Understanding how Small Class Size Fosters a Sense of Classroom Community: Implications for Class Size Policy

Abstract

This study explored the relationship between class size and the sense of community it affords to provide a clearer understanding of how class size contributes to community. Teachers are integral to this relationship because they have a situated perspective on the classroom practices that contribute to a sense of community and how these practices are influenced by class size. Data were collected from five purposively selected teachers who had taught small and large classes. Findings suggest small classes afforded teachers more time to build classroom community through increased student participation, engagement, interaction, and visibility. Teachers felt the enhanced sense of community enabled them to teach more effectively and students to become better students. The primary benefit of small class size may be the sense of community it affords for students and their teacher. School districts decide how to allocate scarce financial, material, and human resources often without guidance from class size policies based on understanding how small class size contributes to classroom community. Effective class size policy must incorporate the practices necessary for building community and not concentrate on merely reducing student-teacher ratios. It should not be assumed that lowering class size will automatically lead to classroom community, but rather, intentional efforts should be made to facilitate community building in classrooms through policy making efforts.

Introduction

Class size matters. Scholars have argued that small classes generate more benefits for teachers and favorable outcomes for students than large ones (Achilles, Harman, & Egelson, 1995; Finn, 2002; Finn & Achilles, 1990; Glass & Smith, 1978, 1979). Quantitative studies established the correlation between small class size and improved student outcomes including higher standardized test scores, narrowing the achievement gap, and increasing graduation rates (Achilles, Finn, & Pate-Bain, 2002; Angrist & Lavy, 1999; Molnar, 2000). Students tend to behave better, are more engaged, are more visible, and participate more meaningfully in smaller classes (Bateman, 2002; Finn & Achilles, 1990, 1999; Goodenow, 1993; Olson, 1971). As a result, teachers feel more relaxed and enjoy teaching more (Achilles, 1999; Bateman, 2002). Teachers have more time to engage students, get to know students better, and customize instruction to individual student needs because they spend less time managing and organizing small classes (Bourke, 1986; Blatchford & Martin, 1998; Smith & Glass, 1980).

One of the primary benefits of small class size may be the sense of community it affords for students and their teachers. Studies of teachers participating in major class size reduction initiatives suggested small classes enabled teachers to teach more effectively, use their teaching skills to improve student learning, and become better teachers (Achilles, 1999; Graue, Rauscher, & Sherfinski, 2008; Zahorik, Molnar, Ehrle, & Halbach, 2000). Compared to large classes, small classes afford teachers more time to increase student participation, engagement, interaction, and visibility that contribute to improved teaching and learning (Bourke, 1986; Finn & Achilles, 1999; Graue, Rauscher, & Sherfinski, 2009; Levine, 2003; Sarason, 1974). Teachers use the additional time afforded by small classes to better orchestrate their pedagogy (Graue et al., 2009; Wang, 2000). Small classes promote a sense of community based on shared classroom teaching and learning practices enhancing the teaching and learning environment. (Bourke, 1986; Finn, 2002; Graue, Hatch, Rao, & Oen, 2007; Graue & Rauscher, 2009; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 2008).

The sense of community stemming from small classes benefits students as well as teachers. Researchers found students experienced a heightened sense of belonging to the classroom causing them to value learning more, become more engaged, and participate more (Bateman, 2002; Biddle & Berliner, 2002; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Levine, 2003; Sarason, 1974). In small classes, students become more connected to the classroom experience and developed more meaningful relationships with teachers and other students (Bateman, 2002; Biddle & Berliner, 2002; Goodenow, 1993; Levine, 2003; Pellegrini & Blatchford, 2000). Building classroom community generates benefits for students and teachers that develop with fewer students in the classroom.

Class size policy tends to fail because it is not based on understanding how small class size contributes to classroom community and how this relationship influences classroom situated teaching and learning (Tyack & Cuban, 1995; Wang, 2000). Teachers have the experience with which to inform policymakers of the mediating factors that foster a sense of community (Kennedy, 2005). If policymakers would consult teachers regularly, base policymaking decisions more on teacher experience, and comport conclusions from a large body of research, policymakers might more readily identify ways to build classroom community facilitating improved teaching practices and student learning (Achilles et al., 1995). Such class size policies would more likely be implemented and used effectively in the classroom rather than burdening teachers with well-intended but irrelevant requirements (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Class size policy and educational reform will most likely fail unless they focus on building the classroom community necessary for improved teaching practices and student learning (Darling-Hammond, 1998).

Evidence from my study of a relationship between small class size and the sense of community it affords undergirds the rationale for basing class size policy on understanding how small class size contributes to classroom community and how this relationship influences classroom situated teaching and learning. Indeed, findings from my study suggest the benefits of small class size stem from the sense of classroom community. I hypothesize that an enhanced teaching and learning environment results from how small classes foster a greater sense of community than is possible in large classes. My three stage hypothesis is best demonstrated by a conceptual diagram that symbolizes the potential relationship between small class size and the sense of community it affords, and the resultant classroom community influence on classroom situated teaching and learning (see Figure 1).

