Why Reduced Class Size Is A Joke

or: Finally Understanding The Appeal Of These Student Response Systems

Aaron Pallas (nee Skoolboy) has been skeptical of the impact of reduced class size on student achievement for some time. This never made sense to me until last week.

I’m observing other classes on my prep period. It started out once a week, reluctantly. Now I’m in a new class every prep – half hour at a time – and really enjoying the experience. My note-taking has evolved as I’ve noticed trends and I have customized an observation form. I take photos and record audio (on my iPhone, natch) and keep all the media in GoogleDocs.

After I observe every class at my school, I’ll inevitably work all of my field notes into some kind of comprehensive post-mortem (the results are too interesting to simply file in a drawer and forget) but I have to point something out right now.

Part of my observation involves a dot plot of teacher position over the first thirty minutes of class. With two exceptions (so far) they all look like this:

The sage on the stage is real, though she’s far more stage than sage. She’s tethered. She doesn’t leave the board. She doesn’t deviate from a tight route she’s defined between her teacher desk and the overhead projector.

She puts five problems up on an opener and models three separate skills in a lecture without once venturing out and examining student work. Not only does this construct an artificial wall between teacher and student but it makes checking for understanding very difficult.

What I’m saying is that reduced class size is useless if you’re still going to teach like you’re a lecturer in some intro course at some enormous public university.

And now enter student response systems, technology which enables this detachment, which tells teachers which students picked the right answer and which picked the wrong answer as formulated by the teacher but not which students picked the wrong answer as formulated by the student.

Get a wireless remote. Project a problem, something meaty with a lot of steps and maybe a couple of twists somewhere near the end, and then walk around – through the rows, not just around the periphery – noting common errors. Have a conversation with your students.

Because none of this intervention – I don’t think – makes any difference if you haven’t already asked your students, “How are you doing today?” But I dunno. Maybe just let them select the answer to that question with their student response systems.

BTW: Here’s my observation form.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. My students today complained “I can’t hear you when you walk around the room.” I told him he’s allowed to turn his head, but it made me wonder about how trained we are just to look at the front of the room.

  2. Dan-
    I can’t wait to see your observations on other classrooms. The remote w/ projector is the best way to walk around and check, keep kids on task, give feedback. Many older teachers just refuse to embrace the technology, and it really is quite a bit of work at first but worth it on many levels. The sage teacher, is she older and not accustomed to using the projector and remote?

    Our principal has the same perspective that you do, she said in numerous meetings that class size isn’t as big of a variable as teacher quality which is pretty clear to me.

  3. Are you suggesting schools invest in student response systems instead of working to promote good teaching practices? Personally, I think a “invisible dog fence” type of collar that shocks teachers if they stand in the front of the room for 15 minutes straight might be more valuable than the buying student response systems.

    Student response systems lose when it comes to relationship building regardless of how they might prop up otherwise poor teacher practice.

    Are your observations mandated by the school or is this your own project? I’m not sure if many teachers here would enjoy being observed, though I greatly enjoy observing teachers from all disciplines.

  4. As a new teacher who is stuck in her room all the time, but has toyed with the idea of using her prep to observe other teachers (oh, for the freedom of having the extra time to do so!), I’d be curious to see your observation form.

    And as always, thanks for the insights – your posts always force me to consider what I teach and how I teach it in a different light.

  5. Dan,

    I think you can stand at the front of a class and have a very good lesson. Most I am at the stage. This is because i do not like to use overheads or slideshows on a beamer. I use fixed, premade beamer material only if I want to show something that changes (mostly material made with Geogebra, a dynamical geometry program). Mainly because it is to much of a hassle to set up the hardware (we only have blackboards and in some rooms a television). But also because the loss of interactivity (your diagram would show a lot of pupil activity around the blackboard)

    I enter the classroom with a predefined and drawn out idea of what the board should look like and how it should evolve. But I like the idea that i can use variation based on what happens in class. I also like the time I win in preparations and use it to go look for the right questions to ask and problems to solve to get the ideas i want to convey out of my pupils’ heads instead of into them.

    Maybe we are to geographically apart to compare, I teach in Belgium, but I get great responses from my pupils and I regularly leave a class with a feeling of joy.

  6. @Ben, I’m suggesting the opposite. Student response systems enable bad practice.

    My observations are my own project and few teachers have given my requests even a little pause. I try to present myself as a simple, curious ingenue, just looking to learn a little bit from the rest of my faculty. I leave positive follow-up comments via e-mail and thank them for the opportunity. Word has floated around the lunch room that I’m harmless.

  7. Instead of a remote I use a Bluetooth wireless tablet and a drawing program so I can also draw on the board while I am wandering around the room. It took about a week to get used to it, but it was worth it.

  8. @Emilie, I’ll upload that form to this same post sometime soon.

    @Peter, thanks for sharing your insights from Belgium. I’d only ask, “How do you know what your students know?”

    @Jimp, the tablet is an awesome piece of tech. If I could find one that integrated with my Mac and Keynote, I’d be on top of that fast.

