Class Size in an International School Setting

July 31, 2020

Commonly Held Beliefs Regarding Class Size

Class size is a much-discussed topic in education. To date, however, there have been few studies of student performance in international schools related to class size. This is unfortunate since international school classrooms have a number of attributes that make them unique to national system classrooms, where much of the foundational work has been done that can be related to class size.

If you did a quick Google search, you would arrive an answer of 18. That somehow, the researchers have been able to gather all the evidence and arrive at the answer to the question ‘What is the optimum class size?’

There is a strongly held belief that learning comes with access to a teacher; that the more time the teacher has with a pupil, the more learning they can impart. In a smaller class the students can expect more time with their teacher, therefore they will make more progress. With more one-on-one time with their teacher, so the logic goes, students are certain to have a greater sense that their teacher cares for them, knows them better, can correct them more quickly, can ensure they participate more frequently and so ensure that progress is made.

Assessing the outcome of formal education is far from an exact science. Speaking as an educator, I do not disagree with the ‘intuitive’ logic presented above, but I would challenge the places where it is too simplistic to say that X + Y causes Z.

A Typical International School Setting

Students in an international school face many challenges including the possibility of having to adapt to a new curriculum. They also, however, experience many advantages compared to a standard population of peers back home that significantly enhances their likelihood of success. Often they arrive with a personal range of skills, competencies and pre-established ideas regarding how the world of schooling operates. They have social skills and cognitive processes and strategies often shaped by their cultural norms.

The students are predominantly well-fed with a relatively healthy lifestyle. The adults in their lives often have more time to engage with them more frequently over a wider range of matters. International children are presented with more novel stimuli and need to accommodate more changes in their environment and social lives. They often have more material resources including access to a group of peers.

However many children there are in the classroom, they need time to socialize and construct their own, personal understandings about the world around them. Being in a small class, with limited numbers of children responding to their teacher can lead to a lack of experimentation and ‘trial and error’. The well-meaning teacher can step into a learning sequence too quickly to correct the child’s thought process and in doing so inhibit the natural sense of inquiry and experimentation that would have taken place, leaving the student overly dependent on the approval and direction of their teacher.

The Optimum Class Size in an International School Setting

I would, therefore, personally suggest that 24 is an ideal number of students to have in an international classroom setting, providing the room is an adequate size. I would expect the class (up to the end of Primary at 11-years of age) to have a teacher and co-teacher who would cover around three-quarters of the curriculum, with specialist teachers delivering the remaining quarter of the children’s programme. Having 24 students will, to a degree, assist with the frequent turnover of students and afford the greatest flexibility in grouping students into pairs, threes, fours, sixes and eights. The size also decreases the likelihood of any student being without another speaker of their mother tongue language.

One of the key outcomes of having classes of an appropriate size is that you have a less frazzled faculty. Teachers appreciate having time to know their students well. They like to have time to discuss students’ learning with the students themselves, colleagues and parents more often and consequently do their job as they were trained to do. Here at Green Shoots International School, we believe learning is what defines us and therefore give our faculty time each morning, at school, to plan for student learning so they can adjust focus as the students develop their understanding of the subject at hand.

At our Hoi An-based school in Central Vietnam, while teachers plan and facilitate stimulating lessons, much of the children’s learning is done in groups, where they are challenged to communicate and explain their understanding to classmates of different abilities, languages, and ethnicities. The children know the purpose of their learning, how it connects to previous lessons and where the skills will lead to in future lessons and how they apply to the big world out there. They are not passive recipients of their teachers lessons, but active participants, knowledgeable about themselves as learners, self-directed and responsive to feedback from their peers, their teachers and (most crucially) themselves.

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