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Monday, October 17, 2011

When Less IS More: A Case for Smaller Class Sizes

When the district had no legal grounds to fire me in the wake of Bloggate 2011, they tried to make me superfluous by encouraging students and their parents to opt out of my classes. After all, what is a teacher without students to teach? Unfortunately for that plan, my numbers--though they did drop significantly, leaving me with about a third of the number of students I would normally have had, and with only a third of the number of students my colleagues have--did not zero out.

What I was left with, interestingly, is the number of students that each class SHOULD have for optimal teaching and learning.

The way our education system is set up today, however, the trend is toward increasing class sizes, and not lowering them. Sadly, this is a recipe for failure (which is what policymakers are aiming to do when it comes to public education. After all, if the public school system fails, it must mean that the right action is in privatizing all of education and making it more of a business than it already is. What a clever plan!) Teachers have too many students and not enough time (and, sometimes, resources) to effectively do their jobs. Students are lost in the shuffle as a result of a broken system. Everyone loses.

In years past, I've had classes of all sizes-- from 1 (yes, 1; in fact, I had 2 sections of 1 student each on opposite days and I always wondered why they couldn't combine those sections to at least create a class of 2...) to 30. Now, there is such a thing as too small. 1 is too small. There's no opportunity for collaboration, among other challenges. But 30 is way too large. First, there are too many bodies in the room. Next, there are too many individualized needs and styles and aptitudes and preferences--in a class of 30, someone is always going to go unnoticed.

My classes this semester are 12, 15, and 7 students. I have gone out of my way to make the most of this opportunity, which I've approached as a unique chance to get to attempt to run class in a way that makes the most of it for my students.

Here are just some ways I've noted a positive difference with a smaller number:


It is expected that teachers provide students with feedback on their work, so that students can use that feedback to move forward effectively in their studies. With larger classes, the quality of that feedback sometimes suffers because there simply isn't time to do the job the way it needs to be done to have the most positive benefits. Sometimes this might manifest itself in a check mark on a page or a blanket statement meant to cover the trends in the class. But with classes that are half the size, there is time to provide targeted feedback to each student on his writing, his projects, even his tests and quizzes. There is an opportunity to take the time to write comments on every piece a student hands in that is specific to what the student has handed in. There is time to conference with students on their work. Am I saying that teachers with 30 or more students don't manage to do these things in a quality manner? Of course not. Many still make it work. But it's much more difficult and may require, for instance, a teacher meeting with students before and after school, or spending hours on hours of her personal time working to complete these tasks (tasks which very often go unnoticed by outsiders who imagine that a teacher's day ends at 3pm, when, in some ways, a teacher's day is just beginning what with lesson creation, grading, and meetings taking place.) The larger class numbers may mean longer turn-around time to deliver helpful feedback or less pointed feedback being given. And, for the teacher, it may just mean more stress and less patience as there simply are not enough hours in a day to do her job the way she would like to do it.

Student Progress and Community
With large numbers, it is quite possible for teachers to have difficulty keeping track of individual student progress. Students could, theoretically, fall through the cracks. With smaller numbers, though, it's easier to keep on top of trends in homework completion, levels of participation in class discussions, and slips in behavior/interest levels. The smaller numbers make it possible for teachers to be aware of their students' work habits and intercede as needed. The small numbers also make it easier to make sure that all students are heard from in class. Does that mean that there aren't still some dominant personalities in the room? No; but it does mean that it's easier to draw students out who might normally be disinclined to talk. There's a perception that everyone talks--it's just what happens in there. With fewer students, there's more of a need to contribute because there aren't as many bodies to pick up the slack. It can even equate into a stronger class community because everyone knows everyone else; sometimes it can even feel like a little family.


I've been able to conference with each of my students about their progress in class. I've been able to sit down with them and talk to them about the quality of the assignments being assigned, the running of the class in relationship to their needs, and their individual levels of confusion/understanding of the materials. There is face time. And this conferencing can happen more regularly because it doesn't take place over a number of days or by appointment only. It can be integrated into a regular class period while students work on independent or group tasks. I've also found  my students more likely to talk to me privately about personal matters that may pop up, which I attribute, in part, to their comfort level in talking to me because they are used to doing so.

Individualized Needs/Pacing

Closely related to student progress and conferencing are individualized needs and pacing considerations. With smaller classes, teachers are able to consider the needs of fewer students in their class, and can let the class dictate the pacing of the lessons, instead of the need to move forward. I've been very surprised to realize how much more quickly certain lessons run with fewer students in the room. When one stops to think about it, it makes sense. But it's something I didn't consider very much until I was faced with lessons running smoothly because there were fewer interruptions or because every student was comfortable with the material and was ready to move forward. With more students in the class, it's less likely that everyone will be ready to move ahead. Therefore, at any given time, it's possible that some students are forced to wait to move ahead if most students need more time with a concept, while others are being left behind because most students are ready to move on. Some groups, too, prefer different methods of doing things. It's easier to identify and cater to those preferences when their are fewer people involved.

Communication with Parents/Guardians

With fewer students, it is also more likely that teachers have time to notice or spend time on interpersonal matters. This semester, because I have such small classes, I had time to personally email each parent who attended back to school night. It was a great opportunity to create relationships with my students' parents and help build a bridge between home and school. I've had time to email parents when their student seems out of sorts or even when their student makes a positive contribution to class.

When I was shopping around for colleges, one of the big draws for me was the teacher: student ratio. I wanted to be somewhere where I would be a name and not a number. I chose to attend Rosemont College as an undergraduate and was always struck by the individualized attention I received from my professors in my small classes. My largest classes at Rosemont were intro or survey courses (100- or 200- level)--they were about 28 students. My smallest class (an upper-level French class) was 4 students. For most of my major courses, though, the classes maxed out at 12. Sure, it made it difficult to fade into the background. It made it necessary for me to be present and engaged in the proceedings of the day. It made it necessary for me to be prepared when I arrived. (When I wasn't, it made for an embarrassing hour. But I made damned sure I was ready the next day because I never wanted to feel that way again.)  Are any of these factors BAD things? I don't think so. These are the things that students need to succeed.

I wish that policy-makers would realize the benefits of the smaller classes, and find a way to make them a reality.

While my own low class numbers was the result of an effort toward punishing me, ironically, it's been a positive experience. It's helped me to realize anew that we're operating within a broken system, and given me a chance to see another specific way we could work to improve that system.

Perhaps there should be a push for parents to opt out of large classes for their students, so their kids can more consistently get what they need from an instructional and community standpoint.