On Solving the Problem of Large Classes

I live and teach in Indonesia, where classes in formal schools are often above 30 students, increasing to as large as 40–50 students for government schools outside major cities. While I haven’t taught there, I’ve heard plenty about China and India, for example, where a class can have more than 60 students. As a trainer, I have found that for teachers who teach regularly in such condition, this is by far the thing that they are most concerned about.

In my training programmes, the thing I hear most of all is, “that wouldn’t work for me; my class is too big.” In a recent workshop, I was interrupted about 5 minutes in, having barely even started, by one teacher who told me, “I’m sorry, but we have training every year, sometimes even from famous authors, and it is never useful because they do not talk about large classes.”

In that particular instance, given that I was just beginning my session, I responded that I came from the same background as them; that, unlike many of their previous visitors, all of my teaching experience was in Indonesia facing exactly the same challenges they faced. Generally, when a teacher complains that a certain methodology, approach or activity will not work in their classroom, I tell them much the same: that I know it will because my classroom are just the same as theirs.

I stand by that response. Often, those that raise this complaint are guilty of either not actually trying and simply assuming that something wouldn’t work, or else of giving up when something doesn’t work immediately. I am usually vindicated in this stance when I follow up with trainees and find out how they have transformed their classrooms with my approach and a little persistence and patience.

However, I do also always include the caveat that these techniques, some of which I have written about on this blog, are not going to truly solve the problem. They are merely ways of getting the most out of a bad situation. I have spent the last five years as a trainer and education management consultant and the last 10 as a teacher doing exactly this: getting the most out of a bad situation.

I have spent some years teaching in schools with around 40 students in a class and single-period lessons of 40 minutes. Through trial and error and just sheer experience, I have learned how to maximise effectiveness in these conditions. I can plan lessons that cover the full learning process in the limited time available and deliver lessons that are active and engaging for all of the students, and I can show other teachers how to do the same.

I am sure there are teachers out there who are better still than I. However, I am quite certain that there aren’t many teachers who would say that these are ideal conditions or that they prefer them. I definitely wouldn’t. As many strategies and techniques as there might be out there, the unarguable fact is that 40 students in a class for 40 minutes is not a good arrangement for effective learning. In a situation like this, all you can do is your best, and it will never truly be good enough.

There is only one real solution to this problem and that is smaller classes and longer lessons. (I accept that some might disagree about the lesson length, and I am somewhat open to that; with the right size, lessons of under an hour can be sufficient to achieve , and some would argue that much longer starts to give diminishing returns.) I am of the opinion that classes should be no bigger than 15 students and that the ideal lesson duration is somewhere between 75 and 90 minutes.

Of course, this is not much help to the teachers that I work with, and when I talk about this, some of them start to get frustrated. They tell me that it’s all very well and good, but it’s not like they can do anything about it. Nevertheless, I continue to express this opinion for a number of reasons. First of all, because while I understand and agree that the average individual teacher is in no position to start cutting down her class size, if anybody is going to effect this change, it is likely to be teachers. Not individual teachers, but communities of teachers speaking out as a single voice, approaching their management, speaking publicly, petitioning their local government.

Another reason that I continue to talk about it is to underline the reality that my solutions are not enough to put the problem to bed. More than that, I believe there is nothing that teachers can do as long as the paradigm remains the same that can really solve the problem. I simply do not believe there is a way to make these conditions ideal for student learning. By making this clear, though it might be a little disappointing for teachers to hear, it does help them set more realistic expectations. If things don’t turn out perfect, they should feel like they’re failing; perhaps they’re really doing the best they can.

What really needs to happen is for schools to realise what’s good for students and start making their decisions with this in mind. I came to a realisation on this point only recently. For a long time now, teachers have been telling me that this is how things are and they they cannot be changed, and I have been responding that I know but that we must strive to do the best we can in the conditions as they are. But this does not really have to be so.

Here in Indonesia, the formal school system is basically divided into three tiers. There are national/government schools, then national standard private/non-government schools and finally international standard private schools. For the most part, I accept that the government schools are stuck with these conditions. The population here is huge and there are just not enough schools nor teachers to accommodate all of the students at a more comfortable ratio.

This is not the case though with the private schools. Only recently did it actually occur to me—as obvious as this might seem, I simply never thought about it—that the private schools can implement whatever policy they like with regard to class size. There is absolutely nothing concrete stopping a private school from saying that their classes are limited to 15 students and then just closing enrolment once their places are filled.

I say “nothing concrete” because there are a couple of obstacles that might appear prohibitive. The first is financial. Fewer students with the same number of teachers and classrooms means less income from tuition fees but the same amount to pay out in salaries and maintenance. My direct response to this is that smaller classes should allow schools to charge more given that they offer such a boost to the quality of education received and the amount of one-to-one attention from the teacher. However, this leads to the second obstacle.

It turns out that parents in Indonesia, when looking for a school, are more likely to see a school with small classes and assume that the low enrolment rate is a sign that the school is unpopular, thus making it more likely to put parents off rather than making the school more attractive and leading us straight back to less income from tuition. This indicates a need for social education, increasing the level of understanding and informedness amongst the population of what makes for good education. If the parents don’t know what to look for, they can’t be expected to make the right decision.

Many of international standard private schools have already achieved this, but they barely count because their clientele (I thoroughly dislike that this word has a place in education, but here we are) is so specific. Their students are mostly (in some cases exclusively) those coming from expat families who are already more educationally aware and who generally speaking are more affluent. The fact that they academically outperform almost all of the national standard schools, whether government or private, is seen as a given and not considered as a model or an inspiration by the owners and leaders of national standard schools.

So, the solution to this problem, as far as I see it, can come only from two places, and neither of those is the teachers. While the teachers’ collective voice can perhaps influence, the real change can only be made from the top, either policy makers or school owners. Until these two groups make the change, teachers will be stuck making the best of a bad situation, and trainers like myself will be stuck giving less than satisfying solutions.

While this post perhaps needs to be read by the administrators, my call to action goes out nevertheless to the teachers, because it is in my experience the teachers who have the passion and who know and care most about what their students need. So if you’re a teacher dealing with these conditions, I urge you to speak up. Come together with your colleagues, form one voice, approach your head teachers, write to your local government, engage with other teachers. If you have the resources, maybe even set up your own institutions.

While significant and permanent change can only really come from the top—the policy makers, the school management—it is from the bottom—the teachers—that the inspiration must come. It is through classroom experience that we come to understand our students’ needs, and it is this experience, this understanding that we must share with those in place to make real change.

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