Here in Alberta, we have an interesting situation: one of the best education systems in the entire world, yet still feel the need to complain about it and obsess over it in public policy. One of the biggest things that we wrestle with in terms of our province’s system is how the money is going to be spent when the government gives it to us.
(As a slight aside, kudos to our newly-elected premier for following through on a campaign promise of increased education funding. In a downward economy, it might be easy to simply get elected and then say, ‘whoops, less money here than I thought. Guess that’s kaput’. Bravo!)
Anyways, when we get funding, the first idea is obviously to hire more teachers, the argument being that class size really does make a difference in the learning of students. The classic example that’s usually brought up at this point is a university undergraduate course with 1000 students, 1 professor, and absolutely zero engagement and interest. (I mean, really, who remembers their English 1000 course? Sit down, English majors, no one was talking to you! Stop messing up my point!)
This is a bad analogy for a couple of reasons. One, adults learn and take charge of their learning in very different ways from, say, six year olds. Two, the difference between 1000 students and 15 is a lot easier to measure than the difference between 15 and 20.
From my own experience in a variety of classes as a student, I put myself slightly on the side of those who believe that more teachers and smaller classes is the way to go. I never had a true example of this until my current teaching year.
As a music teacher who does mostly band, I see roughly 30 kids in the average class. This is on the high side for a social studies or math course, but the rigorous group performance task helps cut down on the confusion. As such, it’s hard for me to judge class size as a factor for learning.
Then I got my introductory computers course. Over 20 in the one, just under in the other. And let me tell you, it does make a difference. The amount of time I should be spending with students for individual help in the one class always leaves me a little behind in terms of being able to address all the questions and needs as efficiently as I would like to. Whereas the other class, I have plenty of time to look around, judge classroom management situations, and help anyone who needs it.
I got an even more extreme example just this week past. The majority of students in a class were gone on a field trip, so I had a grand total of four students. For 80 minutes. It was incredible. The personal connections that I could forge without even feeling like I was the least bit neglecting another student was amazing. Work got done faster than ever before, fun was had by all, and some of the useful tangents that help certain students learn better were able to be fully explored in a cooperative environment.
I don’t know if the solution is always ‘hire more teachers’, because just like in any other field, eventually you scrape the bottom of the barrel and hire perhaps not your best employees, but I’ve got to say that if I could simply choose to have 5 less students in any class I teach, it would be so worth it.
As a final mental experiment for those of you who might not have any experience in a classroom as the teacher, imagine that you are in charge of 24 8-year olds for an hour. In that hour, you need to help them learn one or two new things about the history of their country, and make sure that no one ends up bleeding, in a fight, or disappears on you. Now I offer you the chance to have that same situation, but I say, ‘This time you get 19 kids’.
Which do you choose?