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Discussing class size at a faculty meeting is always entertaining. Administrators will toss out the line, “Research shows that class size does not affect the quality of a child’s education.” The teachers will counter that with, “The research shows that smaller class sizes are more effective.”
No one is wrong here, and no one is right. Class size is a challenge, but not always the way we think it will be. In my remedial reading classes, the sizes range from five students to seventeen. I get more accomplished with the seventeen than I do with the five on most given days.
First of all, I like to have kids talk…to me and to each other. Discussion is a big part of how I teach, and the smaller the class, the more difficult it can be to get them to talk. Smaller numbers also can limit the exchange of ideas. There is not a lot of diversity in our school compared to many, so ideas tend to be similar. In a larger group, I can get a more wide-range of opinions and more critical thinking can occur, whereas in my smaller class, there tends to be less to argue. Secondly, I do a lot of small group work, and I like to mix up my groups for various purposes. With five students, there is no opportunity for small group instruction…they are already a small group, and they quickly get tired of working with each other. My class of seventeen is easy to engage, as they provide more flexibility with grouping and will usually have one or two students willing to start the class discussion. Both of these classes require vastly different strategies to achieve the same goals, and that requires me to differentiate for them, not for them to conform to one particular method or another.
Don’t get me wrong, large classes can present their own challenges. My current Pre-AP class is the largest I have had in a while at 27. My classroom is small, and configuring that many desks so that there was still room for all of our stuff was my first challenge. My second challenge was managing behavior. These kids love to talk…all the time…about anything. I had to change my practice to provide more opportunities for students to have conversations, even short ones, about what we are doing in class to limit their endless need to converse. The grouping in this class can also be more flexible, but I tend to need to pay more attention to personality when grouping than to ability levels.
Teaching is affected by so many more things than just the size of the class. In a perfect world, classes would be under twenty students with ten each of boys and girls, no class would have more than 20% learning support or economically disadvantaged in its population, and all classes would be taught before lunch. The only thing that I can truly control in my classroom is how I approach each group, no matter what the size, finding what works for them and allowing them the room and the support they need to grow to their fullest potential before they go on their way at the end of the year.
It seems to me that class size does matter…just not always the way we think it does.