November 2019

The (Real) Value of Small Classes

Independent schools far and wide speak proudly of their small class sizes, typically averaging in the 16-18 student range. Most of us would prefer to see our children in a class of 16 than a class of 25. That was certainly true for me when my daughters were young, and intuitively it makes sense. 

Our guts tell us that in a reasonably sized class, children receive more attention from their teachers. And they do. Our guts tell us that in those same small classes children are better able to ask questions and have their questions answered. Again, correct. Given these factors, small classes naturally result in better reading and math scores. Actually...no. Yes, students learning to read do better in a small setting, and yes, reading scores are slightly higher than those obtained in larger classes with capable teachers and adequate materials, while math scores are quite similar. 

Why, then, do we so adamantly maintain that small classes are better than large classes? To answer that, one must consider the differences in learning experiences afforded by number of students. In classes where a teacher can allow movement, interaction, exploration, and choice, learning is far more student-centered. In classes where a teacher can allow discussion and debate, learning is deeper and broader. In classes where teachers have the time and energy to attend to the children sitting before them on any given day, learning is terrifically more responsive to the needs and interests of those children. Nonetheless, some would argue that if the results of all this are not markedly higher test scores, then it doesn’t really matter. And they are wrong. 

Class size matters. Being known as an individual and having the chance to learn in all of the various ways mentioned above make school attendance and learning more enjoyable; that’s a pretty big deal all by itself, but not the true crux of the issue. The confidence and “voice” developed when one is a big fish in a smaller pond are enormous, but also not the whole story. Our rapidly changing institutions of higher learning, the reimagined team configurations in today’s workplaces, the lightning speed of growth in technology, innovation, and global challenges -- these realities demand skills obtained in small classes. Skills such as practice in collaboration and communication. Skills such as problem-solving, necessary for our children to design appropriate solutions to dilemmas we can’t imagine. Skills such as leadership and followship, both essential in all walks of life. In these tremendously important elements integral to our childrens’ health, happiness, and success, larger classes cannot hold a candle to smaller ones. Therein lies the true value of independent school class sizes. Too bad these differences are so difficult to measure and quantify...but in your gut, you know it.      

Lynne Myavec

Middle School Head