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?

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