THE BLOG
12/27/2011 12:07 pm ET | Updated Feb 26, 2012

All Classes Great and Small

Ask a stranger off the street to tell you what's wrong with our current education system and you're likely to hear the following: It's all about a lack of funding for supplies and teacher salaries, not enough days out of the year spent in class and the inferiority of public schools when compared to private ones, to name just a few. Oh, and that class sizes need to be much smaller. That's always a popular one. I spent some time noodling that particular topic this week and, even though I am a 5-foot-tall woman, I do not necessarily believe that the best things always come in small packages.

Let's take a quick look at John Q. Student -- an unfortunate name, to be sure, but one that makes him an ideal subject for illustrative purposes. John is a first-grader at Student Elementary. (It was named after his father.) He's learning his ABCs and 123s, but he's also learning much more. He's learning how to interact with others, to be introduced to a wide variety of characters and individuals from varying backgrounds, and to become a more outgoing, personable and social creature.

You may argue that he could learn plenty about socializing within the confines of a small class, and that may be true. But consider how many work environments consist of 30 or more personalities, or how many real life situations demand an ability to communicate or cooperate with large groups: speaking at office meetings or lectures, organizing events or rallies, participating in social Meetup groups and engaging in elaborate paintball battles. If our children were to grow accustomed to working only with 10 or so others at a time, would this skill set be stunted? What if they worked with a hundred? A thousand? Maybe even zero (i.e. Internet video delivered teaching)? Why must one shoe fit all sizes?

What about technology in the classroom? Isn't that a factor here as well? "Adaptive learning" for those of us who live inside of the education graph is the whispered "plastics" buzzword of the modern era. Technology can alienate individuals -- but it can also coalesce and make intimate the collective thoughts of many. Facebook is massive, but for its users the experience is all about one-to-one connections. Why can't technology in the classroom manifest the same benefits to those who embrace it?

Fast forward a decade, and John is a junior in high school. He graduated from Student Middle School a few years ago and has moved onto Student High. (He really wishes his father hadn't been such a prominent and influential figure in his town.) His personality and social skill set have already been formed for the most part -- now more than ever is the time to buckle down, concentrate on his studies and sponge as much information off his teachers as humanly possible. Certainly, smaller class sizes would be nice in terms of personal attention, greater access to class resources and the facilitation of small group projects. But what about the drawbacks? More personalities = more interruptions and distractions. There's Sandra, whose hand is in the air so often you wonder how she keeps blood flowing to her fingertips. There's Ron, who's always looking for new and inventive ways to be sent to the principal's office. And there's Shauna, who doesn't see anything wrong with taking personal calls on her cell phone in the middle of lectures, as long as she whispers. Is the increased attention worth the increased distraction?

And then there's the cost. Smaller student-to-teacher ratios simply cost more. Incremental teachers must be hired and the infrastructure which supports them must grow. But the goal here isn't to hire fewer teachers -- I doubt anyone wants to reduce educational efforts. But maybe there is a more optimal way to distribute resources -- a few classes with 50 students, others with a half dozen. Maybe.

Another few years zip by, and John is now at a university. He moved out-of-state just so he wouldn't have to go to Student Community College. He likes most of his classes, but his favorites are those that are conducted in large lecture halls. Several hundred students in a single room, quiet and focused on a single speaker. Shy guy that he is, there is no pressure to volunteer in front of countless others his thoughts on a subject upon which he has no opinion or of which he lacks a firm understanding. Rather than suffering constant distractions, the professor ploughs through the material, covering maybe three times as much as he would have in a more intimate setting. If confused about anything, John still has the freedom to speak to his instructor after class, or to schedule a little one-on-one time to better his comprehension of the subject matter. He also has a pretty wide selection of classmates to choose from should he wish to pow-wow with any of them, instead. And Sandra, who ended up going to the same college, can keep her hand raised as much as she likes -- no one's ever going to spot her back there in the 43rd row.

To a certain extent, I am merely playing devil's advocate here. There are definite, inarguable advantages to having smaller class sizes, and those arguments have been widely voiced and fiercely defended. While we strive to serve students with more personal attention and a comfortable learning atmosphere, it is important to recognize that not everyone learns optimally in the same way. Some subjects may be more effectively taught in a larger setting. Certain skill sets can only be strengthened by being introduced to a variety of social environments. Nothing is black and white. It is essential that we keep our minds open and consider the good that can come out of larger class sizes, rather than merely writing it off as a categorically substandard and inferior way of serving the children for whom we care so much.

Agree? Disagree? Let's talk after class.