Big isn’t always best (but neither is small)

Classroom with students and teachers - NARA - ...
Classroom with students and teachers – NARA – 285702 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having watched many lessons in state schools in South Korea, I can safely say that too many students in a classroom equals less learning for a fair percentage of the class.   Classrooms with 30+ students, especially where students are of very mixed ability, are difficult to manage in anything other than a teacher-centred way.  Students, especially weaker ones, are often marginalized and become anonymous, causing them to misbehave and lose motivation.  Bigger, quite definitely is not better in this case.

The conventional wisdom, especially amongst wealthier language students, is that small classes are better than big classes.  Some schools even use their low teacher to student ratio as their USP (unique selling point).  The idea being that less students in the classroom means a higher quality of learning.  This all sounds quite logical, but is it actually true?

In “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants”, Malcolm Gladwell argues that smaller classes do not result in improved academic results.  In fact, having more people in the classroom results in a better learning environment, or to put it another way “it is a strange thing, isn’t it, to have an education philosophy that thinks of the other students in the classroom…as competitors for the attention of the teacher and not allies in the adventure of learning?”

So what is the ideal class size?  The answer to this question, as to so many other questions of this kind, is somewhere in the middle.  Anything less than 10 is probably too small and anything more than 25 is probably too big.  A lot of teachers would doubtless say that 12 is the perfect number, but I would counter that this is a good minimum number.  I much prefer classes of 16 to 18 students.  This allows for students to mix with lots of other students, it allows for good classroom dynamics, and generates lots of discussion and constructive “noise”.  It’s not so intimate that students feel intimidated, nor is it so big that students can hide and become anonymous.

For school managers (and designers) this presents an interesting conundrum.  Should you build smaller classrooms to accommodate fewer students, which would mean hiring more teachers and charging students more money for the privilege?  Or should you build bigger classrooms and have a minimum number of students set at 12, which in turn would necessitate hiring fewer teachers (or firing more teachers) and opening fewer classrooms (which may also in turn result in less specialized courses).

From a financial point of view, wouldn’t it make sense to do the latter?  Aren’t teachers and classrooms the biggest expense and should therefore be exploited to their fullest capacity?  Wouldn’t it be more financially prudent to put more students into fewer classrooms thus maximising profits?

From a pedagogical point of view also, wouldn’t it make sense to do the latter?  Students learn better in an environment where there are lots of other people to talk to, rather than one other person to talk to?  Teachers (let’s not forget that they are stakeholders, too) also, by and large, prefer to teach medium-sized classes.

The only problem with this theory is that as long as paying customers perceive small classrooms to be an advantage, and until schools are brave enough to admit that smaller is not better, then schools will continue to charge students extra for the dubious benefits of a low student to teacher to ratio.

What do the teachers think?  Do you like teaching small classes?  Is 18 students in a class too many?  What is the ideal class size for you?

On “Geek” Versus “Nerd”

Geeks aren’t necessarily nerds and nerds aren’t necessarily geeks, but they usually are, and they’re usually introverts. It’s probably something to do with thinking deeply on niche subjects. I’m definitely a educational nerd (research, psychology, pedagogy, etc), but also something of a movie/game/music geek (collecting trivia as well as the things themselves). The world is run by nerds isn’t it? They work in the background making iphones, finding cures to diseases, writing policy documents, . Everybody else is just along for the ride 😉


To many people, “geek” and “nerd” are synonyms, but in fact they are a little different. Consider the phrase “sports geek” — an occasional substitute for “jock” and perhaps the arch-rival of a “nerd” in high-school folklore. If “geek” and “nerd” are synonyms, then “sports geek” might be an oxymoron. (Furthermore, “sports nerd” either doesn’t compute or means something else.)

In my mind, “geek” and “nerd” are related, but capture different dimensions of an intense dedication to a subject:

  • geek – An enthusiast of a particular topic or field. Geeks are “collection” oriented, gathering facts and mementos related to their subject of interest. They are obsessed with the newest, coolest, trendiest things that their subject has to offer.
  • nerd – A studious intellectual, although again of a particular topic or field. Nerds are “achievement” oriented, and focus their efforts on acquiring knowledge and skill over trivia and memorabilia.

