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?