The week before last, I had the pleasure of working in an English as an Additional Language class with Gillian White. We were introducing the idea of a digital scrapbook to capture a reader’s thinking while reading. The lesson went well with students following closely, giving thoughtful responses to prompts and asking for clarification when needed.
After the mini lesson, four students immediately set off and started their digital scrapbook for their Book Talk novel. Two others, however, got involved in a playful disagreement instead. The two were having a great time ‘arguing’ with one another and, after 30 seconds, Gillian asked why they were not getting started on the task. Both, with smiles on their face, shrugged. They were then asked to focus and get to work. One, playfully, tried to continue. The other, however, responded by saying "We’re over this.”
Within minutes all the students were working away and Ms. Gillian and I were able to check in with each student at least twice offering clarification, suggestions, technical help, and encouragement. One student even helped Ms. Gillian with the technical aspects of her scrapbook.
Nearing the end of the lesson, a girl approached me and asked about her laptop. She’d finished most of the assignment, but her machine had a problem with the contrast making part of the process really difficult to navigate. I spent 6-7 minutes going through all the potential software and system issues only to conclude that it was the hardware that was failing her. I then instructed her to see tech support and gave her the language to ask the technicians the information they’d need to know to solve the problem.
After the lesson it struck me, imagine if the friendly disagreement and requests for help had happened in a normally sized classroom? Would the animated discussion between students have been addressed, or even noticed, swiftly enough? Could even two teachers in a classroom see all the students not once, but twice during regular class time? And what would happen if I had taken 6-7 minutes to attempt to solve one student’s technical issues?
Educators throughout the world have been grappling what is the ultimate learning environment. Depending on whom you consult, you will likely get different answers. In terms of efficiency, the common understanding is that 20-24 students in a class is a healthy balance of critical mass to keep things interesting while anything greater can often slip into chaos. The upper number is often pushed higher to accommodate more students, but I would question whether our goal is to accommodate or help students learn.
In past conversations with teachers, many hover around an ultimate student number between 16 to 20 — and this tends to be for grouping purposes. Prior to this experience, I would have said the best number of students for a class was 12. Now I think that number is 6.
Six students in a class ensures that any misunderstandings and other issues can be addressed almost immediately. No longer would a student be able to avoid work simply by lurking in the shadows with their time tested tricks; can I please go to the bathroom? It would take two, maybe three, lessons for a teacher to quickly get a sense of abilities, attitudes, and skill level while fostering a strong working relationship as well. I understand there are times, drama and PE for instance, when a larger number of students is not just desirable, but necessary. For those instances, I would suggest joining two or three 6 student classes as needed.
There are some teachers, many whom I have had the pleasure to witness, who are masterful of managing 24 or more students in a class. They set up centres, break students into smaller groups, have systems to check in to ensure understanding, and share the leadership and teaching with the students. Despite their success, these teachers can't do everything and I would question how strong the relationships can be with each and every student; few can pull that off.
I realize that in the current school environment class sizes of 6 are likely a pipe dream, but what I am stating here is both an observation and an opinion. My feeling is that if we notice that the most effective education is done is smaller groupings where stronger relationships are built between student and teacher (advisor, coach), then we will get creative to allow the smaller grouping to happen.
If you are an educator, have you a preferred size for student groupings? What strategies have you initiated to allow for the desired size groupings?
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