Or, to…

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true confessions of an introvert

English: Albert Einstein Français : Portrait d...
English: Albert Einstein Français : Portrait d’Albert Einstein (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork…for well I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding.”

Albert Einstein

First of all, I’m no Einstein, but we do have some things in common.  For example I don’t like to worry about what I wear to work (apparently, and probably apocryphally, Einstein didn’t like to waste valuable thinking time on wardrobe decisions).  Also, we are both INTPs (according to most MBTI-type websites).  For those of you who don’t know about MBTI, there is something called a  Briggs Myers Personality Indicator which categories people into 16 personality types.  I stands for Introverted, and if Jungian archetypes are to be believed, everyone is either an introvert or an extrovert.  In other words, roughly half of the world’s population is introverted.

Introversion, as I understand it means looking inward, rather than outwards.  Introverts prefer quiet places to noisy places, prefer the company of a few rather than the company of many, they need to recharge their batteries with quiet walks, reading books, etc.  Extroverts like meeting new people, doing noisy and exciting things like going to parties and nightclubs, they get their energy from other people (a bit like vampires).  Introverts get their energy from themselves or from their close friends and relatives.

As Susan Cain says in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking“, introversion seems to carry a negative connotation these days – to some it means shyness, social awkwardness, even misanthropy, but it wasn’t always viewed so negatively.  In Steven Covey’s seminal book “7 habits of Highly Effective People” he describes the current obsession with personality over character.  We admire good looks, a winning smile, the ability to speak well in front of an audience; we are told to be assertive, confident and pro-active, qualities normally associated with extroversion.  In the past people were more concerned with character – stoicism, moral fortitude, and temperance, etc, qualities often more associated with introversion – think: the strong silent type, silence is golden, still waters run deep, etc.

The fashion these days seems to be that extroverted is better – open plan offices, brainstorming, motivational talks by people with great hair and beautiful white teeth, and team working, all favour extroverts.  It’s as if extroverts have taken over the world – they design our workspaces to suit their way of working, they measure people against competencies that come more naturally to extroverts, e.g. the ability to network, to work in groups, to share information, etc.  They rule the airwaves and occupy managerial positions (but apparently a large number of CEOs are actually introverts).  They must be stopped! (now I sound like David Icke).

Personally, I don’t much like working in groups and it’s not because I’m socially awkward, or shy, or behaviourally challenged.  I simply work better on my own most of the time.  I get more work done, more quickly.  I don’t like meetings.  Meetings are invariably an opportunity for the office gasbag to vent their spleen or for a manager to lay down the law – very rarely are meetings productive.  When I go to conferences I don’t want to walk around introducing myself to strangers, I prefer to cultivate one or two relationships with important contacts.  I think brainstorming is a waste of time, studies have shown that decision-making is best done  independently and then crowd-sourced, rather than getting everybody in a room to reach a consensus driven by one or two dominant actors.

When people get into groups they typically allow one or two people to dominate the discussion (usually the extroverts) and this somehow gets translated into a consensus view. This also happens in the classroom, the prevailing ELT pedagogy is based on Vygotskian ideas of socio-constructivism, i.e. we learn from each other, hence the preponderance of group activities in modern English language classrooms.  But do students actually like working in groups, or do they work in groups simply because their teacher tells them to?

There are all sorts of problems with forcing people to study or work in groups – it may well go against the grain for a lot of people.  Whenever I work in a group I find that I can’t speak as well, my ideas are not as forthcoming and I allow other people to lead the discussion.  My wife recently expressed a similar dissatisfaction with her training course bemoaning the fact that “we always work in groups.  It’s really hard. I have to compromise, or agree with something that I know is wrong, for the sake of group unity.”  And that says it all really.

on the dangers of self-herding and the importance of lesson observations


I guess we all know about the concept of herding; we follow trends, we try to keep up with the Joneses, we do things in a group that we’d never do if were are on our own, but have you heard of self-herding?  

