Explorations and Reflections

on awakening the true self  in education

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  • Mick Scott

Engaging Allows for Understanding

When I taught in Baltimore City Public Schools, most years my average class size was 32 kids. Due to some scheduling fluke in my third or fourth year teaching, I was assigned a group of 21 seniors in a year-long engineering practicum class.


A couple months into the year, one of our vice principals stepped into this class to ask me something. Later that day he called me to his office and asked how I was doing it. He said that I had some of the worst-behaving seniors in that class, yet when he visited, everyone was engaged in the lesson. I told him it’s easy: give any teacher a class of only 21 kids and everyone will be learning.


Since leaving that first school 10 years ago, I’ve taught at two other schools, both private. My largest class size at either was 21 kids, and my average class size has been about 14 kids.


What is it about smaller classes that allows more learning to happen? Any of us could probably answer this question without much thought: fewer kids means fewer distractions, more teacher attention on each kid, less opportunity for “misbehaving”, less classroom management occupying the teacher’s thinking, and so on.


The question that I’m really curious about now, though, is what allows learning to happen in any classroom? What are the conditions in a large or small class that allow students to engage with material in a way that they develop understanding?


Yes, that group of 21 students was engaged because, with fewer students, it’s much easier to engage the individual learner. However, class size alone is insufficient to create the conditions for learning.


The key word above, I think, is engage. Whether the class is large or small, the teacher must engage learners in the classroom.


There was a period in my teaching when I thought that engagement was just a matter of showing cool stuff to students - firing pumpkins across a field, flying down zip lines, spewing elephant toothpaste across a lab bench, or even watching Black Mirror in class. And yes, those things are pretty effective at engaging students for a time.


But engagement is more than engaging a student with the outer world of the material. For students to develop an authentic connection with the course material, which is where understanding gets developed, the student's inner world must be engaged in the classroom too.


In smaller classes, it's easier for a teacher to engage the students' inner world as well as their outer world - 21 students is a whole lot easier to engage than 33 students. However, regardless of class size, it's the engagement of the students' inner and outer worlds that allows for understanding to develop.


Thanks so much for reading ♥️.

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