  9. The lack of Keynote support is really a bummer. Even PowerPoint has a pen you can pick up and draw on a slide. Exporting my Kaynotes to PwoerPoint is one of the ways I have overcome the problem with Keynote. My tablet is bluetooth and works great with my MacBook.

  10. @dan: I figured as much. My sarcasm doesn’t translate overly well through text.

    I’ve been thinking of trying a similar observation program for myself, but thus far have been pretty bogged down with planning. I probably should just take this post as a kick in my pants to just do it. There’s always sleep you can cut back on for more planning time. ;-)

    I believe that this wandering around bit is vital to gauge student progress in math-related or problem-solving tasks, but does the necessity for wandering the room decrease for other subject areas or tasks? I’m all for circulating the room even if it’s just because it increases my interaction with (and therefore relationships with) students, but might it be harder to gauge a student’s understanding of history, English, or science related material by wandering? I’m curious what people think.

  11. It’s a good point. I just got out of a college-track US history class where the teacher didn’t leave her seat for the entire half hour I observed. But it was Socratic discussion at its best. She had great, meaty, high-level-Bloom questions and kept track of students who answered on a seating chart. The class was, for the most part, dialed in.

    For math, moving around the class is essential, full stop.

    For other classes, I’ll suggest that moving around the class does a lot to ease the artificial boundaries separating teachers and students, even if (maybe) it isn’t as essential to formative assessment.

    And yeah, look, I’ll just put it out there also that losing a half hour from each prep period suuuuuucks. But it’s been extremely valuable at the same time. It’s the best thing I’ve done for professional development this year. Way better than that one conference.

  12. @ Dan – it is possible that your use of technology could invoke bad practice. In fact it is not the technology that makes you an effective or ineffective teacher, it is how you use that technology that makes you an effective or ineffective teacher. Base upon what I read in this blog (for I have not observed you in your classroom) it seems that you use technology effectively and your student’s benefit from it.

    I don’t use student response systems a.k.a “clickers,” but I have seen them in use. I think that they can provide immediate feedback for both students and teachers in a way that no test or other assessment can. I am not arguing for the absolute replacement of other assessments – that would be bad practice.

    I argue that “clickers”, like other technology, can enhance student experience, allow them to make safe attempts at problems to help them build their confidence anonymously, and quickly let a teacher know what more they need to do (i.e. jump off script and get their hands dirty with some one-on-one instruction!). They may even be able to help inform the teacher how differentiate instruction.

    I think the root of the problem is that when teachers only teach from a textbook, or a script, or a . . . that there is little room for anything but being a “sage on stage.” This I think is due to the lack of time and effective and available resources. Teachers get burned out by having to create a new wheel because the textbook sucks and does not meet the needs of the specific subset of students in their classroom.

    I think what Dan is arguing for, especially in a Math classroom, is that there is so much more that students can do with the concepts that they learn than what the textbook asks them to do. And, it is our job as teachers to create or find opportunities for students to experience their math beyond the textbook or the standardized tests. A question remains, “how can technology help in this endeavor?” Can it save some time that I can use to create an opportunity or do research, rather than just grade a bunch of papers?

  13. Dan,

    I know what pupils know, by the answers they give on questions i use to build the lessons with, by letting pupils rephrase answers given by others, and by letting pupils answer problems on the blackboard. I look for facial expressions as well. You can tell when they missed out.

    The trick is asking enough questions and uniformly distributing them. To make everybody think the question through i ask it first, then leave some silence, then point someone out to answer it.

    If they’re working on problems I let them roam the class and help each other out. At those times I’m usually wandering as well. Looking over shoulders, assisting if they ask me, making remarks.

    I have a general idea of what a given student can do. But also know the quality of their errors, so i can create tailor made remediating exercises.

    I think my method only works because of the small groups of pupils we have.

  14. I am dubious about the CPS clickers too.

    @ Micheal, yes a tool is just a tool and it’s all about what you do with it. But… some tools seem to seduce you into using them a certain way, ie the tool suggests a use. Give me a hammer and the world becomes a nail, give me clickers and learning becomes selecting the correct answer.

    I also worry that these clickers make poor practice look good.

    And yes, the students may be very engaged – for a while, by the novelty – but engagement with multiple choice? why…

    To me the price (purchase, training, etc) is too high for what these offer.

    I just don’t get this one.

  15. Just wanted to echo the observation that I think this varies greatly by discipline.

    Math in almost all cases is best expressed visually — that is where a student’s thought process in a problem can be found. Thus, it is basically a necessity that a math teacher walk around to observe this.

    As you move deeper into the humanities, I think this becomes less and less needed.

    Science and computer science work well with a combination of verbal and visual interaction.

    Once you get into the humanities I think the thought process can be clearly be articulated orally. In fact, in classes which involved more critical thinking, speaking is the best way to catch the thoughts — there is a far greater correlation between thought and speech for most people than there is between thought and writing.