According to Dan Ariely in “The Upside to Irrationality”, not only do we copy the behaviour of the people around us, but we also copy our own behavioural history.  In other words, if we do something in a situation which seems to work for us then we’ll remember it (or rather our subconscious will remember). We’ll then copy that behaviour in subsequent and similar situations, even if the behaviour is unhealthy or destructive.  

For example if I have an argument with my wife and I storm out the door, after 20 minutes or so I might feel better, but I’m pretty sure my wife is feeling shut out and possibly abandoned.  But I don’t remember how she felt, I only remember how I felt.  So the next time I have an argument, rationally I might think “last time I walked out the door, and that wasn’t very mature, so I’m going to speak in a calm and rational voice and listen carefully to my wife.”  When we are rational, we can slow things down and act on this kind of intelligence, but in a fight, who acts rationally?  In these situations we don’t rationalise, but act on instinct, so instead of talking calmly with my wife, I’m more likely to act on my behavioural instincts and do what seemed to work for me last time; walk out the door.

Generally, people don’t think before they act every single minute of the day, this would be impractical and possibly dangerous (don’t stop and think when you’re see a 10 ton truck hurtling towards you, for god’s sake). We survive in this world not because we are rational, but because we are irrational, we rely on our instincts and behavioural patterns, even when they are wrong.

In Malcolm Gladwell‘s book “Outliers” he seems to have found the secret to success.  If you want to be good at something you need to do it for 10,000 hours.  In studies of violin players, it was found that what separated the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, was the amount of hours they spent practicing, not necessarily because of their innate talent.  We can probably think of other domains where this is true  –  top tennis players spend inordinate amounts of time hitting a tennis ball back and forth, Bill Gates spent hours and hours laboriously programming computers, etc.  If you spend 10,000 hours doing something does it automatically make you good at it?  I’ve watched plenty of teachers with 10, 20 even 30 years of experience and I’ve watched teachers with no experience,  and I’ve yet to see any correlation between x number  of hours teaching and quality of teaching.

Which reminds me of the question ‘Have you got 1o years experience, or do you have one year’s experience repeated 10 times?  I think it’s quite possible for anyone in teaching to repeat their mistakes year on year, especially if we take into account our propensity for self-herding.  Teaching can be quite a solitary business in a sense.  Yes teachers spend lots of time with their students, so they don’t do things in a total vacuum, and good teachers will act on feedback from their students in order to develop their craft.  However, it is solitary in the sense that our peers, the people who know about teaching, don’t often watch us teach.  So it is very easy for us to fall back on the tried and tested, on our self-herding instinct.  

Being observed and observing others is really the only way to avoid self-herding, it’s all well and good reading books and doing research and undertaking your own professional development, no doubt these things are important, but again our irrationality tends to take over – we seek things which confirm our views, we read books which support our arguments and justify our behaviour.  Reflection tasks are useful in the sense that you think about how you teach, but it’s really difficult to be objective about ourselves – we are very good at being blind to our weaknesses and we are very good at rationalising our choices, even when they are plainly wrong. 

Change means intervention – just ask any addict.  It’s incredibly hard to change oneself without an external agent to point out the flaws in our reasoning and behaviour.  Teachers need to observe and be observed in order to avoid the trap of repeating their one year’s experience for 10 or 20 or 30 years, if only to keep them sane. Watching other people teach is not a chore it’s a duty of care to your fellow professionals.

Getting teachers to observe each other (and be observed) isn’t easy and it requires a lot of support from educational institutions – if they truly care about teaching quality then they will give teachers time to observe each other and not expect them to undertake it in their own time. It should be part of the timetable, part of the ethos of a school. Any school which says it’s interested in teaching quality but doesn’t give its teachers a structured observation schedule is merely paying lip service to the idea of professional development.

