In business or the public sector, the size of an organization can make all the difference in how quickly it can change and adapt new ideas to an incredibly dynamic world. I believe that in educating students with diverse abilities and backgrounds, small can also be better. At the Concept School (TCS) just such a dynamic school exists—small classes, student leadership/mentoring opportunities between middle school and high school, and a highly integrated interdisciplinary program. As a teacher at The Concept School, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to both witness and contribute in the effectiveness of the Small Size Concept.
Often students attend large schools where classrooms can number 20 to 30 or even more students. The ability of a teacher to understand a student and adapt a lesson for that specific student is difficult, with high classroom numbers. The teacher of a classroom with a large number of students is hard pressed to continuously access and provide feedback to their students at a tempo that enhances a students learning.
A TCS classroom size averages a ratio of eight students to one teacher. This small ratio allows a TCS teacher the opportunity to focus and understand their individual student’s motivations, abilities and learning preferences—thus enabling the development of specifically targeted lesson plans. This small classroom size also allows time, on a regular basis , to work one-on-one with a student —accessing their understanding and giving them continuous and timely specific feedback on their progress.
The small size of my math classes has allowed me to tightly track, access and guide my students in a way that would be much more challenging in a larger size class. Much of my time in class is spent guiding and coaching students as they engage math problems or activities. Time with lecturing and instructing to the class is minimized and a student’s actual experience with addressing the math is maximized. Students are also engaged in checking and correcting their answers. This serves to increase their accountability and role in addressing their learning style. A quiz is given for each skill mastered (usually a textbook section.) So a chapter with five to ten sections would yield five to ten short quiz assessments of the students. This high frequency of quizzes might prove labor intensive for a larger classroom, but is very manageable in the small classes of TCS. It gives students a quick/high rate of feedback on their understanding of the material. This has increased their confidence and allowed learning issues to be addressed quickly and comprehensively.
A low student to teacher ratio also allows a teacher to take advantage of the special interests and creative ideas of students. For example in a Computer class I had students work on individual spreadsheet projects that connected to their specific interests, like roller coasters and baseball. The TCS small class size also allows a spontaneous redirection in a lesson plan when a new idea or learning opportunity arises. Case in point, after working on a internet based research project on computer pioneers, one of my students had the idea of creating a set of computer pioneer trading cards using graphics software with information from the internet. With a large class, redirecting an assignment and providing new guidance and instruction on the fly would be a Herculean effort. The small class size of TCS made it easy.
TCS is also a fertile ground to foster leadership and mentoring opportunities for students because of her overall size and small classrooms. The small size of TCS classes and their close proximity, allows TCS to match younger students with older student mentors. This relationship can give the younger student a successful model to emulate and strategies to better develop their learning styles. Leadership opportunities exist at TCS on the classroom level as well.
A class-to-class leadership approach in instructing has been very successful. My high school chemistry class recently developed and taught a practical hands on lesson showing the growing of crystals by way of a supersaturated liquid to our middle school science class. The middle school students enjoyed the lab and instruction created by their upper school classmates. For the high school students, the lesson execution not only reinforced their chemistry understanding, but provided an opportunity for the development of their leadership skills. A separate middle and high school, which most public schools operate would make such a joint venture more challenging and time consuming.
The small size concept may be most effective in our school’s ability to have a truly integrated staff—administration and teachers from all disciplines. While working in a larger more traditional school it was not uncommon for me to deal exclusively with other math teachers. I hardly ever talked with school administration or teachers from other disciplines (e.g. English, Social Studies, etc.) Such “stove-piping” can create blind-spots in a teacher’s knowledge of their students. At TCS, the “whole school” is the student’s team. A student’s progress and development is discussed among the staff on a daily basis. This enables the staff to not only keep current on a specific student’s progress, but to address significant student issues in a consistent and timely manner.
A small integrated staff also allows material to be connected from different disciplines with much greater ease than a larger school. For example special classes have been organized and effectively run through team-teaching. This approach is easily organized because of the small size and close proximity of the staff. Classes in anthropology, and criminal justice, both taught by social studies and science teachers, is an example of this type of classe taught at TCS. Students greatly benefit from this dual perspective teaching. Their attention is held from the variety of teaching approaches and they begin to understand that subject areas can span over more then one discipline. These cross-discipline connections can be identified and developed because of the daily teacher interchange.
Perhaps the biggest success of TCS’s inter-disciplinary approach is the school wide participation once or twice a year, in putting on a theatrical performance. This past year two such productions were successfully performed. Scenes from “A Midsummer Nights Dream” by Shakespeare and “The Wizard of OZ” by Frank Baum were produced by a school wide production team of student performers and stage designers. These productions transformed the entire school through action and appearance in reflecting the themes of the production (i.e. Our school performance room was transformed into Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.) Students, facility, and parents came together in a strong community building exercise. Students experienced history, art, engineering, and real life problem solving. They develop pride in their school and own efforts and learn to work cooperatively as a team.
The small size concept with small classes within a small school setting can significantly improve the learning environment for all students. Smaller classes give teachers time and space needed to establish a relationship in which specific lesson activities can offered to a given student with continuous and timely feedback. A small school also provides positive connections between the middle and high school students. Students in leadership and mentor roles can help other students as well as themselves. A small, highly integrated staff enables the whole school to act on behalf of a given student and provide consistent and timely support. A small school can also foster interdisciplinary connections and bring the learning community together through individual and group efforts in developing and executing school projects such as theatrical performances. The “Small size concept that achieves big results” is an approach worthy of serious consideration for all students.