 

 

Small Class Size Fosters Sense of Community Enhancing Teaching and Learning

Figure 1

 

 

 

In this theoretical depiction, small class size affords teachers more time to build a sense of classroom community through such practices as increased student visibility and participation. The sense of community is characterized by increased feelings of belonging to the class among the teacher and students leading to a shared way of being in the classroom. This sense of community fostered by small class size enables teachers to teach more effectively and students to learn better.

Research concentrating on how small class size fosters the sense of community necessary for improved teaching and learning culminating in increased student achievement is important. Further evidence of such a relationship could augment the significance of having small class sizes and building classroom community. Such information could help inform the design of future class size reduction initiatives and contribute to the development of education policy aimed at improving student achievement and closing the achievement gap.

Research on the relationship between small class size and classroom community could help identify the optimal class size that improves achievement best for specific kinds of students. Evidence of this relationship could inspire policy makers to develop policies resulting in the state and federal funding necessary for class size reductions especially ones targeted for at-risk students such as those who attend large economically disadvantaged urban schools, are eligible for subsidized lunches, are minorities, or are English language learners as well as to address the financial, material, and human resource inequalities among schools. Adoption of these education policies must be accompanied by research to determine the direct costs and benefits and externalities for class size reductions to provide an informed basis for decision making. Understanding the relationship between small class size and classroom community and how it shapes classroom situated teaching and learning is essential because without it class size reductions designed to increase student achievement especially among at-risk students might not be undertaken.

School districts make highly consequential decisions about how to allocate scarce financial, material, and human resources including assigning students and teachers to specific sized classes often with either no or a limited knowledge of how the benefits of small class size stem from the sense of classroom community. Yet, the relationship of class size to classroom community and how it influences classroom situated teaching and learning is not well documented. Thus, questions arise regarding how districts can best decide to assign teachers and students to specific sized classes without research-based policies that comport evidence from investigations of how the relationship between class size and community shapes classroom situated teaching and learning, and ultimately influences student achievement. I theorize that these decisions could be better made with the addition of research-based policies explaining the relationship of class size and classroom community. Effective class size policy must incorporate the practices necessary for building classroom community and not concentrate on merely reducing student-teacher ratios. It should not be assumed that lowering class size will automatically lead to classroom community, but rather, intentional efforts should be made to facilitate community building in schools through policy making efforts.

In theory, the ways in which small class size fosters a sense of community offer the possibility of improving student achievement by building classroom community. Yet, little is documented about how small class size fosters a sense of community, and how this sense of community influences teaching and learning in practice. There is a clear need for additional research that explores the relationship between small class size and classroom community in action—how the relationship is understood and enacted.

The concepts framing this study are drawn from the literature on socio-cultural theory, community of practice, class size, and classroom community. In the following section, each of these literatures is treated to review the research that preceded this study and delineates the direction of the study. These concepts provided the perspective that how teachers teach and students learn in the context of the classroom is shaped by the relationships they develop through their social interaction. Their relationships are influenced by the specific situation in which the social interactions occur. Small classes may foster a sense of community among teacher and students more than large classes (Finn, Pannozzo, & Achilles, 2003). Classroom teaching and learning are influenced by the sense of community that forms within the classroom. The sense of community is shaped by the context of the small class in which the situated teaching and learning occurs.

Literature Review

Four primary bodies of literature have contributed to this review:  socio-cultural theory, community of practice, classroom community, and class size. First, I discuss how socio-cultural theory provides a rationale for small class sizes and a conceptual linkage between small class size and sense of community; second, I discuss how the community of practice concept helps build the argument that students and teachers make meaning of their shared classroom experience more profoundly in small classes than they would in larger classes providing further evidence of a relationship between class size and the sense of community; third, I discuss the benefits of small class size; and fourth, I discuss the benefits of classroom community. This compelling body of literature points to the ways in which the relationship between class size and community shapes classroom situated teaching and learning, and ultimately influences student achievement. These points illustrate the importance of my study as a significant contribution to improving the understanding of the relationship between class size and the sense of community in action.

    Socio-cultural theory.

Socio-cultural theory provides a rationale for the importance of small class sizes and a conceptual linkage between small class size and sense of community. Sociocultural theory derived from Vygotsky’s (1978) notion of a zone of proximal development helps explain how a student learns more and better by interacting with the teacher in the classroom than he or she would learn by him or herself outside of the classroom. How a student learns is a function of his or her interactions with his or her teacher in an educational setting (Vygotsky, 1978). Through their interactions in the classroom, teacher and student develop a relationship that shapes a shared understanding of what the teacher is teaching and what the student is learning. The teacher-student relationship is shaped by the environment in which it occurs.

