Tag Archives: Education

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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As I walked into the auditorium for Penny Ur’s talk on on technology in ELT, a Cambridge representative pushed a promotional brochure into my hands. This immediately turned my bullshit detector up to 11. Was Penny Ur going to be plugging a new online course or a her new book entitled “100 great ways to use Ipads in your lessons”. My heart sank. Thankfully once Penny started speaking it became clear that she was not pedaling the latest digital snake oil.

Her major worry is not that technology in the classroom is bad, in fact she does use moodle and other digital tools to supplement her teaching, and neither does she advocate the use of technology per se, but rather she advises teachers to be cautious about its use.

During the presentation she cited a recent study (Macaro et al, 2012) stating there is little evidence to support the conventional wisdom that technology is inherently a good thing and that there is no evidence to suggest technology has any long term effect on motivation or on learning.

She is rightly suspicious of politicians, publishing companies and producers of digital software and hardware as they have a vested interest in promoting the use of expensive, shiny digital products in the classroom. Their decisions are not based on pedagogy but on political popularity, and generating revenue streams.

Digital is sexy, no doubt – we are all in thrall to our ipads and kindles, but do they belong in the classroom? This is the main point of Penny’s presentation. We ought not to use digital tools for the sake of using them, we ought not to use them simply because they are novel or because everybody uses them in real life – we should only use them when it improves the learning experience.

We have been too keen of late to jump on the digital bandwagon, just as we were when laptops became affordable, when video recorders allowed us to show movies in the classroom or when tape recorders became portable. Technology is not new for long – I remember when I introduced IWBs to my teen class in 2004 – it was the first time they ever gave me spontaneous applause, but within the space of a couple weeks the IWB had lost all of its allure and I was faced again with a stroppy bunch of 14 year olds. Technologies come and go but some things remain constant – the quality of the relationship between a teacher and his students probably has a greater impact on learning than any gadget.

When I set up CELTA courses I deliberately put restrictions on the use of technology in the classrooms, not because I’m a technophobe, but because in my experience I found technology often gets in the way of real classroom dynamics. When I have allowed teachers to use technology I find that their lessons become overly teacher-centred (or IWB-centred), that students are passive and that they don’t use higher order thinking skills, but most importantly technology has an adverse effect on student interaction. Ipads and computers are great for self study, but the fastest way to a teacher-centred lesson (or a lesson with little to no student interaction) is an overly prepared lesson that relies on flashy powerpoint presentations (or IWB flipcharts) at the expense of human interaction and communication.

Furthermore, the inordinate amount of time that teachers spend putting together lessons that incorporate the latest gizmos, do so at the expense of interaction, responsiveness and communication. Teachers who spend 3 hours planning a 90 minute lesson that does not take account of these essential components is getting a very poor return on their investment.

We do need to be more cautious about how we use technology and it about its long term effects – it may be doing more harm than good. Parents often worry about their children spending too much time watching TV or playing computer games – do they really want them to be staring at an IWB or playing on an Ipad with their in loco parentis teachers? Using computers may improve their digital literacies, but might it actually impair their higher order thinking skills – their ability to be creative, to discuss, to evaluate, to think for themselves?

Despite being an ICT co-ordinator in the past, despite being a technophile (owner of various shiny digital playthings) and despite investigations into digital solutions at work, I remain deeply skeptical of blended learning, mobile learning, e-learning, etc. There is only learning , and our job is to find the best way for students to learn in a particular context. What might work well at home or in a small group of 4 or 5 students may not necessarily work well in a classroom of 10, 20 or 30 children – a story book can be more engaging than an ipad, a song played on the piano can be just as much fun as watching a you-tube video, and a teacher who listens and understands his students is always going to be better than a computer.