Class Size and Composition: A Birthday Party Analogy
Issues of class size and composition tend to polarize the discourse about public education.
These issues are complicated because ideological positions inform much of the debate which is often emotional, replete with language around justice and economics, anxiety and flexibility, discrimination and fairness.
They also encapsulate a tug of war between the needs of students, the workload ramifications for teachers, the expectations of parents, and the managerial criteria of governments.
I want to explore these issues using the analogy of a birthday party.
Because we’re stuck in a gladiatorial arena where arguments on class size and composition are discussed in terms of competing narratives.
This restricts our ability to forge solutions and negotiate settlements rather than helping us forge fair and equitable resolutions. So why not try a different lens?
Let’s take a typical six-year-old in British Columbia who is turning seven. Which is easier to host: a birthday party for 12 or a birthday party for 20?
All factors being equal, one would be inclined to say a party of 12.
But wait. What if you have to tend to all the details for a party of 12 with no help? That could be much more work than booking a birthday package for 20 at a local community centre where all, or most, of the details are taken care of.
However, what if that group of 20 at the recreation centre includes a handful of children who do not take well to group activities? It may still be less work, but it may be as stressful as, or more stressful than, the small party for 12 at home. And that small party of 12 at home might be a lot less work if you have the help of family members and friends.
This may be a frivolous analogy, but it demonstrates a key idea: class size is important, but it’s not the only factor to consider with regard to structuring a successful learning environment. That’s why those who claim that class size doesn’t matter, in my opinion, are erroneously emphasizing short-term economic efficiency. Those who claim class size can be addressed as a formula are prioritizing workload considerations.
I think we need to figure out a new system for public education, one which supports smaller class sizes, allows the flexibility for larger class sizes where supportable, and in all cases supplies the resources and help required to ensure an optimum learning environment. In my imagined structure, a school district may very well have Grade 1 classes of differing sizes whether of 6, of 12, of 20, of 24, and even, depending on many other factors especially support services, 30.
Wait a second.
I overlooked the most important question.
Whose birthday party is it? What type of birthday party does the child want? Is he an introvert better-suited to small gatherings at home? Is she an extrovert better suited to a significant gathering with lots of activity and her as the centre of attention? Alternatively, would he or she really rather not bother with a party at all even at six years old?
Unfortunately, that’s the question which is often overlooked in the fractured and fraught discussion about class size and composition.
And yet, it is about the kids. Isn’t it?
the analogy becomes stronger when you have the child is not able to participate because he does not speak the same language. should we then be having a party for him at all or should we have a party for him with only others who speak that language?
Thank Ernie for taking the time to read my post. The issue of other language speakers is very relevant and a growing reality in our schools, particularly in the Lower Mainland. I would argue that our long-term goal ought to be inclusiveness and that you make the accommodations necessary for that child to attend the party and to have a great time! In fact, I think children cross language barriers much more readily than adults. I appreciate your extension of the analogy and your careful consideration of class size and composition issues.
[…] At this stage in the dispute, with the start of school hanging in the balance and talks stuck in the we-may-someday-mediate phase, even those with only a cursory interest in the matter recognize that the largest stumbling blocks to a new negotiated settlement are the issues of class size, class composition, and the ratio of specialist educators. To craft contract language around each of these issues which is acceptable to both factions — balancing teacher workload, student learning conditions, and school district financials — is a daunting challenge. I’ve written about this difficulty before in two pieces: Ratios, Ranges, and Caps in Education and Class Size and Composition: A Birthday Party Analogy. […]