There are a lot of education ideas out there floating around. The number of students in a class is one of those ideas. Sure, there are schools that have experimented with smaller classes, but most people have never worked at one of these schools. Most districts have never tested it in the context of their high need environments. Typically, the resources are not there to do so. Every so often nature gives you a chance at a “natural experiment.” Now is one of those times.
Due to COVID-19 and hybrid learning models many classes are around the country are operating at less than half capacity. We don’t have much intial data and certainly no longitudinal data, but anecdotally what have we seen during this time is interesting:
Classes are easier to manage:
- The biggest impact has been on discipline. Classroom management is one of the main obstacles to learning and that has trended noticeably in the right direction for the small in person classes. All the data points we look at show that disciplinary action is down. More kids are staying in class and classroom environments are generally more conducive to learning.
- Also, it isn’t JUST because there are less kids. You would expect that with less children there would be less discipline issues but the environments I have seen also indicate that teachers are dealing with the children that ARE present in better ways. This makes sense. There is more capital to devote to difficult students in a classroom of fifteen as opposed to classroom of thirty-two. It’s easier to use interventions besides removals and punishments when your focus students are smaller in number.
Pedagogy is not necessarily better:
- One would assume that in an environment where classes are much easier to manage actual teaching would be better. In some cases, you would be right but not in most. If you were a teacher who was good at the instruction part of teaching but struggled with classroom management then your delivery of content is probably better because you are now getting through your well-planned lessons without having to address multiple distractions and behaviors.
- If you were a teacher who was bad at planning and delivery of content before, you are not necessarily better at it now. Bad pedagogical practices are bad regardless of how many students are in the room. In fact, a poor instructor may even be worse with a small, easier to manage class because many of the best pedagogical practices are adopted by teachers purely because they help with classroom management. For example, pacing is a best practice that also helps prevent discipline issues. However, the management incentive to plan your pacing better is stronger in class of thirty plus densely packed students that can quickly become unruly with any idle time as opposed to a class of nine students who barely know each other and are sitting ten feet apart.
Remediation and academic intervention is improved:
- Even if the pandemic didn’t make you an instructional mastermind, chances are you have significantly more capacity to help students who didn’t get the lesson the first time around. I am teaching math, and I have never been able to spend as much time with every student as I have been during the mandated smaller class size blocks. It is a huge advantage to know that you will have one-on-one time in a class with every student who is struggling with the content. It is also an incentive for students not to opt out because they know that I can and will follow up with them.
I hope that we are never in a situation that forces students to be out of school again. However, we would be foolish not to take a close look at the what has happened during this time and learn from it. In my school, smaller class sizes have not proven to be the cure-all panacea that some advocates would have hoped, but this teacher has much enjoyed the benefits of them anyway.