When Class Size Matters: A Tale Of Two Teaching Styles

Does Class Size Matter? A Tale Of Two Teaching Styles

by Paul Barnwell, Teacher of English and Digital Media and blogger at mindfulstew

Mr. Jones, a passionate teacher relying mostly on direct instruction and lecture, sees his class size fluctuate between 20 and 31 every semester.

No matter the number of students squeezed into desks, his principal notices that most kids seem engaged, and end-of-the-year test scores are amongst tops in the school in Mr. Jones’s classroom when adjusted for student growth. If you believe that a one-sized fits and testing-based education system is appropriate, then Mr. Jones is a perfect example of why class size doesn’t matter, despite contrary evidence.

But here’s the rub: this type of thinking further inhibits innovation in schools because of what we’re valuing. Class size matters if you believe school should look, feel, and be different.

Class size matters if you believe in active, Project-Based Learning.

Class size matters if you allow for student choice and authentic personalization.

Compared to Mr. Jones, Mrs. Jenkins is different–the archetype of a passionate educator. Mrs. Jenkins believes strongly in Project-Based Learning and more of a facilitator approach to teaching and learning. Her students design original inquiry-based digital storytelling projects.

She allows students to design their own projects and make choices in the classroom, meaning she needs the time to conference with kids and help groups troubleshoot various issues, giving them the time and space to explore more independently.

But when her class size exceeds 20, there’s not enough computers and media equipment to go around.

There’s not enough time for her to mentor students, or honor the individual needs wide-open learning creates.

The controlled chaos she prefers in her classroom devolves into a more stressful environment for all.

The above are generalizations, but there is truth there as well. To study class size and its “effect size” without accounting for emerging learning models and technologies seems to indicate we’re missing something. In my own teaching life, I experience a hybrid of the hypothetical Mr. Jones’s and Mrs. Jenkins’s experience.

Under pressure to prod students to improve ACT scores and prepare for standardized tests in junior English, class size isn’t a huge issue with such a bland and teacher-centered curriculum.

On the other hand, in my digital media elective courses, I’m fortunate to have building leaders who understand why my class size needs to stay lower, but some trimesters I’m stuck with too many students. Instead of helping students produce great work like this, I struggle to coach students to create authentic projects they are proud of.  

Regardless of which classroom size studies we examine, we need to delve deeper into how we’re quantifying student learning, the changing roles of students in the learning process, and how we’re designing classrooms in parallel.

Then, in that context, let’s reexamine why classroom size matters.

Image attribution flickr user usfishandwildlifemidwestregion; When Class Size Matters: A Tale Of Two Teaching Styles