What is the Deal With Class Size?

Does class size really make a difference?

Frequent commenters Gen X and Army Amy have asked me to give you my thoughts on class size and its effect on learning.  Early in this blog’s life, I wrote a post on class size, in which I assert that

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.

Four years on, I’m not as convinced.  I’ve taught classes with as few as 3 students and as many as 43; I’ve had semester loads of 70 students and loads of 120.   Of course small classes are nice: less grading, more chances for individuals to express themselves.  However, the effect of the class size seems to vary wildly depending on the dynamic in the class, the level of the students, and the conditions under which we are working.  I’ve had small classes that went pretty poorly, and big classes where everyone seemed to feel validated and supported.  In the end, it was difficult to tell whether the students in the small classes really learned more.

There is research that purports that class size has a huge effect on learning.  There is other research that purports that it doesn’t, or at least it has less of an effect than we think.  As usual, statistics can tell any story we want them to tell.

Nevertheless, I persist in feeling I am a much better teacher to my students if I have fewer of them.

What is your experience, as either a teacher or a student?  Does class size really make such a big difference?  Obviously, teachers are happier if their classes are smaller.  Are students happier too, and does this help them achieve?

Image by Sigur Decroos

What Do Students Think Should Change About School?

This is a call out to students.  Whether you’re in primary, middle or high school, whether you’re a college undergrad or a postdoctoral fellow, I’d like to hear your opinion.  What do you think should change about school?

My friend Gen X has asked me to put this question out there.  She’s interested in students’ frustrations about all aspects of our society – school, workplace, social life, etc. – but to begin, I’m especially interested in what’s bugging you about school.  How could school be better?

You can leave your thoughts in the comments below.  If you’re shy, you can send them to me by email through the form on my contact page.  And if you’d like to really get your hands into it, write and email me a mini- (or maxi-!) essay of 200 words or more. I will feature the best essays as a future guest posts here on Classroom as Microcosm!

Parents, teachers and other non-students, please forward this question to the thoughtful and articulate students you know: if you were Supreme High Overlord or Overlady of the World, what would you change about school?

Image by Ivan Prole

The Problem With Desire Paths

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about “desire paths” lately, and I don’t like where the talk is going.

Tony Baldusaro tells a charming story about desire paths: officials at Disney World were upset about customers scarring the lawns by cutting across them instead of sticking to the sidewalks.  They asked Walt Disney how they could protect the lawns and keep the public on the designated paths, and Disney replied, “They’re telling you where to put the paths.”

Baldusaro draws a parallel with the classroom.

Fast forward to the typical … American classroom and ask, “Are our students telling us where to put the paths?” and if so, what are we doing about it?  Are we following Disney’s lead and adjusting our practices or are we complaining about the “scar” they are leaving on the lawn we call public education?

I agree that there is much that needs to be changed about the contemporary classroom.  I agree that we have to pay more attention to our students’ actual needs, as opposed to our perception of their needs, but “desire” and “need” are not the same thing.  Disney World is about desire, not need.  The classroom should be about need.

Which is not to say that desire has no role to play, but meeting our students’ needs can mean thwarting their desires.  Many of my students want school to be as easy and mindless as possible.  They may have good reason for this: they are working forty hours a week, they have emergencies going on at home, they have lived their whole lives in a state of unrelenting stress and confusion and so are too exhausted to meet the demands of the college classroom.  Does this mean that we ask less of them because that is what they desire?

Even good students want to engage in tasks that they enjoy, but they often enjoy these tasks because they are already good at them and will be praised for what they produce.  If I begin the term by asking Anne to write a personal narrative, she is happy, because she likes creative writing and writes good stories.  She then becomes frustrated and resistant when asked to move on to writing an academic essay, because she has difficulty with analysis and finds MLA formatting baffling.  Obviously, she has a lot more to learn when it comes to formal papers – she’s not good at them yet.  The tasks we resist most are often the ones we most need to do.  This is what “learning” entails.

The structure of the classroom needs to change, but it does not need to become Disney World.  One of the most important skills students can learn is to meet difficult tasks bravely, to cheerfully do things they might not do, if left to follow their own desires.  If we’re lucky, they will start to desire challenges, and then they won’t need teachers any more, because they will seek out the difficult and the new.

We all choose the easy path most of the time.  Can we help our students choose paths that are difficult, even frustrating, because their deepest desire is to learn?

Maybe.  There are some clues in an article that has recently been making the rounds: an essay on the importance of learning how to fail.  I will post about this essay on Monday.

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Image by Craig Goodwin

Late Adolescence and the Life-span Construct

Our students are clearly at a crucial time in the building of their “life-span construct,” a part of our personality wherein we have a unified sense of past, present, and future – in other words, a sense of who we are over time.

Building this life-span construct involves creating “scenarios,” or expectations about the future, projections in which we imagine the possible outcomes of present events and activities. As we achieve (or fail to achieve) some of the goals we set in our scenarios, we begin to construct our autobiography or “life story,” organizing past events into a narrative. We fit new experiences into existing identity constructions (assimilation) and change our scenarios, life story, and self-concept to adapt to new experiences (accommodation).

Between the end of high school and the completion of university, a person’s self-concept will often be based largely on scenarios. Our students, for example, need to choose a course of CEGEP study, accommodate themselves to new information about that field as they pursue it (“Is this really what I want to do?”), either complete their studies here at CEGEP or choose a university program, and then continue to assimilate and accommodate new information and experiences.

