SCMP Saturday, December 2, 2000

We must help teachers learn fresh lessons


I must congratulate Yojana Sharma on her excellent article "Global debate over whether size matters" in last week's Education Post. It is the best article on the subject of class sizes that I have read.
Wherever governments propose to raise the standard of student learning, large class size is nominated as a major inhibitor to success. In Australia, the debate between teacher unions and education authorities is frequently bitter, with statistics on pupil-teacher ratios kept to the tenth of a student place.
Data on class sizes can be interpreted to assist in almost any argument and Yojana Sharma's article shows why this is possible. Teachers are, however, right in one thing: smaller classes reduce teacher workload.
At times of deep structural change, I would argue that this is a good thing. Reduced workloads in traditional activities make space for new initiatives.
I suspect that one of the reasons smaller classes do not universally deliver across-the-board improvements in learning is because teaching strategies too often remain unchanged.
If you teach the same way to 15 children as you did to 40, then there is no reason to expect an improvement in student learning. Conversely, too, encouraging diverse methods of teaching will not produce higher achievement if success is dependent on environmental factors, such as the size of the class or the teaching space.
Hong Kong schools are very concrete educational statements, quite literally. They seem depressingly incapable of responding innovatively to some teaching options, particularly the opportunity to vary class sizes in response to the subject that is being taught. It is possible to teach some things to classes of 60 so that other things can be taught to classes of 20 - but only if the buildings have the flexibility required. Many Hong Kong schools do not.
While it is a pity that some teaching strategies may not be practicable, it does not relieve the teaching profession from doing what has to be done with the resources at hand, which in Hong Kong are considerable. The improvement in student learning achievable through reductions in class size is far less than the improvement available through better teaching quality. If Hong Kong wants better student outcomes, then it needs a more highly skilled teaching force, not bigger schools to accommodate smaller classes.
In this regard, the professional development habits of the teaching profession are worth a lot more critical analysis than they have received to date.
Too few teachers undergo sufficient professional development to improve their teaching skills. A disturbing number do none at all. And the professional development that is done is too often related to subject content rather than teaching processes.
Many teachers teach as they did in the first years of their employment. They have not grown professionally. It does not come as a surprise that they worry about the initiatives proposed by the Education Commission, many of which challenge current professional practice.
One tends to blame the teachers for this, and with some justification. We would be alarmed if these sorts of generalisations about professional development were levied at the medical or legal professions.
But teachers are not the only responsible players in this game. University education faculties are too slow in responding to educational change in schools. Their graduate and post-graduate programmes need to keep better pace with initiatives.
The Education Department's long-term planning needs to be more visible. The same must be said of school sponsoring bodies. In school education it is important to see 10 and 15 years ahead, not just two or three. A lack of long-term planning is a great handicap in the organisation of professional development on the scale required for 1,200 schools.
School principals do too little to lead and manage the professional development of their teaching staff, a charge of indifference they ought not to take lightly.
At a time when life-long learning is a major motivator of educational change, all of us involved in education have a responsibility to show how continuing education can open up the way ahead. From whom else will our students learn?
Bruce Davis is an educational consultant in Hong Kong