class size, learning, and teaching

was at a chat the other day and was prompted the question “people says class size matters. what do you think?” and my response created on-the-fly goes somewhat like this:

the term of ‘class size’ concerns two main ideas: 1. classroom management, and 2. learning. the two ideas are inter-related, but often the first idea may become the focus, especially in a classroom where lessons are transmissionist (i.e., the teacher talks and ‘download’ knowledge to students who are (assumed to be) listening, and learning (is assumed) to take place by (passive) listening with the occasional IRE discourse). in such a case, class size matters if there are many ‘disruptive’ students; but it probably doesnt matter if the students are all students who are non-disruptive to the lesson delivery, and of course, the IRE discourse.

what if learning is a participatory, interactive, and social phenomenon? such learning would often be carried out in group settings. given a class of 40, how many groups should a teacher allow students to form? from a classroom management perspective, the fewer the groups may appear to be easier for managing and control. 40 divided by 8 gives 5 groups, and a teacher needs to only manage 5 groups. however, literature on collaborative learning would advise groups of 3-4 for more effective learning in groups. that would mean 10 groups, doubling the 5 earlier. assuming a teacher has designed and put in place processes and scaffolds to guide effective group work, the teacher’s work does not end here. the teacher now becomes the facilitator of learning. facilitation, a word often used, is difficult in practice as it may require a teacher to analyse the current state of learning, prompt questions, probe students’ thinking, provide alternate perspectives, all actions on-the-fly to effectively customised what s/he is going to say when s/he appears at each group. would class size matter? given that curriculum time is fixed, the amount of meaningful facilitation for deeper learning a teacher can provide to students would be divided by the number of groups. smaller number of groups means more quality time for each group of students. this applies to facilitation of online discourse for learning too. so, does class size matter?

transmissionist or participatory, a teacher will provide assignments for students to complete. given a class of 40, let’s start with transmissionist way of learning – each student is required to submit a 3-min oral performance recorded and uploaded to the LMS, a teacher would need to spend at least 120 mins just to listen to each audio clip, without considering the amount of time needed to assess, think, and provide meaningful feedback to each student/recording. if the class is made up of 30 students, the difference would be 30 mins of listening time. the same computation can apply to written assignments too. if learning is participatory – each student is required to write an online post, and thereafter reply to at least 2 peers’ posts to learn through interaction. the number of posts a class of 30 students, versus a class of 40 students, could be significantly different. so, does class size matter?

classroom students photo

so in conclusion, does class size matter? your perspective (and conception) of learning would determine the answer.

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