If you ask most teachers why they don’t want to be observed, it’s because they don’t want to be evaluated or judged. It is not the observer’s role to pass judgement on the observee, it is their responsibility to provide data which the teacher can interpret for themselves. Observers and observees need to agree on the parameters of their observation, rather like an experiment in a lab. The more successful observations avoid value judgements and stick to observable facts, such as how did the teacher set up the task, what language did he/she use? Did she check her instructions? Did students look confused or do the wrong thing? Did the teacher interact with certain students more than others, How much student interaction was there in the lesson. How much time did the teacher spend at the board, sitting in is chair, talking to students, staring out the window? And so on.

Observation is a bit daunting, nobody really enjoys it, and you certainly shouldn’t be doing it all the time, but it is an incredibly powerful agent for change when done properly, just as it can be hurtful and damaging when done badly. Observers need structured and pre-arranged observation tasks that focus on observable data and avoid judgements. Those people who are paid to observe need proper training to avoid wreaking havoc on teacher’s fragile egos, and teachers and institutions that are serious about professional development need to have observations as an integral part of their teachers’ daily schedules.


‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’ Upton Sinclair (author of Oil! – the inspiration for There Will Be Blood)

I’ve heard this quote a lot, most recently in Dan Ariely’s “The Upside of Irrationality“.  He went to a meeting room full of bankers and told them that high bonuses might not increase performance, in fact they might even have an adverse effect on performance due to something called performance anxiety, i.e. that the knowledge of getting a big bonus will cause them to get nervous and make bad decisions.  Not surprisingly, Ariely’s comments were met with deafening silence 🙂

The implications of Ariely’s studies into the negative effects of overly high rewards certainly give further weight to the argument that bankers should not be awarding themselves massive bonuses for work which offers very little benefit to others.  Their argument that high bonuses (more money) increases performance and therefore their worth, is bullshit of the highest order, and is the same specious argument that priests used in the middle ages to justify their palaces and corpulent frames.

In fact the similarities between modern bankers and medieval priests is quite striking – both claim to be gatekeepers (to spiritual or financial heaven), to have special knowledge (of how to get into heaven), that we need them, more than they need us, that they have a secret language (latin and econometrics) and use arcane symbols to obfuscate their importance (catechisms and derivatives).  Bankers and Priests are both as useful as chocolate teapots.  But if you try telling this to your MP, forget it because “it’s difficult to get a man to understand…etc”

I don’t really like reading about expats whinging about their host countries but what does a man have to do to a get a quiet drink in this fucking country? Seriously, I’m a grown up, I don’t need to hang out with my college/high school/salaryman mates. Nor have overpriced coffee with a bunch of tweenies. I don’t want to drink a can of s-hite or c-ass in a convenience store or a cocktail in a hotel lounge. I just want a pint of bitter, sit at the bar and talk to no one. Wankers!

Reach does not equal impact

“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” from the Talmud.

Do you remember the bit at the end of Shindler’s list,  when all the people lined up to put stones on Oskar Schindler‘s grave?  The point was that the “few” people he saved went on to have children and grandchildren and so on – the queue of people was very long indeed.  Oskar Schindler had a massive impact on a few people and the reach extended far into the future, much further than Oskar could have predicted.

I read something today about social media which seems to equate reach with impact – as if sending a message to 20,000 people automatically means it will have more impact.  How many of those 20,000 people really read or understand the message?  How many of those people will be moved to action?  How many of those people clicked on the message by mistake?  Reach does not equal impact.  Impact is the message,  reach is the delivery method.  Let’s not put the cart before the horse.  If I have an important message and just one person reads it and is moved to action, then I have achieved something.  If I have a inconsequential message that reaches 200,000 people and they do nothing, it’s still nothing.

I’m aiming for 1,000,000 likes, signifying nothing, except my vanity.  You don’t need to get off your couch or even reach for your wallet.  Just push that cute blue button 🙂

Steven Pinker on why life is no longer nasty, brutish and short

I loved Steven Pinker’s latest book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (I love all his books). It’s refreshing to hear somebody challenging conventional wisdom in this way. I’m so glad that I wasn’t alive during the medieval period, at risk from burning at the stake, being impaled, or hung drawn and quartered, for thought crimes. The only reason we think we live in dangerous times is because we consume too much “news”.

