• TL Zempel

Class Size: it doesn't matter?

So we were trapped in our usual Wednesday indoctrination, and the subject was John Hattie's Visible Learning spectrum of the effects of various teaching strategies.  Mr. Hattie, apparently, has spent years in his classroom laboratories studying student reactions and responses to various teaching strategies, and he compiled a list of what supposedly works and what does not. Uppermost in the range are things like student group work, meaningful feedback, and critical thinking questioning techniques.  Low on the range is class size.        And I'm thinking, "How does it work to have meaningful discussion when you've got 32 kids packed into a 25' by 25' room?"  Next on my mind was the idea of providing meaningful, AT THAT MOMENT, feedback.  How do I do that with 32 learners when I can only reach around 4 table groups (meaningfully!) in a class period?  This doesn't even take into consideration those kids who don't care about feedback, meaningful or otherwise.     When I raised my hand to ask how class size doesn't figure into my ability to pose deep questions and provide meaningful feedback, my principal responded in clipped tones that, in that case, we're talking about work load.  Not teaching strategies.  "You can teach in a meaningful way,"  he admonished me. "Regardless of whether you're talking to 20 students, or 35." What?  But can I do the other stuff, too?  Can I provide feedback, on the spot, to 35 kids? Can I monitor table discussions for 8 work groups so that they all stay on topic?  Can I keep 7 or more of my students from trying to mess around while they know I'm not looking?  Can I question each table group as they wrestle with the deep questions that I have posed?  And can I do any of this without losing my sanity?     I am reminded of the words of Dr. Robert Delisle:  "Those who insist that differentiation is doable have probably never tried it themselves."  As for me, I have little patience for those who spend their lives conducting "research" in perfect laboratory situations.  Take the following video, fed to us as an effective strategy for teaching math to kids:


     As I watched this video, I thought, "How wonderful!  These kids who know they're being filmed are modeling excellent student behaviors for workmanship and study.    Then I realized that there were only about 12 kids in the classroom.  No wonder this strategy works so well!      In my classroom, today, I stopped my lesson on rounding numbers as a way to deal with real life situations to stop a kid from coloring his mechanical pencil shaft with his black Sharpie marker.   I doubt that the teacher in the video had to deal with anything like that.  (And when I let his mother know about it later, she responded, "What's wrong with that?  I hope this isn't gonna be one of those nit-picky years.")         I continue to be enthralled at how we teachers are inundated with experts telling us that all we have to do is "improve our practice", and our students will jump at the chance to improve their lives.       I notice that none of these experts are actually doing the job in the trenches, with real kids, real daily situations, and no cameras around to record how wonderful you are.







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T.L. Zempel, teacher and author
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copyright 2020 by TL Zempel