The following question in the context of a conversation connected to class size was posed to me via Twitter and the blog of @danhaesler and warrants a response longer than 140 characters:
“A poor lesson in front of 40 kids will still be a poor lesson in front of 20”. Could a great lesson in front of 20 still be a great lesson in front of 40? Just throwing the question out there. I am not a teacher and have no research to quote.
Some excellent issues are raised here. It is relevant to draw from Hattie’s research (http://www.decd.sa.gov.au/quality/files/links/WhatIsEffectSize.pdf) where the impact of class size is listed in the of ‘low influence’ group of influences on student achievement. I should mention that Hattie’s research also suggests differences between open and traditional learning spaces similarly have a low influence. This is at odds though with the 2012 research from the University of Salford, UK (http://www.salford.ac.uk/home-page/news/2012/study-proves-classroom-design-really-does-matter) which suggests that learning space design can have a 25% positive impact on learning.
This leads me to the real issue – class size is not the issue, nor is learning space by itself. The key issue for me is the notion of a class being one teacher working in isolation with around 30 students in a confined room with little ability to do much other than sit in formed rows or groups. That is the key issue. Could the learning experience itself be vastly improved in a model where a class was viewed as a far larger cohort shared among multiple lead-learners (teachers)? If this was the case, then designed space is an issue because it needs to facilitate this larger cohort.
Our experience at SCIL/NBCS is that when we can get teachers to engage in an unlearn-relearn journey and figure out how to work in a genuine shared team approach, then the experience of teaching and learning can change dramatically. No longer is it dependent on the pressures of a one teacher to 30 student scenario, rather students have multiple mentors and can draw in learning relevant to their needs on a daily basis. If the team can provide an environment where they collectively own all the students (albeit they might have a smaller group for administrative oversight), then the whole issue of class size melts away. I’d be confident to say that our Stage 3 ‘Zone’ team are the most collaborative team that I have had the privilege of observing and supporting. I love the energy of the Zone and witnessing a combination of planned learning activities and spontaneous ‘just in time’ workshops to address obvious gaps in student understanding. Teachers have to surrender a great deal of their former practice (control and individual space), but they gain so much more. Their role shifts to being collaborative co-directors of learning and student behavioural issues become something of the past.
So my response? The issue is not class size or large space, rather how can we re-engineer learning so that the focus is on high expectations of students, formative evaluation, conversations, feedback, relationships – all the items listed in the ‘high influence’ on learning group in Hattie’s research. My experience is teaching me that working to develop the capacity of teachers to work in teams is the future. Debates on teacher / student ratios are increasingly irrelevant – and learning space design needs to follow pedagogy rather than dictate it. That is why I favour fluid learning spaces, lots of on-the-shoulder professional development – and all mixed with loads of team fun!