  16. I had a math teacher who due to physical disability sat at the front of class and wrote on a projector with a scrolling transparency.

    It was a fantastic class.

    While I’m a mobile teacher, I don’t believe for a moment there’s one and only one way to do things.

    Have any of the teachers you’ve observed used student whiteboards? (That’s where they do the work on their personal whiteboard and then hold it up when they’re done.)

  17. @Jimp (if you’re still reading)
    What is the program you are using? I recently hooked up the Wiimote interactive whiteboard because I was inspired by this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5s5EvhHy7eQ

    After putting all the pieces in place I decided there’s not much of a place for it in my classroom other than to maybe convince them I really am a magician and follow it up with a discussion on infrared technology and what people who are really good at math can do with it.

    But a better program might augment my vision of its place in my classroom…

  18. What a great post! Look at the discussion that followed from your simple post. Imagine sitting in a classroom and asking a question that did not have a clear answer, like an opinion question. In a classroom without clickers, you’d see kids looking around and the vast majority of kids would vote one way or the other (with the majority because they want to be right). Put a clicker in each student’s hand and you will see what the student’s really believe. Then, you can ask for students to support their choices.

    Clickers are great for math assessments for the simple reason that assessments are graded immediately. Interventions can be put in place. The clickers I use have numeric capabilities as well, so math isn’t pigeon holed into multiple choice.

  19. What choices would you provide for the CPS prompt:

    “How are you doing today?”

    a) One day closer to the complete zombie-fication that this institution pines for myself and my peers.

    b) I’m suffering from depression and even though you’ll know it’s me, I’m banking on the fact that I can smile my way through any meeting or intervention that may follow and in less than a week, everyone will leave me alone again. Even though it’s that isolation that cuts me deepest.

    c) Fine.

    d) Can I go to the nurse?

    I’m not a fan either. And eeks! I’m an ed-tech-er.

  20. @Chuck
    I have this setup: MacBook, Wacom Graphire Wireless and for the most part Skitch. It really is pushing Skitch a little far as it was never meant for presentations, but you can quickly get a blank screen to draw on, easily clip a picture from the web to draw on, and easily import any photo from your computer to draw on as well. When I want to do a presentation I make it in Keynote and then if I am going to be drawing on it I output the Keynote slides as jpgs into a folder. Then I grab the photos out of the folder from Skitch. You can also save the Keynote as a PowerPoint which has drawing tools you can use on each slide (but not save for later like Skitch).

  21. LCD Projectors are a JOKE!

    I see a lot of teachers use LCD projectors as just another way to display a bunch of notes and/or vocabulary “UP” on the board. The projector actually acts as an extra barrier between the students and the lesson. The lesson’s “UP” there on the screen, the teacher’s hidden behind a computer, and the students are copying “what’s UP there” “DOWN” in their little little spiral notebooks.

    Should I deduct that LCD projectors are a joke and the teachers that use them to be techie “wonks” who don’t really care about their students?

    Or, should I look to those teachers who utilize LCD projectors to enrich their lessons and further engage students?

    I think the former deduction makes for a much more interesting blog, but…

  22. Dan,

    curious: I’ve been told by the blog police that one should ‘praise locally and criticize globally’.

    how does your staff (presuming they read your blog) handle the stark difference between informing your own instruction versus identifying their “limited mobility”?

  23. Dan,
    Thanks for uploading the observation form. You’ve explained “passports”, but I’m puzzled about the clock and the “photo” references. What do they refer to?

    I know you have nothing better to do than reply to blue-moon visitors to your blog, however, I will throw you a bone: What works and what doesn’t Quote: “OK, so the majority of innovations and methods “work”, according to the meta-analysis (bearing in mind that unless substantial funding and contractual obligations to publish were involved, most researchers would not be inclined to publish negative findings). But which work really well, and which have such a marginal effect that it is not worth the bother? That is the critical question. Here is the answer!

  24. Sherri Heiberger

    December 14, 2008 - 6:43 am -

    Interesting. I’m assuming all o the teachers you observe are Jr/Sr Hi? Very different positions in the early grades. We truly are training student not only to sit in their seats, but also to look at the person talking.

  25. @ Eric J: I don’t think either is accurate. Some teachers feel compelled (pressured even) to use technology because it is being thrust upon them by the “21st Century Teaching” movement. I wouldn’t call these teachers techie wonks that don’t care about their students.

    Others use projectors to deliver a breadth of notes they would otherwise have written on the chalkboard. And this is what you are referring to. And no, we should praise them for using technology to engage the students, because, well, they’re not.

    But don’t blame the LCD projector.

    The solution: You’ve got to convince said teacher that this is not an effective way of delivering content. Just because technology is being used does not mean it is effective. Technology is not always the answer. I think the good teachers realize that. They use it when they know it’ll be effective, omit it when it’s not.

    And I guess you could argue that the “21st Century Teaching” movement should be training teachers when and how to use that technology, and when to say, “Okay, it’s not going to work here. You’ll need a pen and some paper for this one.”