There is a lot of conversation in the education world about the pros and cons of small classes. There is debate about the definition of “small” (10 students, 16 students, 20 students?) and various opinions regarding the benefits of small class sizes.
While I think that there are certainly exemplary teachers out there working with large numbers of students who enable them to thrive, and conversely, there are teachers with small classes who are not effective, in general, working with a smaller number of students in a class is beneficial for the following reasons:
1. Each child is well-known by the teacher.
Research has shown that making meaningful connections with adults at home and at school has lasting and positive effects into adulthood (see Ned Hallowell’s The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness). There is just not enough time in the day for teachers of 25-35 students to get to know each one very well, individually. Furthermore, students in small schools such as Seneca Academy are also known by administrators, and other grade-level teachers.
2. Each child has more opportunity for supervised “time-on-task.”
We know that active, hands-on learning produces deeper understanding and longer memory than more passive learning. When students have to wait their turn to demonstrate knowledge, engage in an activity, or respond to a question, they are not actively engaged. Smaller classes allow for more opportunities for engagement.
3. Likewise, students have more opportunities to practice leadership skills.
If a student is 30th in line to present orally, hold the talking stick, wear the leader hat, perform the experiment, etc., they have less opportunity to practice those skills.
4. Teachers are better able to manage the social-emotional environment.
I am a big believer that supporting students to interact positively is critical to a successful classroom. If students feel unsafe socially or emotionally, they will not be available for learning. It is just impossible to monitor all students, all the time in a classroom, and the more students there are, the more difficult it is to monitor them. Teachers are better able to respond to the social undercurrents in a classroom when there are fewer students.
Of course, there are detriments to having classes that are too small (especially in regular education classrooms), and there are economies of scale in large classrooms that are positive. Nonetheless, from my experience, and based on my reading, classes with 10-20 students provide a rich social environment for children while allowing the benefits above. I feel so fortunate to be able to work with positive educators who have the opportunity to engage a small number of students each day.