Small Schools + Big Buildings = Better Learning?

On Tuesday the Conservative Party announced the results of a policy working group which has looked at education and other public services (entitled Restoring Pride in our Public Services). One of the proposals (no. 7) discusses the role of smaller schools and recommends investigating the use of ‘several small schools under one roof’, an idea that has been tried in a number of American States.

As luck would have it, I was at the Association of Learning Technologies’ annual conference (ALT-C 2007: beyond control) yesterday, and by the far the most interesting talk was the keynote given by Professor Dylan Wiliam, who made what must be one of the first public responses by a leading educationalist to these proposals.

Describing the period of time he spent teaching near Trenton, the capital of New Jersey (one of the States who have tried this idea) he outlined how a 3,000-pupil school was divided into six 500-pupil schools, within the same building. His observation was: “and they wondered why nothing changed”. Apparently, the same small school process was tried in Chicago and: “it didn’t work. It improved attitudes, students got on better with their teachers, but they didn’t learn any more”.

Prof. Wiliam went on to explain that governments (and oppositions) try these things because they are relatively easy to change and because the general public is wedded to the idea that smaller class sizes equals better learning. He went on to outline his view that – based on the latest research – it is not the school or classroom design or size that is the crucial issue in education but the pedagogical skills of the teacher. There is a four-fold increase in the speed with which a group of pupils learn when being taught by the best rather than the worst teachers.

The long-term answer to educational achievement is therefore to support teachers in the development of better pedagogical skills and help them in the use of newer methods of assessment. This means the increased use of what is known as formative assessment – a process of gaining feedback from pupils as to what their learning needs are (as opposed to simply measuring what they have learned to date). Many good teachers do this intuitively, but it is less commonly carried out in a systematic process.

What has any of this got to do with technology? Prof Wiliam argues that the emphasis needs to be on the process of learning rather than technology, and that the latest research work on pedagogy should inform technological development. His work is in the area of something called ‘classroom aggregation’, in which such formative assessment information is collected from every pupil in the class and analysed/synthesised to suggest a way forward in the learning process.

In simple terms this involves asking pertinent questions, maybe even multiple choice, to which wrong answers give as much information as right answers as to the state of thinking about a problem, across the class. In a technological context this could be translated into something like the already widely-used classroom ‘clicker’ boxes, which allow pupils to answer a question by picking ‘A’, ‘B’ etc on a handheld remote.

These technologies are fairly basic at the moment but there are plans to develop them further. For one educationalist at least, this is a better use of resources than splitting schools into smaller units.

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2 Responses to “Small Schools + Big Buildings = Better Learning?”

  1. Antony T Says:

    This statement is interesting: “it didn’t work. It improved attitudes, students got on better with their teachers, but they didn’t learn any more”. Although not looking at grades (which was the point of the article), this would suggest to me that it did work. A positive student attitude is an important step to engaging with taught subjects, even better if the relationships with the teachers are working well. Conflict shuts down openess, and openess is critical to learning -prepare to have one’s mind blown!

    In the current climate of debate around manners, anti-social behaviour and general thuggery the experiment that improved attitudes and respect (by implication getting on well with teachers) can quite possibly teach us a great deal about classroom interaction and optimum sizes of groups to produce well rounded individuals with a healthy attitude. It might even help teachers to become better at imparting thier knowledge, skills and curricula as they woudn’t be have to resort to crowd control. I wonder what would have happened had the experiment run for say, 5-10 years?

    Or have I completely missed the point here? =oS

  2. Alan Carter-Davies Says:

    Does this mean that to achieve universally good grades we need to remove or not support the notion of citizenship? Have I missed the point? Give me a well rounded human being as opposed to a sociopath boffin any day of the week.

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