Class Size Matters

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It was a calamity. Despite a dynamic new head of department and strong GCSE results, numbers joining our A level history course sank to just 6. (On the Final Score videprinter, they would add SIX, as if the mere numeral were not quite believable.) We were used to numbers three or four times that. The Head of Faculty, understandably, demanded an inquiry: something must be done.

Once we got going with the course (I shared it with my HoD), the picture didn’t much improve. The class – made up from students from our own school and two neighbouring ones – didn’t easily gel, and when they did it felt mildly antagonistic towards us: they weren’t as excited about the course as we thought they should be. They weren’t exactly resistant to hard work; it was more like they wanted us to get out of the way.

Our whole-school development focus for the year was on Growth Mindset and how it could be used to build resilient learners. My AS class provided me with an opportunity to try some of this out. I was struck by how my teaching approaches seemed ineffective with this smaller class. I knew that much of the research on smaller class sizes indicated that they did not produce better outcomes alone, unless accompanied by a change in pedagogy.

The key issue appears to be whether the reduction is large enough to permit the teacher to change their teaching approach when working with a smaller class and whether, as a result, the pupils change their learning behaviours.

EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit

A class of 6 (SIX) was certainly small enough. So I sought a different approach. This year, my lead teacher colleagues Louise Legg (@loulegg07) and Barbara Terziyski (@BTerziyski) have been delving deeper into approaches that really help students to retain what they have learned. We know this matters anyway, but now even more, given that AS and A Level have been decoupled: what I teach students in Year 12, they will need to know at the end of Yeat 13. Barbara unearthed this, The Seven Monkeys, from Durrington High School’s brilliant Class Teaching blog, written by two of their science NQTs, Faye Hedley (@f_hedley) and Becky Owen. Simply, students are expected to work through several stages (or ‘monkeys’) on their way to answering a substantial question – these are essentially reworkings of core information, repeated so they ‘stick’ better. From earlier exercises, I already knew that most of them had developed quite sophisticated note-taking skills, so I was confident that they could handle this.

I had my new approach; I needed to launch it with my class in a way they would find compelling. Parents’ evening came in January. Unanimously (and in front of their parents), they declared that the work so far had not been as hard as they had anticipated. I revealed to them my estimate that we were perhaps three weeks’ behind schedule, so we would need to crack on between then and Easter. They were fine with that. Back in class, I shared the Seven Monkeys idea, only to find that some of them (those in Louise’s Psychology class) had got there ahead of me! If Ms Legg said it worked, they were prepared to believe her! I presented to them the next chunk of the course (twenty years of Apartheid South Africa), broken down into 12 questions. They would have until Easter to ‘get the work done’ independently – 10 weeks. They had to plan their Spring term schedule, including their homeworks. They could work alone or in small groups, and be ready at any time to present their notes to me. My job would be to ensure they were keeping to their plan, answer their questions and provide them with resources.

As I intended this to be a small action research project, I collected questionnaires from them at the start and end of the process. This helped me see what they understood independent learning to be. They saw it as doing work for themselves, without (or with minimal) input from the teacher. They realised that this could be in small groups, and that it was not the same as being abandoned by me. They saw many advantages to this type of study: pairs had to ensure that both understood the ideas before they moved on; setting out work in ways that appealed to them, rather than the ones determined by the teacher. One boy declared at the start that he had no skills or attributes which would help him to be a successful independent student: by the end, he realised he could plan out his work and keep to a schedule. In discussion, they all said that they had worked harder over the course of the project, as, without me telling them what to do and not do, they had probably over-compensated and done more than necessary.

Spying was my second data-gathering technique. While they worked away, I mainly sat at my desk compiling coded notes on their learning behaviours. ‘Independence’ is a hard thing to see, but may be observed by proxies. I opted to look for a) ‘Neediness’ (revealed through the frequency and type of questions); b) ability to stay on task without being corrected (I called this ‘Quietness’); c) the degree of ‘fruitful cooperation’ (whole group, or pairs); how well they maintained their schedule. I awarded points for each trait in each lesson, amounting to an ‘Independence Quotient’. There was nothing scientific about this: it was simply a way I could track any changes in these behaviours over the course of the 10 weeks. This was for me the most fascinating part of the study. Of the six, two decided to work almost entirely alone throughout. (This was not my intention, but I decided not to interfere with their choices.) The remainder formed two pairs. In the early sessions, I scored them low for ‘Quietness’ – I hesitated to intervene too quickly, but the off-task chat among the pairs was not helping. This corrected itself when student absence left two pairs ‘dangling’. They were able to see the difference this made to their workrate, so for all subsequent lessons the pairs worked much more productively. At no point did any of them fall behind schedule: twice I had to slow some of them down, and remind them to revisit the Seven Monkeys before moving on to the next question. ‘Neediness’ turned out not to be an issue for them, a factor I believe related to the smallness of the class. They barely asked me a question at all, beyond requesting highlighters and printer paper. I recorded just two ‘content questions’ from the entire 10 weeks, which is remarkable given how reliant upon us for subject knowledge we assume our students are. By Easter, I was awarding the class the maximum of 10 ‘Independence Quotient’ points, as by then they had begun to set up whole-class quizzes to revise the module.

Few of my colleagues felt able to follow my lead on this. Without the small numbers, and without some sound basic study skills already in place, I doubt I would have tried it either – certainly not for such a long period. But it does appear to have worked. They took the AS exam, and last week got their results: 2 As, 3 Bs and 1 C. Two students had met their targets, four had exceeded them. Whether or not this outcome was due to the independent study module, it at least did no harm. And next term they will be getting stuck into their A level coursework module: I think they are well-prepared.

Thanks to my old teacher

Mary McEneaney

I February 2014 I posted For what it’s worth: My Patronus Charm. It sat quietly, mostly by itself, at the back of the class: nobody asked it any questions and it never put its hand up. It was there as a reminder, mostly to myself, of why I became a teacher and why, despite the tough days, I keep going back into the classroom. It was about a teacher who, unknown to her, meant a great deal to me. It was a personal story, but, I hoped, also a universal one.

About 6 months ago my cousin Sheila (@Northamptonpod) found my blog on Twitter and asked my permission to share it with friends and our wider family on Facebook. Immediately my piece had been moved to the front of the classroom: people, who knew me well, suddenly knew me a little better. Forty-plus years ago I had been a talkative, plump 6 year old, full of stories and bullied for sounding English. I had also been saved by my teacher.

The message of my blog had been that teachers have an impact on young people whether they know it or not. That impact can be enormously for the good, but rarely will the teacher ever learn about – or be thanked for – the good that they did. And that’s fine. But, having told trainee teachers and my pupils about this teacher of mine, I did want to find out what became of her. Naturally I hadn’t maintained contact with my classmates from then. Google was no help: it turned out I didn’t know how to spell her name. But one cousin, Anne, remembered her as her neighbour from Dungannon, and she was confident she could track her down.

Anne did find her, Mrs McEneaney. She went to her house, took this photograph, let her read my blog. Yesterday I chatted with my old teacher on the phone. She retired a long time ago, having taught children to read and write and do sums for 42 years. She didn’t quite remember me, but I was just one of 1200 kids she taught. She did remember the things I remembered, like the shelf of library books she kept in her room, the books that were my lifeline. She said she had never been thanked for her service, but she wasn’t bitter about that: she spoke instead about her vocation, and about how tough it is for teachers today. She was very pleased that I too am a teacher, and delighted to learn that History is my subject. She has promised to send me a chart for my wall on the Easter 1916 Rising.

Still a teacher.