Form 3 Student: Teach Critical Thinking Skills

The South China Morning Post yesterday published an opinion piece by a Form 3 (Grade 9) student at an elite school in Hong Kong, Alan Wong. I think that he makes some very good points.

The piece mainly seems to be a response to the recent Policy Address of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, but he calls for teaching that fosters critical thinking, more interaction, and so on:

… teachers need to be re-educated to understand that helping students develop critical thinking skills and learn to judge and analyse is more important than cramming them full of textbook knowledge.

Teachers have to be transformed from lecturers into facilitators of discussions; they have to put aside preconceptions about teaching they have been holding onto for years and accept the new teaching methods.

Mr. Wong claims that although class sizes at his school have decreased to 25 to 30 students, the teaching methods have not changed and continue to be characterised by “lecturing and occasionally asking and answering questions”.

Indeed, Mr. Wong’s call for critical thinking and interaction square with the rhetoric about educational needs in the 21st century skills. For example, the figure below, from the US Partnership for 21st Century Skills website, emphasises the 4Cs of learning and innovation skills (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity), as well as “information, media, and technology skills” and “life and career skills” – on top of the 3Rs.

Assessment and Teaching of 21C Skills (ATC21S), based at the University of Melbourne tells a similar story.

The question of class size that Mr. Wong raises is very interesting. Of course, parents and teachers think that smaller classes would be beneficial to student learning because it makes greater attention to individual students possible. But research is less clear on the question.

A decade ago, Elaine and Patrick McEwan looked at the question in detail in their book, Making Sense of Research: What’s Good, What’s Not, and How to Tell the Difference (Corwin Press, 2003). They reviewed evidence from the STAR experiment, a randomised of small-class teaching that involved 79 primary schools in Tennessee, starting in 1985. They found that small-class teaching did have a small positive effect on achievement–between 0.10 and 0.25 of a standard deviation. Taking 0.20 as an example, it means that the average student in a small class would outperform 61% of the students in a control class. (Normally, you would expect the class average to be such that 50% of students score above average, so it is only a slight improvement).

When McEwan and McEwan reviewed evidence about why small-class teaching works, they looked at qualitative research in another large project, in which lessons were observed. In this review (p. 86), the teachers of high-achieving classes emphasised basic skills and concepts, as exemplified by explicit teaching, explaining, modelling and checking. These teachers also used individualised instruction, and had organised and structured classrooms. On the other hand, the teachers in lower-achieving classrooms emphasised personal development, experiential learning, and flexible classroom management more. McEwan and McEwan concluded that

A small class can be viewed as a necessary but not sufficient condition for improving achievement; class size reduction ‘works’, but only to the extent that it leads to improved instruction. (p. 86)

John Hattie, a professor at the University of Auckland, takes a more critical view in Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses relating to Achievement (Routledge, 2009). Hattie found that the average gain for all types of interventions and influences he reviewed was 0.4 standard deviation. For 164 studies on class size, involving more than 40,000 classes, he found an average difference of only 0.13 standard deviation. Hattie concluded:

The lack of outcome is most likely because teachers do not change their current teaching strategies. … If teachers were retrained to work with smaller classes then indeed many of these optimal strategies may take effect; but merely reducing the number of students in front of teachers appears to change little–in teaching and in outcomes. (p. 88)

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