The Current

Former teacher says there's no proof smaller class sizes improve students' learning experience

Students in Ontario are staging a walk-out this week to protest provincial policy changes that they say threaten their education. We hear from students, parents, teachers and researchers about one of their concerns: class sizes, an issue that animates those in education across all of Canada.

Existing research on class size is inconclusive at best, says Paul Bennett

The Ontario Ford government plans to increase class sizes for high school and some elementary grades, part of several slated changes to the province’s education system. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

Former teacher Paul Bennett says the Ontario government's plan to increase classroom sizes, while contentious, isn't the biggest issue facing schools in the province today.

"[Reduced class size] hasn't really fulfilled any of the goals in terms of directly improving student learning," said Bennett, a former principal and the director of Schoolhouse Consulting, an independent educational consulting practice based in Halifax, N.S.

"By and large, students are happier in smaller classes. We know that — that's not really debated," Bennett told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"But the massive reductions in class size from 2003 to the present haven't really produced the gains in student achievement that most had hoped."

Bennett cited a 2012 report by former TD Bank chief economist Don Drummond, which pulled data from several educational research studies measuring the positive and negative impact of class size.

It found that 72 per cent of results showed that class size wasn't a significant factor, writing that "small class sizes are not a key determinant of educational outcomes."

Bennett argued that the bigger concern to Canadian teachers is increasingly complex "class composition," which he described as the increasing number of students with unique learning needs that many teachers struggle to properly accommodate.

The provincial Progressive Conservative government's plan to increase class size is top of mind Thursday, as tens of thousands of elementary and high school students are expected to walk out in protest of impending changes to the education system, using the hashtag #StudentsSayNo on social media.

The average class size requirement for Grades 9 to 12 will be adjusted to 28, up from the current average of 22, while the average class size for Grades 4 to 8 will increase to 24.5, up slightly from 23.84.

In March, Ontario's Education Minister Lisa Thompson argued that increased class sizes would improve students' "resiliency," among other things.

"Statements ... like the education minister's statement that increasing class sizes will increase and improve resilience in students — that's indefensible," said Bennett. "There's no research to support that."

In addition to increasing class sizes, changes include new math and sex-ed curricula and mandatory E-learning modules. 

The Drummond report also recommended higher caps to class sizes — all of which are lower than the Ontario government's new caps.

Grade 12 student Rayne Fisher-Quann says the changes will be detrimental to their learning.

"We already have classes that are stuffed to the brim … You have so much visual and auditory stimuli, it's impossible to focus," Fisher-Quann, who helped organize the demonstration, told Tremonti.

"It's going to be too much for the more vulnerable students to handle. I'm sure there are some students who would go through it unscathed, but many, many, many will not. And that's not a risk that we can take."

Dr. Nina Bascia, professor of Education Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, agrees that class size can often dictate how well teachers are able to interact with their students, but notes that existing research doesn't provide clear answers.

"There hasn't been a kind of a repeated effort to study the same phenomenon over time," she said.

There is no one single magic bullet that will transform teaching and learning in schools.- Dr. Nina Bascia , Professor of Education Policy at OISE

"In every case where a government introduces a new policy, they're hoping that that single event will create a completely different situation in schools. Schools are very complicated beasts and there are many policies at play and there is no one single magic bullet that will transform teaching and learning in schools."

To discuss what the planned increase to Ontario class sizes could mean for students, Anna Maria Tremonti spoke with: 

  • Rayne Fisher-Quann, a Grade 12 student and activist who helped organize the #StudentsSayNo walkout to protest the Ford government's changes to Ontario's education system.
  • Dr. Nina Bascia, Professor of Education Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and expert on class sizes.
  • Paul Bennett, a former teacher and principal who now researches teacher discipline and is the director of Schoolhouse Consulting.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Produced by Idella Sturino, Alison Masemann and Daneille Carr.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.