle with your instructions, let alone the content of the information. There may even be a couple with personality and learning disorders who, in a truly progressive society, would be given the one on one support they need to learn to function in social situations.

Like the one you have been asked to control without such assistance.

 How do you think you would go?

 What about if you have been given the responsibility of controlling a teenage party? Controlling in the sense of asking, even telling, the teenagers what they can and can’t do. Do you think it will make any difference how many teenagers there are under your charge? When one of those teenagers demands individual attention will the numbers present have no impact on your capacity to give it to them? Is there a possibility that while you are giving the teenager in need of special attention that the rest will run riot?  Particularly if there are large numbers of them.

 Here’s a third scenario.

 You’re a teacher in Australia in 2017. You might be a first year out or a seasoned pro. You have been trained to deliver content to your students. You love your subject. You are passionate about it. However, there are a number of obstacles standing in the way of you delivering that content.

 The first is that quite a significant proportion of your students are openly contemptuous of you and your subject. They don’t think either matter. They have long since rejected their parents attempts to convince them of the importance of education. They have long since rejected their parents full stop. Armed with access to all sorts of behaviours that their parents didn’t experience till they were way older than they are now they don’t see any reason to respect the ways of the past. They are as likely to sit up and listen to you as they are to willingly turn their phones off.

 Your job as the teacher is to turn this around. To convince your students that the subject you are teaching does matter. Not only that but they might have to sit up and listen to what you are saying, And that might even mean turning their phones off. It might surprise a lot of people but once teenagers enter the gates of whatever school they are attending, they don’t stop being the teenagers they are at home. In fact, emboldened by their peers they become even more “teenage” than they were at home. In today’s context that often means they are even more likely to try on the behaviours that their parents have torn their hair out trying to change or, at least, curtail.

 To say it’s going to be a challenge for you is an understatement. If the numbers are unmanageable so will the students be. The old adage of “strength in numbers” certainly applies to classroom behaviour. Whether you are a “quality teacher” or not isn’t going to make a modicum of difference to how a class of 35 to 45 students behave. It might in cultures where there is strict, imposed, consequence driven discipline but in a society like ours it won’t matter whether you’re a “quality teacher” or a hack. You’ll be struggling to manage them whatever you are.

 There is a very good reason why many of the top elective classes are so small. It is because small classes enable better teaching. It’s a no brainer. It’s also why many parents fork out for their children to have one on one tutoring.

 Size matters.

 With Education Ministers around the country about to meet to thrash out funding and the political argy bargy about Gonski it’s worth remembering why adequate education funding is crucial to our children’s future.

The model for funding Gonski 2.0 is sound. The reduced funding proposed by the government is not only unsound, it demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand that smaller teacher/student ratios are  a game changer in terms of educational outcomes and effective teaching.

 If you don’t believe me make it “open house” to your teenagers next party and see how you go.

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