Class size and classrooms: What’s best for learners?

What size should classes be?

Anyone who has a definitive answer probably has probably bubbled in the answers to all life’s big questions.

NAIS president Pat Bassett weighed in with good remarks – including the observation that what makes the real difference in terms of quality education and student outcomes is a combination of great teachers and small schools (where everyone is known, and students are not numbers in the system.)

Of course, Pat is advocating for independent schools to be wise about their budgets and wise about the balancing act of staying sustainable. It’s the high wire, without a safety net of balancing tuition, class size and compensation while  maintaining an idealistic commitment to mission and values.

Quality is often misinterpreted as meaning small classes. In a school like PDS a quality education means high quality relationships that ensure that every student gets the support and personal attention they need. At PDS. we prize the intimacy as well independence that comes with learner focussed classes of whatever size.

Parents often see class size as a proxy for excellence – an easy stand-in for what they are paying for. But it’s not that as easy. There a commonly held notion that small classes are a generically good thing. Not so. Students learn from each other and do not always need the laser beam of teacher attention to learn effectively.  Given the choice between placing a successful high school student in a class of 18 with an outstanding teacher or in a class of 10 with a mediocre one how would you pick? And of course that is just the beginning of all the variables.

And be wary of those often touted student – teacher ratios. Do they take into account time spent with specialists for example? Art? Music? PE and all the rest? Always look for the quality of life for students and that means relationships, engagement and purpose.

Class size is a political hot potato as districts struggle to cope with tighter budgets. And crowded classrooms that overwhelm the skills of experienced and effective teachers are unacceptable. Baby boomers of my era well remember the crowded classrooms of the 1950’s where no teacher dared crack a smile even after Christmas as they struggled with class sizes in the upper 40s, ruled their domains with an iron fist and worked mightily to prepare their charges to pass the tests that were the educational make or break at age 11.

I’ve seen wonderful classrooms with class size in the mid 20’s and up. I’ve also see small classes where nothing much of value was happening.

At PDS we’ve been talking with a school design company – Fielding Nair International. We’ve been exploring the idea of using some of our space in different ways – of opening it up to create more fluid learning environments that can accommodate more of all the kinds of learning we want to facilitate.

As we begin to develop some of these ideas further we will be sharing our thinking with students and parents to add their input to the thinking of the faculty. Meanwhile take a look at their thinking and examples of their projects on the FNI website.

The landscape for learning has changed and the classrooms designed for design for the traditional stand-and deliver mode of education must be gone too That mode has been long gone from PDS and as far a I can tell from the school history it was rarely ever there. It would be good to good to have structures that reflect and make possible all the kinds of active learning we prize and teachers and students practice at PDS.

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