‘Class size is the biggest dead end in the world,’ writer tells provincial Liberal think-tank

Posted on May 16, 2010 in Education Debates

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TheStar.com – Ontario/parentcentral.ca/education
May 16, 2010.   Tanya Talaga

COLLINGWOOD, ONT.—Smaller class sizes are “ludicrous” and a waste of money, according to bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell in a keynote address to the provincial Liberal party faithful at a “big think” conference.

Gladwell, who was raised in southwestern Ontario, spoke at the “Imaging Ontario’s Future” conference at the Blue Mountain resort here.

“I was very grateful this invitation came from you and not the Tories,” he joked. “Otherwise my mother would have disowned me.”

Gladwell, whose books include The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s Trinity College.

He spoke of making the case for a “new kind of liberalism” and the importance of a proactive government with a clear message and agenda.

Everything the world has learned about education shows that the quality of the teacher is the most important factor in a student’s success, Gladwell said.

“I know that from time to time there is a lot of interest in the power and importance of reducing class size but the data shows class size is the biggest dead end in the world,” Gladwell said.

Sitting in the front row listening to Gladwell was Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose key election promise in 2003 was reducing class sizes for elementary students.

“Even if you were to cut every class in Ontario in half, you’d improve the performance of Ontario’s schoolchildren by about 5 percentile points,” Gladwell said.

But changing teacher quality has a “massive impact” on student outcome, he said.

“If a child is unlucky enough to have a bad teacher three years in a row they will fall three years behind a child lucky enough to have a good teacher three years in a row.”

The question is how do you improve the quality of teachers, Gladwell said. Raising academic requirements isn’t the simple answer. Teaching is complicated in this modern world, he said.

“We are asking them to play six, seven, eight different roles in the classroom. The best thing we can do for teachers is to simply let them teach. That requires a government that is activist … that is not afraid to try something radically new,” he said.

On Saturday, McGuinty told reporters he wasn’t bothered by Gladwell’s opinion on class sizes. The party invited a slew of different academics, consultants and speakers to challenge Liberal minds as they hunt for new ideas ahead of next year’s provincial election, he said.

Economist Jeff Rubin is an example of someone who has fundamentally different thoughts than most Ontario Liberals, McGuinty said.

“We are trying to provoke ourselves with new kinds of thinking,” he said. “Jeff Rubin this morning (Saturday) said we shouldn’t have bailed out the auto sector, and Malcolm Gladwell last night said he didn’t like our smaller class sizes. That is great; we are open to that.

“Provoke us. Help us better understand the consequences of the decisions we make so we can plan better for the future,” he said.

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