Besides career choices, people at this stage of life also have to make decisions about their social and family lives (“Will I live at home or move out of the house?” “Will I stay with my high school boyfriend or play the field?” “Will I continue to invest my energy in my childhood friends or connect more with the people I meet in my program?”)

Some queer teenagers may find that CEGEP is the first place where they feel they have the option to come out or at least explore their sexual identity.

Also, students’ childhood and adolescent fantasies of being movie stars or NHL goalies may have only recently given way to more realistic objectives, and their life stories are showing the first traces of solidity – the choices they are making now really do have concrete repercussions for the way the rest of their lives will turn out. I see this in my office at least a couple of times per semester, when a student announces that he is changing programs, that she is dropping out of school or has decided not to drop out of school, that he is considering studying either English literature or medicine at university and can’t come to a decision, and so on. These are serious dilemmas, and I feel for these students and understand the pressure they are under.

CEGEP students are at a critical moment in forming their life-span construct. The scenarios they are building for themselves are influenced by every piece of information they receive at this time, however small. This includes information about my subject matter that I transmit to them, but also includes information about themselves that they receive from me – their grades, the expression on my face and the tone in my voice when I speak to them, the standards I expect them to live up to and the consequences I mete out when they do or don’t. On the one hand, this knowledge is terrifying – what if I make a wrong move and a student’s life story takes a nasty twist? On the other, it’s exciting to think that we can have an impact, and to know that if we are conscientious and caring, more often than not the impact will be positive.

(This post was adapted from an analytical response to the following text:

Kail, R., Cavanaugh, J. C., & Ateah, C. A. (2006) Emerging Adulthood (Canadian ed.) Custom Edition of Human Development: A Life-Span View. Scarborough, Ont.: Thomson Custom Publishing.

I wrote the original analysis for an MEd course.)

The Incomparable Mr. G: Part 2

Before I began teaching CEGEP, I taught intensive summer English Immersion programs at a university in small-town Quebec. I’d already been teaching in various capacities for a while at that point, but one experience with these five-week programs made me think suddenly of Mr. G.

My class that summer was a joy, and I established a good rapport with all of the students. This program was designed for people 18 and over, which meant that parties, dances and events could be held at the university pub. Teachers often attended these events as well; I and some of the other younger teachers got to know our students outside the classroom in this way.

After the five weeks were over, a number of students stayed in the village on an extended immersion program, to work and continue practicing their English. I was still in town as well, teaching another session. My former students were mostly staying together in two adjoining houses, just around the corner from my house, and they had regular parties to which I and a couple of colleagues were usually invited. I spent a number of weekend evenings at one or the other of these houses, drinking too much and staying up all night and generally behaving as I would with friends my own age.

It started to dawn on me, however, that I was not with friends my own age. I had been teaching since I was very young, and was accustomed to my students seeing me almost as a peer. I had failed to notice that I was no longer a peer at all – most of these people were 18, 19 and 20 years old, and I had just turned 30. What was more, even though they were no longer technically my students (and some of them never had been, having been in other classes), they clearly still perceived me as a teacher. One night the colleagues and I went out dancing with them, and they seemed both amused and bemused by this. They also seemed slightly shocked to see us smoking marijuana and engaging with them in conversations about relationships and sex. At first they seemed delighted that their teachers were “cool,” but as time went on I started to get the feeling that they didn’t quite know what to do with us, or how they should be relating to us.

One late night as I sat on the porch with a few of them, the police showed up, not once but twice, because we were making too much noise. The second time they appeared, I thought I saw one of them look at me slightly askance. It was probably my imagination – I don’t think I looked older than anyone else – but I was all at once profoundly uncomfortable. In my own mind I was suddenly ridiculous, like those middle-aged male professors who used to hit on me and my friends when we were undergraduates, and whom we always found so laughable and sad.

I had a sudden vision of Mr. G. Granted, when I knew him, he was older than I was that night on the porch, but nevertheless, he would never have spent a night reveling with his students – it would have seemed unutterably beneath his dignity – and some of his students would have been the same age as the students I was spending my evenings with now.

I didn’t go back to any of their parties after that.

I started teaching CEGEP the following September, and I found that my view of my students and my relationship to them was very different than it had been in the years leading up to that. I started to understand the need of students, especially young students, to see their teacher as a teacher and not as a pal. Recently a colleague commented on how, when she was a CEGEP student, she liked it when her teachers were friendly, personable and even “cool,” but not when they tried to be her friend. I thought of Mr. G again, and something clicked for me. Until students get to a certain point – graduate school, perhaps? – seeing a teacher as a “peer” is an uncomfortable experience. Those boundaries need to be clear.

Making the transition away from being a friend to my students and toward being a real “teacher” to them has been one of the greatest challenges of my teaching life. I am trying to find a balance where I can show them that I see them as individual people with individual lives, and that I am concerned about and interested in those lives, but that I know where to draw the lines, that I know my place. Memories of Mr. G have provided me with a very helpful model – it is possible to know your young students, and play a role in their lives that goes beyond the classroom, but it is important that the boundaries be clear, in order for them to be secure in their relationship with you and maintain a sense of respect that is as much to their benefit as it is to yours.

Class Size: The Root of All Evil

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.)