Sunday, September 17, 2017

It’s Class Load, Not Just Size, That Matters

As the school year launches for students across the nation, questions from passionate and innovative educators come into my networks on how to effectively support student learning. One common thread comes from innovative educators who have several classes of students and are trying to figure out how to manage all the demands placed upon them. They know that learning is not effective if you don't get to know your students. Or, as Jeff Bliss reminded us a few years back, you need to touch a student’s freakin heart before you can reach their minds.

There are definitely ways technology can help with this. For example, Thrively is a terrific tool for getting to know what students care about and how they thrive. Google Classroom is becoming very popular for tracking student assignments. But it's more than the data. It's all about relationships as students reminded us in an Education Nation panel where they shared advice like:
  • I can't learn from you if you are not willing to connect with me.
  • Caring about each student is more important than teaching the class.
  • Every young person has a dream. Your job is to help bring us closer to our dreams.
  • We need more than teachers. We need life coaches.
  • You should be trained not just in teaching but also in counseling.
  • Tell me something good that I'm doing so that I can keep growing in that.
  • When you can feel like a family member it helps so much.
  • You need to love a student before you can teach a student.
  • Our teachers have too many students to enable them to connect with us in they way we need them to.

Advice for educators

Angela Maiers agrees. She works with educators around the world to help them liberate genius in their students, has this advice for teachers: “If you don’t first secure students’ hearts, you don’t have a shot at their brains.”

She has three concrete suggestions for doing that:
  1. Greet every student by name as they enter the class, and then remark on something about several students in the first two minutes of class.
  2. Commend at least five students in each class period for their contributions to the discussion.
  3. Take two minutes at the end of each class to reflect on what everyone learned today.

    Roadblocks to building relationships

    However, Maiers laments that she often encounters teachers who “don’t have time” for such frivolity, or proclaim that it’s “not their job” to be “friends” with the students.


    When it comes to secondary school or teachers of subjects like technology where they see many classes, it is quite possible teachers respond this way with good reason. They literally “don’t have time” or the mental capacity to do so. They are set up for failure.

    Dunbar’s number  

    That’s because it is not uncommon for teachers to have a schedule of 15 - 25 different classes a week. This translates to anywhere from 450 - 750 students.


    We know from science that the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained caps at around 150. This limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size. This is according to anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar, whose work refers to the average social group size.


    Dunbar’s number is applied to several other areas such as number of relationships you can manage on social media vs number of “friends.” It also stands to reason that this number could be applied to how many students an educator could manage relationships with as well. With a load of more than 150 students, it simply becomes too complicated to manage at an optimal processing level.  

    When applying Dunbar's number to teaching that number drops. There is a cognitive limit to the number of students a teacher can maintain and have a consistent interaction with before the edges start to fray and these lose track of students. Once you pass that number, as one student put it, what you'll see is "the teachers focus on the top two or three who they can use to show themselves off and the bottom five who they have to keep in line or else chaos ensues."
    The answer for Dave who wrote about this on AcademHack, is that 45 - 60 is the number of students teachers can realistically get to know very well.

    Sure, teachers can use various strategies and harness the power of technology to try to keep track of more students, but it is difficult at best. When we know it is absolutely not necessary or in the best interest of students to give an educator more than 5 classes or 150 students the question becomes: Why do they?


    Such large student loads is not a necessary evil and should not be business as usual. There are better ways to do scheduling that respect students, teachers, and the importance of knowing the whole child to reach them effectively.

    The solution

    If we want students and teachers to succeed, increase the time students spend with their teachers and limit the load. It’s a simple solution where everyone wins.  


    This is not a secret. We see it in independent schools and there are excellent public school models such as Big Picture Learning who put this idea into action with powerful results. Not only do they have one of the highest attendance rates, but there is also a 98% college acceptance rate.

    What's your number?

    How many students can you "really" reach? 45? 60? 150? More? Use this article to start important discussions where you work if you have a large class load. When you do, be prepared to suggest rethinking this practice with practical solutions and models that more effectively support student success and teacher effectiveness. Not sure how to do that? Read this article with 8 strategies to get your principal to say yes.

    7 comments:

    1. Hi Lisa,
      I like to think that I make my students feel welcome and acknowledged in my classes on a daily basis. After reading this blog I am not so sure that I am as welcoming to all my students. Some of them search me out and we talk and those are the ones that get most of my attention. Now that I realize how much it matters to students that I connect with them, I will make it a point to acknowledge all my students.
      Thanks for bringing this point to our attention,
      Christine Hutzel

      ReplyDelete
    2. Hi Lisa,
      I really like what you said in the beginning, "you need to touch a student’s freakin heart before you can reach their minds." I find this to be so true especially when I am working with students from urban and inner city schools. I feel like it might be hard to reach each and every single one of the students but if as a teacher we can change just one students life just a little bit than we did our jobs.

      ReplyDelete
    3. Hi Lisa, I believe that this is something that is missing in education today. It is incredibly important in this very difficult world. We may not be able to reach them all but one at a time we can reach quite a few!

      ReplyDelete
    4. Hi Lisa,
      This is such an important topic within education. As you said there is an abundance of research available today that shares this same belief. If this is true, my thought is why are not more teachers taking the time to devote to getting to know their students? I know as a 4th grade teacher I spend a great deal of time at the beginning of the school year getting to know my new class of students, and then we get down to business. After reflecting on this post, I realize that I need to revisit how students thrive many times throughout the year. I need to take time and devote it to understanding who my students are outside of this classroom, to better understand who they are in it. One goal of mine is to implement classroom meetings. Do you, or anyone else who has commented, have experience with this? Or things to avoid to make the best use of my time. Thanks for the reminder of this important practice.

      ReplyDelete
    5. Hi Lisa,
      This is such an important topic within education. As you said there is an abundance of research available today that shares this same belief. If this is true, my thought is why are not more teachers taking the time to devote to getting to know their students? I know as a 4th grade teacher I spend a great deal of time at the beginning of the school year getting to know my new class of students, and then we get down to business. After reflecting on this post, I realize that I need to revisit how students thrive many times throughout the year. I need to take time and devote it to understanding who my students are outside of this classroom, to better understand who they are in it. One goal of mine is to implement classroom meetings. Do you, or anyone else who has commented, have experience with this? Or things to avoid to make the best use of my time. Thanks for the reminder of this important practice.

      ReplyDelete
    6. Lisa,

      I loved this blog. This is something that I genuinely care about and wish it was of higher importance in schools today. I've seen teachers who just care about getting from one subject to another and getting to 3 o'clock that they don't take the time to truly get to know their students. They miss out on so much when they are only focused on the academics. I love that you mentioned the 3 things through out the day that will help establish a relationship. I definitely try to talk with my students in my host classrooms about their home life or different things that interest them. They realize that I can be their friend, not just an instructor. Thank for you sharing this. :)

      -Kate

      ReplyDelete
    7. Hi Lisa I really like how to talk about the elementary class children. I agree how you put step by step all what a teacher needs to keep in mind for her students. As teachers we have to respect our students and be very patient with students. Teachers have to treat students as human beings believe in them and their dreams and never let them give up on what they want to do or to achieve in life.

      ReplyDelete