Halving class sizes: Impossible or vital?

Last updated 12:00 01/02/2013
SCHOOL RULES: Can we make smaller class sizes work?

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School class size defines quality time or the lack of it. Numbers above 20 exponentially reduce teacher effectiveness.

In a classroom of 30 pupils the slower, shyer, quieter, noisier, and less-focused students participate less and less in learning, while the attentive few who put up their hands and participate by habit, temperament or intelligence, go from strength to strength.

In a classroom of 15 the individual has a better chance. The teacher has time to listen attentively to an answer (without having to keep a watchful eye on the other 29), and to savour and encourage input from the shy, hesitant, or divergent thinkers.

Moreover, the teacher can field an answer from one student, refer it back to an earlier response from another, and in turn invite comment from yet another, weaving together young ideas within the lesson context and fostering a class dynamic.

In a class of this nature, all individuals have an identity, a vital factor in the self-esteem of a teenager. This is real child-centred learning, which we have long held as an ideal. It is also teacher-centred learning, for only a teacher can tailor feedback, approach and lesson pace to the needs of individual students, and the particular thought-climate of a class on any given day.

Teachers are our most valuable resource. This is hardly a new cliché, yet our teachers in large, noisy classes are effective for little more than relaying curriculum and content to students, complying with the escalating demands of administration and awarding assessment grades.

There is little opportunity for a relationship between teacher and student, other than the structured unproductive roles of 'adult at the board facilitating learning by students at the desk'.

Imagine a classroom in which the teacher actually gets to know their student, how their thinking works and is evolving, and how their way of thinking integrates with their peers.

Equally, a student pays more attention when they recognises as fact that class-room input is held in memory and esteem by the teacher, and that their contribution counts within the emerging class identity. In a class of 30, very few can be consistently reached in this way.

Of course halving class size spells doubling teacher numbers and classrooms, a formidable economic hurdle. The solution lies in halving the lesson time and halving the class size. Lessons are far too long anyway, and not conducive to sustained concentration in young minds.

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Here's how the system could be put to work:

In a class of 30, 15 students are in the classroom for 30 minutes, the other 15 in the school hall at desks.

After 30 minutes it is swap-over time. Only one or two teachers are needed to supervise the hall students, as the boundaries of complete silence are established from the start of the year. The hall students concentrate on their upcoming classroom session, going over the anticipated work and checking homework.

The hall becomes a disciplined temple of silence and concentration, not difficult to achieve, since the session is never longer than 30 minutes. In this way we exchange quantity, lengthy periods with large numbers, for quality, intensive sessions with low numbers. 

The model does not suit the time demand of practical lessons, and one or two days per week would be set aside for longer period times to accommodate these.

Valuing the individual is often spoken about but rarely achieved. Every teacher laments inwardly the student who is almost invisible to teacher and peers alike.

The patience, time and sensitivity that would make a significant difference to this kind of student is impossible in large classes.

There are better ways of bringing out the best in kids, such as uncompromised listening and caring in classes where size allows each learner to be reached and valued all of the time.

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