Population and effectiveness in the classroom, how many students are too many?

overpopulated classroom

A lot of teachers think that overpopulated classrooms hurt the chances for students to learn.

Photo: Bigstock.

A survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) aroused one of the most debated aspects of modern education: the number of students per classroom.

One of the questions in the survey asked participants what would they do if they have 5% more funds in the Education budget. Of them, 85% of teachers and principals in Spain, answer they would use it to have more classes with more manageable groups, with fewer students; in the rest of the world, 65% of them coincided with that answer, prioritizing the issue even more than salary improvement.

We can say that more than half of the education professional in schools has a problem with the size of the class, but how big is this problem? How can it affect learning?

A matter of time

The number of students in a group has always been something to worry about for teachers. Class size is a subject topic that divides the educational community. There are different and opposing viewpoints. Some people argue that learning quality is affected by an excessive number of students in one group, while others say that there’s not a significative difference determined by the size of the class. But even if it were, it wouldn’t be crucial enough to eliminate the need for big groups, since they save a lot of money from education budgets.

Smaller groups mean more classes, which call for the need of more teachers, and a more significant percentage of the budget to sustain them, redirecting resources already assigned to other tasks assigned to maintain other aspects of the educational experience. Still, this may be an investment worthy of consideration if the quality of learning is affected by oversized groups.

One of the main reasons so many teachers advocate for a reduction on groups population its because it can cut down the effective learning time. According to the same study, teachers use 22% of every hour in class to keep order and do the peripheral tasks that enable the learning experience.

This calculation means approximately 13 minutes for every hour, or 6.5 hours a week, which would represent a full school day, by the time a student finishes sixth grade he would spend from 222 to 240 hours preparing to learn rather than learning in itself. This extent of time multiplies when the classroom is overpopulated.

Reducing the number of students per class is not the perfect or only solution to improve the learning experience, other measures can be used for the same purpose, like assigning support staff to courses where groups have many students, to help teachers with the administrative tasks and maintaining the order.

Another option can be to improve teachers’ training to handle big groups and students discipline to make the most out of classes since they would have to learn with a significant number of people. All of these can be reasonable short-term solutions, but as time keeps passing and education keeps evolving, raises the question if this is the approach that we need for a future that is shifting into a work market where human abilities are going the be currency.

Power skills are not mass produced

A lot of the defenders of big groups can argue that a well-prepared teacher should be capable of cover the lessons and activities no matter how many students are in the classroom, and that’s technically true if we’re talking about just passing on knowledge. But one of the most fundamental problems of education today is the lack of understanding of the difference between the transmission of knowledge and the process of learning.

In simple words, is not the same that a student in history class knows the date World War II started, and other that he or she is capable of writing an essay about the issued that lead to the conflict or that the student can be able to identify which of these elements are still in today’s society. The first case demonstrates the transmission of knowledge, the second the development of skills.

To pass on knowledge is a unilateral process; it just needs that the teacher conveys information and the student to receives it. To attain abilities is a plurilateral process; it depends on the interaction between teacher and student, as well as the interaction of students with their peers, supervised by the teacher. This is the activity that is more affected by overpopulated groups. The more students are in the same class; the less will they be able to generate a dynamic of interaction that helps attain abilities.

Skills like emotional intelligence, creativity, perception, communication, teamwork, and negotiation are listed among the most sought skills by employers. Knowledge is still essential, and it will always be, but when it comes alone, it creates experts incapable of performing competitively in the workforce.

If we want to address the discussion of the number of students in the classroom and if it is viable to guarantee an educational experience in these conditions, it is necessary to ask ourselves what educational experience we are looking for and why: at what point do we stop transmitting knowledge to teach them skills? And how do we fill this need for interaction in which these skills are developed in a way that transcends the number of students in a class? This is one of the most critical challenges to overcome in education in the near future.