Hong Kong mother worries about her daughter getting lost in noisy, overwhelming large class

The solution to fixing girl’s lack of confidence may lie with nurturing her self-esteem, rather than a move to a different school with smaller classes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2017, 4:48pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2017, 4:48pm

My Year Five daughter has lost confidence at school in Hong Kong and her work is going downhill. She finds it noisy and overwhelming being in a class of 30, and the teacher doesn’t have time to help her when she gets stuck. Her teachers say she is very quiet and doesn’t answer questions, but if she puts her hand up she says she never gets picked. I’m thinking of finding a school with smaller classes.

Parents often fear that larger groups are more prone to disruption and children may receive less attention from the teacher. Classes of 30 or more can be less than ideal for quiet or shy children like your daughter. Unfortunately the current pressure on school places, especially in the international system, means this is unlikely to change in the near future.

A busy, sometimes noisy classroom of 30 students can be overwhelming for some children, particularly those who prefer a quiet, structured atmosphere. It is certainly challenging for teachers to give individual attention to every pupil. Good teachers often use creative and flexible grouping so they can differentiate work effectively and appropriately, and support students through focused group work.

Can smaller class sizes lead to a more effective education? This is a long-standing debate and much of the research evidence is inconclusive. Confident, able children who are able to work independently can fare well and even thrive in a large class. However, unsurprisingly it has been observed that class size does affect the amount of individual attention pupils receive and their active involvement in class. For example, a smaller class would mean that your daughter may be chosen to answer questions more frequently. Results have also shown that small classes are particularly beneficial for lower attaining pupils, who are more likely to turn off in larger classes.

Some education experts, however, argue that focusing on improving the quality of teaching is more important than reducing class sizes. Some large-scale studies, such as one by John Hattie, conclude that class size does not have a major influence on student learning. These analyses have been criticised because they are based on studies with variable parameters, such as the age of pupils and research design, making it difficult to reach solid conclusions.

Interestingly, results from Pisa (Programme of International Student Assessment) show that pupils in some Asian places including Hong Kong and Shanghai, where local education systems have relatively large classes, do very well in standardised tests. Despite this there has been a recent move to reduce class size, not to improve academic attainment but to develop critical-thinking skills and collaborative, student-centred approaches. There are a host of other reasons why these students do well academically, including the prevalence of private tutoring, high levels of parental support and cultural factors that stress education.

So, with inconclusive research you will need to consider other factors. Your daughter’s social group will be crucial to her happiness, both in and out of school. This should be an important consideration if you are thinking about changing schools. Having a close group of friends in whichever school she is in will help her to feel settled and confident.

Discuss your concerns with her class teacher, who may be able to offer extra support by giving her strategies to use if she gets stuck when the teacher is busy. These may include: asking an educational assistant (a competent one can be invaluable), having a peer buddy system where children help each other, simply missing out questions that she can’t do, or “having a go”. Use of headphones, during noisy activities, could also help your daughter’s concentration, as could creative use of classroom and other available spaces to allow for quiet working areas.

In a large class, as the teacher strives to stretch the bright children and give extra support to the less able, the middle ability or quiet, studious pupils can be forgotten. Children with behavioural difficulties are also demanding of the teacher’s time because if left without direct supervision they can be disruptive and distracting.

Keep in mind, however, that the perceived benefits of reduced class sizes will not accrue automatically – the quality of teaching is another vital component. Whatever your decision, the most important thing at this stage is to nurture your daughter’s confidence and self-esteem. Help her to feel positive and enthusiastic about attending school.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary school teacher