Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 5

Every Classroom Teacher's Dream

A small class offers a connected community of interested learners who have more opportunities to collaborate and to share knowledge.

This story might seem like a fairy tale to many teachers, especially those who have never taught a small class. Yet it is a story that needs telling, given that small class size has proven to increase academic and social growth among young learners, especially when they have been in a small class for several consecutive years.
In my 28 years as an elementary school teacher, I have taught classes with as many as 29 students. But once upon a time in a wonderful, magical year, I taught fifteen 2nd graders—an unforgettable experience that taught me how effective a teacher could be.
Let's start at the beginning. Imagine the first day of school. You wait at the door of your classroom to meet the students. When they enter, with big colorful backpacks strapped across their shoulders, these young children look up at you with eyes saying, “See me.” As their teacher, you try to meet each pair of those searching eyes and respond with a warm, “Yes, I see you,” for you know that much of your instructional success is wrapped in that personal connection. The year I met 15 students at the door, I kept looking for the rest of the class. We looked more like a big family than a class. I immediately noted their individual sense of importance; no one seemed lost in the crowd.

Establishing a Successful Classroom Community

This leads me to the first benefit of a smaller class: the ease of establishing a successful classroom community. A classroom is where life really happens for young children, with all their fears, joys, curiosities, and hopes. It is where they will open their hearts and minds. In a class of 15 students, we can quickly learn about one another and do so in more depth. When we start with our morning meeting to welcome one another, set the agenda, and establish expectations, each student offers input; sharing becomes a responsibility. Students express ideas, discuss problems, and answer questions. As a result, they are recognized for their individual contributions and are invested in their daily learning activities. They feel motivated and empowered. What a way to begin a school day!
When there are fewer students in the class, each one has more opportunity to be heard. Discussions can be held without the age-old practice of raising hands. Students learn to allow classmates to finish speaking, and they respond in a relevant way. The exchange of thoughts, philosophies, and opinions becomes a foundation for a classroom based on mutual respect and regard. Self-esteem rises, social interactions are more positive, and skills of compromise and consensus develop.
  • “If I were in a smaller class, we would get to talk more.”
  • “I could ask more questions.”
  • “I could make more friends and be Star of the Week longer.”

More Kid Time

I have already alluded to the second benefit of teaching in a class of smaller size: more kid time. One of the most powerful teaching tools is the structuring of time for students to share knowledge. Students listen to one another, and they hear with ears that are tuned to their level of understanding. An interdependent classroom offers greater opportunity for in-depth peer collaboration. With more extensive knowledge of one another, a key ingredient for successful group work, students are able to accomplish more. There are fewer and smaller groups—and there are more minutes in the day for all students to share their predictions, findings, and conclusions.
Let's look at an example. Four groups of four students are working on the study of air. One group records the different ways that paper might move through the air and how that creates changes in speed. A second group studies how air temperature is affected by water and ice, and a third group explores different ways to make air move and create wind. A fourth group drains juice boxes, collapses them, and refills them with carbon dioxide to determine how air takes up space.
After they have worked through the procedures, discussed what has happened, and reached conclusions, the groups need time to report to the class and answer questions, and the teacher needs time to wrap up the groups' findings with a list of the physical characteristics of air. With a half hour allotted, each group would have six minutes to present their findings, and the teacher would have six minutes to summarize. But if there are six groups of four, each group would have fewer than four and a half minutes to report—and the teacher would have the same amount of time to summarize. It may not sound like a great loss on paper, but over the course of a six-hour day, those minutes add up to 30 minutes of student-centered learning time. You can bet that the quality of learning in a larger class is more rushed, less exacting, and more disjointed; you can also bet that somewhere along the way, important student voices were not heard.
When I have more students in the classroom, I am faced with watering down a discovery approach to learning and doing more summarizing for students when it would have been more meaningful for students to draw conclusions on their own. Or I am too often obliged to teach by telling and demonstrating. Yet we all know that students learn best by doing.