File Under Optimism

The Peace Dividend

A great Ted Talk here by Steven Pinker on the ongoing decline in violence. Not only does he present the hard data to show that the decline of violence is a fact, but he also gives several plausible explanations as to why the decline is happening.

Two points in particular that stand out for me. First, as technology and economic efficiency make life longer and more pleasant, we are clearly putting a higher value on life in general. Second, Peter Singer’s thesis that our “circle of empathy” has evolved well beyond encompassing only family and friends (in part because technology is making it ever easier to “trade places” with other people’s feelings and emotions). Powerful stuff and well worth your time. Hat tip to Oliver Sycamore for this one.

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What is a teacher and why is stress both good and bad?

stress meter

According to Jim Scrivener T≠L, i.e. there’s no evidence of any direct correlation between what a teacher teaches and what a learner learns.

So if teachers don’t teach, what do they do?

Well, how long have you got?  Teachers facilitate and assesses learning, they select and adapt materials to suit their learners, they plan lessons, meet with parents, counsel students, they stay up late to mark papers, help out with social events, coach sports on the weekends. The list goes on.  Teachers know that their job does not begin and end with teaching.

I’m currently reading “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character”, by Paul Tough, which, amongst other things, looks at  correlations between socio-economic background and educational achievement.  They found something interesting, but also fairly obvious; that the amount of stress a person is exposed to in childhood has a direct and lasting impact not only on their  educational achievement, but also on their health and even their future success in all walks of life.  

KIPP schools were set up in the United States with a mission to  level the playing field and raise the educational achievement of lower income kids.  Their schools don’t focus on increasing students’ IQ, but on helping them with something a little less tangible, their character.  By developing children’s characters and developing their “grit”, the schools are giving their students a lifelong ability to deal with stressful situations more effectively, to be more persistent and to pick themselves up after they fail.

Chronic stress,  the daily drip-drip of a busy and fraught modern life, wears us down, it makes us hypersensitive to all problems and causes long term health problems.   Acute stress, e.g. the occasional language test, or giving a speech is actually good for  us.  Logically then, a teacher’s main responsibilities are to build trust, to build character and to provide a safe and constructive learning environment in order to help students’ reduce or deal with chronic stress levels, but also to set up classroom events that heighten acute stress.

The happiest teaching experience of my career was in one of my first teaching jobs at a small school in Bratislava.  We taught the same set of students for 12 weeks and during this time I established trust and saw real and tangible progress with them.  At 6 weeks, they did a mid-term test and we had mid-term counselling sessions.  I was really able to identify their strengths and weaknesses and to have meaningful conversations with them about how they could improve their language learning.  At the end of term, they did their test and we would often go out for a meal and drinks.  I really felt like I knew them and I would feel a little sad, like I was saying goodbye to friends.

My classes in Bratislava were free of chronic stress, there was no pressure on students to achieve ludicrous test scores in a short space of time.  Teachers and students had access to each other for 3 months, plenty of time to get to know each other, and to feel relaxed and enjoy their lessons.   Occasionally we added some acutely stressful situations, like progress tests, to drive them on.

The point is this: if we want people to learn more effectively, establishing and building rapport is probably the most important thing a teacher can do to facilitate learning.  This takes time.  Changing teachers and classrooms as if they are interchangeable cogs in a machine is good for nobody – it provides the wrong kind of stress for productive learning.

Occasional change (acute stress) is good for us , constant change and uncertainty (chronic stress) is bad.

What do Mr Bean, Rice Krispies, VHS and Edutainment have in common?

breakfast cereal

Imagine you are in the supermarket and you want to pick up a box of cereal. You find the aisle and see rows of different cereal in their seductive, brightly-coloured packets, some promise a healthy alternative, and some will offer a sugary hit. Which packet do you choose? Do you pick up every packet to help you make an informed choice or do you buy the same breakfast cereal you always get? You might try something new and you might be pleasantly surprised, but when faced with so much choice you’ll probably choose the the easiest option; the shortcut is to go with what you know, Rice Krispies.

