Class Size and Its Relevance to Effective Teaching

One of the first pieces of information required by many parents at the beginning of a new school year is the number of students in their children's class. Most parents associate class size with quality education, and they want to be assured that the teacher has a manageable number of students. One of their worst fears is that their children's needs will be neglected or forgotten in a large group, and therefore, adequate progress and achievement during the year will be that much more difficult for them.

Class size, of course, is a relative concept. Fifty years ago, it was normal for a classroom teacher to have 40 or 50 ten-year old students in a junior level class. Today, teachers and parents consider 30 students in a class to be too high, and most educational jurisdictions have negotiated a maximum of 20 children for primary level classes. Several studies, however, seem to show that class size in itself is not as significant as most people believe. Within reason, it is a question of how numbers are managed and what changes are made to teaching methods in order to deal with large classes.

If class sizes have changed over the years, so have teaching methods. One needs only to examine the text books of the 1950s to appreciate the teaching methods of the time. Most teachers used a lecture format to instruct their pupils before assigning exercises from the texts. Telling and explaining were the methods of the day and there was little time for hands-on manipulative materials and activities for tactile learners. It was assumed that all students learned essentially in the same way. Instruction was given to the whole group at one time, and those pupils who were "smart" would understand. They would be able to complete their assignments correctly and pass the grade. Others who could not learn well this way would simply fail.

The expectations of formal education are quite different in today's world. Teachers are not in the business of failing students. They feel an obligation to address the needs of all, and they adjust their teaching methods to reach every student. Educators today also understand that children learn in different ways and that auditory learning patterns are not very effective unless they are reinforced by visual and tactile stimulation. Lecture style presentations are rare in modern classrooms, and visitors are sometimes surprised to see a buzz of activity among children that could easily be mistaken for chaos and confusion. Children in one classroom can be involved in a number of different activities and projects at any one time, but in order to manage such a teaching approach, small numbers are required.

Circumstances can vary from one district to another, and it is not uncommon, especially in rural areas, to find that larger classes are unavoidable. Sometimes school organization requires mixed grades, and in this case, a teacher may find herself responsible for the curriculum of two or more grade levels. This could indeed be unmanageable if the teacher makes no allowances for the changed circumstances and approaches the larger group with methods designed specifically for small numbers.

Professional educators are skilled in adaptation, and, while not reverting to the methods of their predecessors of 50 years ago, in difficult circumstances they would be well able to use group presentation for the benefit of larger classes. Parents need not be overly worried about class size. They can confidently rely on the teachers of today to adapt their teaching approach to any circumstance.

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