Fewer Discipline Problems

With a classroom of students who are actively engaged, we see something else: fewer discipline problems. It is another great benefit of smaller class size—and is a direct result of a more connected community where there are busy hands, active brains, and opportunities to share knowledge. The teacher can check in more often with students and can troubleshoot impending discipline problems. As Anderson (2000) writes, small class size “enables teachers to worry less about managing learners and more about managing learning.”
In a small class, the students themselves can help sort out disruptive behaviors. In my 15-student class, a set of reading partners was being disturbed by another reading team. I called a quick class meeting on the rug and asked the complaining students to explain the problem. Then I asked them all, “Well, what should we do?” The students shared that it wasn't fair for the noisy readers to disturb others who were trying to concentrate. There were a few punitive suggestions, like having the disruptive team members do their reading at recess time; in the end, though, we decided to set down some quick rules for partner reading time. The offenders apologized, and we went back to our reading block. It took a few minutes to sort out the problem, but what it accomplished was well worth it. We worked out the problem as a group, emphasizing important skills needed to be part of a community. If a student slipped up during the school year, a nod to the posted rules was all it took to get back on track. And it wasn't just me giving the reminder; the students helped monitor one another.

Personalized Assessment

After many years of teaching, I have discovered that just a few minutes of one-on-one time with a student can lead to great gains in academic achievement. Individual conferencing is an effective way to spend one-on-one time. You can keep a running record in reading to look at key strategies that a student is misusing or not using at all; from your information, you can give that student and any others instruction in that specific skill. In a writing conference, you might look at a piece the student is working on and encourage the student to think about word choice or the addition of details. Again, you might find other students who need help with that skill and form a small study group. In looking at a student's portfolio, you might notice a need for the improvement of the overall quality of work. In each case, you and the student will look at the work, discuss how to make it better, and then allow time for revision or rewriting.
In a class of 23 students, I would need to have four or five conferences daily to meet with each student once a week. That is nearly impossible. In a class of 15 students, I would have only three conferences a day. It is easy to see which scenario will produce more valuable assessment and opportunity for personalized reteaching or revision, leading to academic gains.

Using Best Teaching Practices

This brings me to my last point. Good teaching practices don't change; they will facilitate learning in any classroom. In a small class setting, teachers have more opportunities to maximize best teaching practices—and their students reap the rewards.
Before I had the chance to teach a small class, I used to say to anyone who would listen, “Just give me 15 children—no new materials, no new methodologies—and watch what can be done.” I don't have statistical evidence to support the facts, but here's what happened the year my dream came true: Every student in that class made at least a year's growth in all academic areas, and the overwhelming majority made more than that. Our classroom was a welcoming environment managed by all of us. Students tidied up center areas and book collections because it was their room to care for. Their portfolios bulged with work that they had completed, reviewed, and revised. The students designed a Web page that told what they were learning and showcased some of their best work. Each day, someone brought in something to enhance what we were studying: turtles, monarch caterpillars, birds, math games, rock collections, poems, handmade posters to hang in the classroom, self-made books, grandmothers as historians—even baby brothers. In doing so, the students became planners and teachers, too. I could tell you of the personal triumphs and tragedies of each one of those students because we had time to talk about them. Although it was three years ago, I still hear from three of those students on a regular basis. We were a connected class.
A good teacher is the answer to every parent's prayer and every child's blessing. Let's give those good teachers a fighting chance by making small class size a valued reality. As researchers Achilles and Finn (2000) write, Class size should not just be a cornerstone, but the foundation of educational policy for the early education of America's citizenry. . . . The small-class effect has been clearly and amply demonstrated in years of research and practice, but knowing what to do is only part of the job. The leadership challenge is how to get this important thing done. . . . It is the right thing to do for small children beginning what should be an enjoyable and productive journey into learning. (p. 316)
Let's not lose our way. We know that small class size makes a significant difference in the educational and social lives of children. Let's act on it.

Achilles, C. M., & Finn, J. D. (2000). Should class size be a cornerstone for educational policy? How small classes help teachers do their best. In How small classes help teachers do their best. Philadelphia: Temple University, Center for Research in Human Development and Education.

Anderson, L. W. (2000, November 30). Balancing breadth and depth of content coverage: Opportunities in smaller classes. Paper presented at a meeting of the Laboratory for Student Success, Temple University Center for Research in Human Development and Education, Washington, DC.

Patricia Handley has contributed to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 102275.jpg
Class Size, School Size
Go To Publication