Now imagine you could choose a language course. You go online to book it, there are lots of schools and courses on offer – there’s a school that promises to help you pass the IELTS test, there’s an academic writing course, a Business English course, English for Racehorse Enthusiasts – some have colourful titles, some promise a sugary treat or a healthy alternative, but what truly matters? How do students choose a course or a school, what informs their choice? Much like choosing anything in an over-saturated market, students may well get confused by all the possibilities and plump for the familiar, they will aggregate towards the mean and stay away from the fringes (imagine a bell curve here). Your best selling course – the intermediate general English class will surely be oversubscribed whereas your specialist English class, well that will be for the specialists.

In the supermarkets of the developed world we have an awful lot of choice, but have you ever wondered what happens to all that stuff that nobody wants – where does it go? If you ever get past the security guards and barbed wire fences at the back of the supermarket you’ll notice that huge amounts of food go out the back door on a daily basis. The flip side of choice, is waste. By the same token what happens to those language courses that nobody wants? In a world of “choice” and “flexible options” and courses designed to fit around your “busy” life, there are promises of shortcuts to language learning that will prove irresistible to many, and there will be some courses that nobody really wants, and they will go to waste. Now this might not be such a bad thing – in a truly free market, bad products die and good ones flourish, don’t they? But let’s remember what happened in the war between Betamax and VHS? The best doesn’t always win – but the most popular does.

It would be nice to think that consumers make informed choices, that they read the packets, that they try out different things before making a definitive choice, but this is simply not how it works – consumers have pre-fixed ideas about what they like – they like what they were brought up on – how else would you account for an Australian’s love of Vegemite, an American’s love of biscuits and gravy or a Brit’s predilection for warm beer?

So what kind of teachers do students like? Do they like teachers who are informative, do they like teachers who can teach? Do they even know what that actually means? Are they results oriented?

I’ve asked students and teachers – what makes a good teacher? In almost every discussion of this type there is alway one thing that is common on all lists (at least in Korea) – a sense of humour, (lower down the list are subject knowledge and good looks). But what, to a non-native English speaker is classed as humour?

In my early years as a teacher I occasionally stayed out too late on a school night and when it came time to plan my Friday afternoon class I usually stuck a Mr Bean video on (or played Scrabble). Sometimes I turned the sound down and got students to describe what was happening (but they hated that). Now, I despise Mr Bean and what his lowest common denominator comedy stands for, and sometimes half way through a Friday afternoon bout of unplanned Bean hilarity my head would feel like it was going to explode, but the students loved it; they laughed like horses when Mr Bean got locked out of his hotel room, naked, and they smiled and aaahed when he tucked Teddy in at night. Even higher level students struggled with anything more sophisticated – Fawlty Towers, The Office or even comedy gods, The Two Ronnies never got the same appreciation as Mr Bean noisily eating a sweet in church. Most students don’t have the linguistic sophistication to understand jokes in a foreign language, not to mention get “British humour”, whatever that is, so it’s a certain type of humour they want from their native English speaking teachers – a humor that doesn’t necessitate understanding English.

If a school were like a supermarket and the teachers were stacked on shelves like breakfast cereal, what kind of teacher would your average student choose? I think Mr Bean would be the most popular teacher at your school and his classes will be oversubscribed (and if you have performance related pay, he will be the most highly paid), he might not know much about the language and he might not be very well organized, but he is funny and makes students happy and feel at ease in a strange (learning) environment. In the not too distant future where students can choose their teachers and their classes to fit their busy schedules, in a world where they can’t afford to make mistakes or lose money, most students will choose the intermediate class, with a cutting edge course-book and Mr Bean as their teacher (who eats Rice Krispies for breakfast).

And they will never get to meet the slightly less funny, but very serious and dedicated teacher who listens to them and gets who they are. The teacher who wasn’t much good at the beginning of their career but who was serious enough to stay on and get better. The teacher who stays up late marking papers and who maybe has high expectations and who might tell them off when they are late. A teacher who never just shows up and bullshits his way through a lesson (because, lets face it, he is probably a man), and who never just sticks a video on in class on a Friday morning because he’s hungover.

When it comes to choice, more is often less.