In our long careers as public and private school teachers, we have experienced one common outcome that often happens when budgets are reduced: The essential question asked by our leaders changes from “What is the best learning model for our children?” and bends toward “What is the most efficient use of allocated dollars?” Rising property taxes are a problem. Not meeting the needs of students is another. As both homeowners and educators, we understand the need to examine both.
We have often observed that the first thing to be eliminated when money is tighter is a mandate for smaller class sizes. Let’s not mince words – class size matters. Expert Leonie Haimson says, “The Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, has concluded that class size reduction is one of only four evidence-based reforms that have been proven to increase student achievement through rigorous, randomized experiments – the gold standard of research.” Although you can find a variety of people on the internet who will argue that class size is not that important, common sense dictates that it is. One teacher has only so many hours to give to and plan for his or her wildly diverse students. When budgets are drastically cut and class sizes grow, all students suffer even when efforts are made to personalize learning.
Anyone who follows trends and innovations in education knows that the current buzz is all about personalized learning. There is good reason for this buzz as the principles and benefits undergirding personalized learning are supported by research-based evidence. Unfortunately, in large classes the lack of personal contact with teachers can lead learners to become disinterested and feel alienated. In contrast, smaller learning communities have been associated with more positive student achievement. A review of the research by the National Research Council (2004) concluded that “evidence suggests that student engagement and learning are fostered by a school climate characterized by an ethic of caring and supportive relationships, respect, fairness and trust.” Note that the key word here is “relationships.” Cultivating positive student-teacher relationships intended to personalize learning can be especially challenging in larger classrooms.
In our experience, we have seen that the most able and motivated students, especially those with agreeable personalities, can be asked to “move to the back of the line,” if you will, in large classes. They are sometimes required to complete work that they have already mastered in order to stay on the same subject as the rest of the class, which feels like busy work to them. Even worse, they may be called upon to help other students who are struggling. Another solution is to have students “guide their own education” by having them work at their own pace on laptops or tablets. While this strategy certainly promotes self-direction (an important life skill) and helps to support individualized learning, the question is, does it work to build the kind authentic relationships that genuinely communicate? “I know you, I care about you, I am here to support you.”
PARTNERS IN THEIR JOURNEY
In our view, personalized learning demands real-time face-to-face interaction unmediated by technology. We want to know our students on a deeper level; we want to know what makes them tick and we want them to know what makes us tick! Making these personal connections communicates to our learners that we value and respect them. When we know our students well, we can tap their passions to prime their curiosity pump. Finally, building positive relationships with our students sends a clear message that we are partners in their learning journey. So encouraged learners exhibit greater persistence, improved academic self-concept and a desire to meet new challenges. High-achieving students crave intellectual challenge and academic rigor. It’s difficult for any teacher to provide this kind of enrichment when they are charged with the educations of a large numbers of kids. Only in smaller classes can we create a truly caring and supportive environment predicated on trust and respect, an environment where shared reflections and feedback flow freely, a safe space that allows for mistakes and consequent growth, and an energized learning community where passions are honored and aspiring higher is met with joy and excitement.
Mehuron, M.Ed., Waitsfield, is certified in math grades five to 12, science grades five to 12, and general education five to nine.
Rodgers, Waitsfield, holds an M.A. in history and M.Ed. in educational leadership and has 34 years of teaching experience.