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  • Writer's pictureTL Zempel

2/12: Why Does Class Size Matter?

Updated: Mar 19


Those of you who follow my Twitter account (@Ms_Zempel) know that I’ve been running a daily campaign about the ratio of students to teachers in most public-school classrooms. Usually, that ratio is something like 30 to one, as it has been for decades. Principals know that each pupil represents a certain amount of incoming dollars, so they have a lot of incentive to load classrooms up.

Years ago, the model of acceptable instruction was the whole group, direct instruction model. The teacher would deliver the grade-level lesson in math and assign practice. Students could work together or on their own and bring their questions to the teacher when they had them. Their achievement was largely on them. If they messed around or just didn’t care, their report card grade would show it, and parents would react negatively toward the child, hopefully sparking more engagement in their own learning.

That is no longer an acceptable way to teach, and principals and parents no longer put the onus on children for learning. Every bit of the responsibility for skill acquisition is now placed on the teacher. Parent/teacher conferences now usually focus on what the teacher can do to improve the child’s interest in learning.

Keep in mind that learning takes effort. Children often do not have the maturity or internal stamina to persist in skill acquisition without being pushed from outside themselves.

Even with a ratio of 30:1, principals and their bosses insist that teachers differentiate instruction for each child. Think about that. What does it mean to “differentiate for each child”? Well, it means that you examine each child’s achievement on what has already been taught, plan how to address the deficits, and create assignments for that child, whether on paper or one of the learning platforms that most of us now use. If you have several students who are at a similar stage of achievement, you can do a sort of ‘collective’ differentiation for them, but you still needed to spend the time finding out that they all had similar needs.

Differentiation means that children are not put in static reading or math groups. They are continually observed and assessed, and their placements become fluid.

Can you differentiate effectively and consistently for 30 students? That’s debatable. Some teachers insist that it’s possible. I’d like to see it.

Back to my original statement about posting daily on Twitter: I received a reply from someone just this morning. Here’s what I had originally posted:

​And here is the reply:

I realize that people are often scrolling through their Twitter feed during their morning coffee, but the narrowness of saying my post is "completely false" does baffle me. I applaud anyone who can homeschool; I wish more people could. But to compare the management of your own 2 or 3 children to that of a classroom filled with 30 children who are not your own and who may not have any incentive to push themselves is ludicrous. It just is.

Here's another one. Inspired by Superbowl Weekend, I decided to post this on Friday:

I laughed when I read this reply:

I responded that anyone can learn on their own when they are motivated to. But therein lies the rub. What motivation does a 4th grader have to learn how to write sentences that make sense when he doesn’t care about it and can’t see any use for it in his life?

Posting about class size has been eye-opening. It reaffirms for me the idea that understanding the reality of something is often not possible until you live it or see it for yourself.

The snarky part of me wanted to point out the improper sentence structure and punctuation used by the football-throwing self-learner. I didn’t, for two reasons: Twitter limits how much you can throw into one message, and being snarky doesn’t usually win people over to your argument.

I hope that the book I wrote, which details what differentiation means for a teacher and how it is not feasible to implement with more than 10 children, does. Win people over to my argument, I mean.

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