Teaching: Big groups, big results?

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Smaller groups, better outcomes? It’s indisputable right? In this world of tight budgets and limited resources, one teacher is finding that bigger just might be better...

Traditionally in the educational world, it has been firmly believed that smaller teaching groups lead to better outcomes.

Many schools boast their class sizes in an attempt to attract potential students and often, class size can be the deciding factor for parents when choosing where they send their children.

Does a smaller class always mean better progression though? Does a small group mean that outcomes are guaranteed to be better? I am going to have to argue no – I am actually going to say the absolute opposite.

This year, in my school, we were faced with an interesting predicament. Our ability-setting system combined with staffing led us to a crossroads where we had two choices. We could split top two sets into three, dividing the students into equal number groups or we could try something different. That’s exactly what we did – something different.

We created a group of 52 students, essentially combining two full classes, and we teach them as one group – 52 year 11s being taught English at the same time, in the same room. And the results so far have been astounding.

Rationale

When you take into account the factors that were considered as part of the thinking process for this type of teaching, the merits become clearer and the idea becomes less insane.

In discussions with my head of department, we were trying to fathom a way to ensure that the largest proportion of our cohort could achieve their benchmarked grade before the summer – much like every teacher. We came to the conclusion that consistency was the best way to ensure results. So, we considered the logistics, found a room that could accommodate the students and set about planning.

Considering GCSE exams are in the summer, we decided that we would assess in some form once a week (multiple-choice questions, short answer or extended response) to ensure that pupils were progressing at the required pace.

It is not just a matter of bunging two groups together. There was a significant amount of preparation regarding the grouping of the students in the year. Following the success of the trial period, we now teach 87 per cent of year 11 in two big groups. One group consisting of what we would have previously called set 2 and the bottom half of set 1 and the second group consisting of sets 3 and 4.

Application

Teaching a big group is surprisingly easy when it is set up properly. In the room, we have one main teacher (the one teaching and leading the lesson) another supporting (using ICT and writing on the board, circulating throughout and adding in useful extra information) plus one unqualified teacher who assists with circulation and behaviour. Realistically, that gives a ratio of 17 pupils to one adult, which by traditional class size standards is actually pretty impressive.

It is the delivery that I think makes this approach so successful. The classroom is laid out in a horseshoe shape and the students are taught in an almost lecture-style.

In the middle of the room (and the middle of the horseshoe) are 20 desks and the pupils who are in need of the most support to achieve their target grades are sat here.

We don’t do any group work – logistically, we can’t. We can do talk to your partner exercises and variations on simple pair work but, interestingly, the students don’t really want that. They want to learn “like people do in lectures at university”.

It is this fostering of learning at a higher level that has an impact on behavioural issues. In fact, we don’t have any because we set the bar so high. When we first embarked upon this little experiment, one of our paramount concerns was the lack of focus and the ease for the teacher to lose the group due to size. We made expectations crystal clear at the start and we have stuck rigidly to our start and stop cues – the language used to let the students know they are starting a task (five minutes: go) and finishing a task (3-2-1 pens down) – and the result has been very positive in terms of the students’ behaviour.

The lessons are much like any other classroom lessons, they consist of the typical chunked tasks, with embedded scaffolding and modeling and always result in some kind of application at the end. Planning is collaborative and, interestingly, working with the other teachers in the classroom I have been able to effectively team-plan for the first time in my career.

Another significant advantage we have is that we can switch the “main teacher” depending on the topic. For example, when teaching creative writing questions, I might take the lead. In contrast, when the focus is Romeo and Juliet, it might be my head of department who will take on the lead role, as he is much better in that particular field than me.

The students get the best person in front of them for the topic they are being taught and get constant support throughout the lesson. The supporting teachers are able to correct misconceptions using instant feedback approaches while the main teacher is free to deliver content.

Results and validation

At this stage, I think most people will be thinking that this is all very nice, but where is the evidence for our success. Do we have any data to support the claims of big group teaching being effective? Yes.

In the first two months, the proportion of students working at English language grade 4-plus increased by 20 per cent, with a similar increase for English literature. Most impressively, the number of students achieving a grade 5-plus increased significantly, showing that teaching in a bigger group is having a huge benefit on the students and their progress. At this stage in the year, we are assessing on a weekly basis and the progression curve is keeping a sustained and realistic path.

The data is clear, and for some that will be enough. To add to the validation of this style of teaching, various independent individuals separate to the school have referred to the learning and progression in these lessons as “outstanding” and they couldn’t believe the effectiveness of teaching such a large group of students.

Reflections

For year 11 English, I feel we have bucked the trend of the negative myths about small group teaching being better than teaching in bigger groups.

I say this simply because I think that the context needs to be right for when and how these types of lessons are used. Year 11 students have enough maturity and pressure for this approach to work successfully.

However, I am not sure how a bigger group would work in a younger year group – I aim to explore this later in the year. Ultimately, student mindset has to be right. A culture of confidence has to be forged by the teachers to ensure that the students believe in being a part of a big class and, in short, the teachers have to be on the ball all of the time.

It is hard work getting the planning and pace right for 50-plus pupils, but when you do, there is something strangely harmonious about it. 

  • The author of this article is a Specialist Leader of Education and a teacher of English working in a secondary school in the East of England.


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