‘Schools are efficient, but are they effective?’ This phrase has been going through my head a lot recently and, funnily enough, I am hearing it used in many different contexts.
For example, while listening to one of my favourite podcasts, The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright, I heard an interview with Dr. Mintzberg speaking about what he calls a collection of treatments that masquerade as the Canadian health care system (or what some call sickness care system). During the interview, Dr. Mintzberg mentioned that hospitals should be more effective and less efficient. Listen to the except I have included below (I recommend listening to the whole interview here if you have the time: Medicine is a calling, not a business: Henry Mintzberg)
As you can hear, he looks upon professions like health and education as needing different types of metrics than those more commonly used in businesses. Our goals, he says, are different. The bottom line in a hospital or school are health and learning, respectively, not profit.
Schools have got caught up in the growth model and, I believe, being too big has significant drawbacks. It forces the institution to become more efficient at the expense of being effective. Every school I have worked at that has expanded the number of classes to ‘reduce class size’ inevitably sees the recently added classes swell to 24 or more students. That threshold, I believe, forces the classes to a point where we are managing curriculum often at the expense of engaging and empowering learning.
The institution of school has become quite efficient in keeping students in classrooms for 7 to 8 hours a day. My question is how effective is this model for each and every student? Do we, as educators, really know how effective our methods are beyond the test scores and report card grades? Is there a way to measure personal fulfillment?
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After school on Friday the 16th of February, I was asked to help supervise a student’s video project. The student had booked the theatre, ensured there were the correct props and costumes, found two students to act and another to be the videographer, got all the equipment, and scheduled everyone to be ready at 2:40pm. The students worked solidly for 2 hours until 5pm when one had to go to a movie. During this time, there was not one argument or disagreement. The worse that happened was two of the team pretended to have a sword fight with a prop; it quickly ended 30 seconds after it started when one got an uncomfortable poke. Throughout the filming the students collaborated to problem solve without one argument.
Did I mention it was after school on Friday?
I ‘supervised’ with another teacher, but truthfully, I did very little other than make sure they were safe. Weeks before I had prompted the student in charge to consider creating a short video for the Across Asia Youth Film Festival. He was reluctant to rush his current project, but I thought he could enter a short film in the under 3 minute category. We discussed possible topics and when we got to the possibilities of humorous stories around the game of chess; he was hooked. Two days later he had a script for a short video entitled 'The Move' and was consulting the DP Film teacher about the storyline and setting.
As I sat there in the theatre marvelling at how well the students were working together I couldn’t help but think that this is how school should be. A place where student find projects they want to work on and then complete those activities until they are finished. If this were a class held during the normal school day, it would have taken 3, 60 minute periods (because set up and take down would consume 15-20 minutes each time) over at least a week; a momentum killer.
Imagine if students came and went from school as and when they needed to. No required hours, no bells to mark blocks of time, no forced deadlines to complete tasks. Instead, students organizing their activities and working on them until they are done, the only deadlines and criteria being the ones that they value.
This anecdote heightened my sense of the potential for the future of learning and education; it gave me hope. Is it any wonder that this activity occurred after school hours?
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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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