My main beef with the educational system as it stands, from kindergarten up through university, is with class size. I believe that if every class in the country were reduced to a maximum of fifteen students, many, if not most, of our educational and social ills would be resolved. Children, young adults and adults would learn better and would be better, because they would be seen, in the classroom if nowhere else, and because teachers would have the resources to connect and interact with them in a meaningful way that would lead to real learning much more often than it does now.
In large classes, most students are not met in what Vygotsky calls their “zone of proximal development” – they are not given tasks that are within their grasp but enough outside their comfort zone to be an interesting challenge. Instead, they are often asked either to achieve things that are out of their reach, or to achieve at a level lower than their current ability, so there is no opportunity for learning. The teacher has no real way of knowing this, or time to deal with the problem, unless the student makes the effort to seek out individual help, and many students won’t.
Now, I can’t do anything about my class sizes. English post-intro classes topped out at 43 students last semester – preposterous, but unavoidable under current conditions, unless you behave like a maniac until the course delete deadline and thin the herd that way. (Sometimes I’m tempted.)
A couple of semesters ago, I was teetering on the edge of quitting my job, because I had once been madly in love with teaching but now felt no enthusiasm and, in fact, dreaded going to work most days. I couldn’t put my finger on the exact source of the problem, but sensed it had something to do with not connecting personally with my students. It was hard to feel invested in them or their achievements while staring at a sea of faces, not knowing what was really happening behind the blank, bored or even enthusiastic expressions. One thing that would help, I thought, would be to know that I was making a difference to them, that they were not just showing up to class and doing the work badly or adequately or well, but that they were getting what they needed to move forward in a significant way.
So I decided to experiment with ways to get more individual time with my students. I tried scheduling “personal appointments”: for the second and second-last classes of the semester, I asked students, instead of meeting in the classroom, to schedule a ten-minute interview sometime over a period of a few days, where we could discuss where they were coming from (at the beginning) and what they had learned (at the end). This was fine, and achieved the purpose in some ways – getting them into my office made them more comfortable about coming on their own volition, and I did get to know a bit about some of them – but many interviews felt rote and not very enlightening, and the concrete result of the exercise was not clear. Could meeting 110 students individually over the course of a week really help me know their strengths and weaknesses and how to address them? It didn’t seem so.
This past semester, therefore, I abandoned the “personal appointments” exercise, but stumbled upon another possibility.
Before each major assignment, I usually dedicate a class to essay preparation; I ask students to put together a rudimentary outline of their paper and show it to me before they leave the class. Even if I announce this the class before and ask them to think about it, many students arrive unprepared to do this exercise and therefore get nothing out of it and end up leaving as soon as they can.
I decided to ask them, instead of coming to class to prepare an outline, to come to my office within a four-hour window around class time, with a prepared outline that we could discuss together. That way, I could vet the outlines that seemed solid and well thought out, and could spend some time working with individuals who were struggling. It was up to students to come or not, but because the activity replaced a class, many of them were motivated to come; over half of the students showed up with, if not a full-fledged outline, at least some ideas and questions.
The process was exhausting, but entirely worth it. I got to see what exactly students were achieving and what they were having problems with. Many students who didn’t meet with me about the first assignment and didn’t do well made a point of coming to see me about the second and third assignments. I could track their improvements much more closely. I also, at the suggestion of a colleague, made it mandatory that they come and see me, on their own time, if they wanted to rewrite an assignment (they can rewrite each except the final for a portion of the assignment grade.) This drew out a number of students who hadn’t come for the original essay consultation, and gave me a chance to deal with them individually as well. At the end of each day of consultations, I could barely stand up out of my chair, but I felt profoundly satisfied – I knew without a doubt that some real learning had taken place.
When I got my student evaluations at the end of the semester, a recurring theme was that those students who had taken advantage of those appointments were very appreciative. Many said that they were helped by those individual consultations more than by anything else in the course. I could see it in the students’ results, as well – those who spent time with me before each of the assignments made real improvements, both immediately and over time.
There was a payoff in terms of personal connection – not only did I get to feel more investment in them and their processes, but I believe your feelings about your teacher and how much he/she cares about your success affect your learning. I think, however, the major benefit was that I got to observe where each student was, and what they needed in order to move forward. I could offer a question or suggestion and watch the reaction – was he connecting to what I was saying, or was there a piece missing that I had to provide?
There is not really any way to address 43 different “zones of proximal development” in a classroom, but ten minutes of consultation with an individual can accomplish more than fifteen weeks of material that passes just over his or her head. I think this realization just might keep me from throwing in the teaching towel.
(This post was adapted from a personal response I wrote for an MEd course.)