Community of practice.

The community of practice concept undergirds the argument that students and teachers make meaning of their shared classroom experience more profoundly in small classes than they would in larger classes. This provides further evidence of a relationship between class size and the sense of community. The community of practice concept enhances our understanding of how teachers teach and students learn in the classroom (Lave and Wenger, 1991). This notion of situated learning focuses on how the context of the classroom influences the teaching and learning that takes place because these processes and teacher-student interactions are situation-specific . They occur in a specific educational context, location, and environment in which the teacher and student interact. The context in which the teacher-student interaction occurs influences their relationship, and teaching and learning flow logically from the relationship. Teaching and learning combine to form an educational experience through the process of the social participation of teacher and students in their community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

Wenger (2008) expanded on the community of practice concept by explaining how shared practices result from the situated teaching and learning that occur through the social participation of the teacher and his or her students in their community of practice. A community of practice generates property including shared routines and ways of doing things such as interacting and developing relationships that undergird teaching and learning as well as artifacts such as shared documents, curricula, materials, and concepts (Wenger, 2008). Wenger’s expansion of the communities of practice concept helps explain how different students make meaning and learn differently in different sized classes. The social capital generated by small classes may create a unique learning environment that not only affects teachers differently than if the class size was larger but also may influence how teachers perceive schooling and their teaching experience. Through their social participation, teachers and students develop and share social capital that leads to greater knowledge sharing than that which would occur without the formation of a community of practice (Levine, 2003; Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002).

Benefits of small class size.

Much of the literature focuses on studies of the two major class size reduction initiatives: Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) and Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE). Numerous scholars report that findings of these large scale studies suggest class size is inversely related to student achievement and directly related to the narrowing of the achievement gap (Achilles et al., 1995; Finn & Achilles, 1999; Molnar, Smith, & Zahorik, 2000; Nye, Hedges, & Konstantopoulos, 2000, 2004). Other scholars have argued that findings of these class size reduction studies suggest small classes benefit most students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, English language learners, minorities, or attend economically challenged urban schools (Achilles, Nye, Zaharias, & Fulton, 1993; Finn & Rock, 1997; Konstantopoulos, 2009; Konstantopoulos & Chung, 2009; Nye, Achilles, Zaharias, & Fulton, 1993). Economically challenged urban districts with large concentrations of minorities, English language learners, and low socioeconomic status students are often unable to afford significant class size reductions without significant state or federal financial support creating inequitable access to small classes (Brewer, Krop, Gill, & Reichardt, 1999; Hedges, Laine, & Greenwald, 1994; Lazear, 2001; Witte, 2000).

A number of researchers challenge the findings that small class size increases student achievement, narrows the achievement gap, and has several other long lasting benefits despite the research supporting these conclusions (Grissmer, 1999; Hanushek, 1997, 1999, 2002; Hanushek, Kain, Markman, & Rivkin, 2003; Slavin, 1989). Critics argue that the findings of class size reduction initiatives are not generalizable to real world school environments while others claim design flaws raise questions about validity (Grissmer, 1999; Hanushek, 1986; Illig, 1996; Slavin, 1989). Yet, other scholars assessing these studies found teachers of small classes spending more time teaching, having more interactions per child, providing more hands-on activities, and having fewer student behavioral problems (Bourke, 1986; Glass & Smith, 1979; Wang, 2000).

Traditional classroom-based research tends to overlook the contextual influences of class size on teaching and learning, and the connections between class size and the sense of classroom community (Cahen, Filby, McCutcheon, & Kyle, 1983; Finn et al., 2003). Large-scale studies of class size do not examine the mediating variables between class size and academic achievement (see Nye et al., 2000). The shortage of evidence on what classroom practices combine to mediate how class size ultimately affects student achievement underscores the importance of research on how class size shapes the sense of community in the classroom (Blatchford & Martin, 1998; Blatchford, Moriarty, Edmonds, & Martin, 2002; Cahen & Filby, 1979; Finn & Achilles, 1999).

Benefits of classroom community.

The student-teacher interactions that occur in the class context help to shape the classroom community (Blatchford, 2003; Blatchford, et al. 2002). Teachers interact with students in a specific classroom with a specific class size, and the class size affects how teachers approach teaching in that classroom (Blatchford, 2003; Graue et al., 2008; Graue et al, 2009). The inherent qualities of small class size generate classroom specific social capital that teachers and students use to make meaning of the classroom experience (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Vygotsky, 1978). The ecology of small class size is shaped more by the classroom context and the sense of community which cannot be realized in a larger class than it is related strictly to a reduced student-teacher ratio (Blatchford, 2003; Graue & Raucher, 2009; Graue et al., 2009).

Findings of studies based on interviews of teachers who participated in the STAR and SAGE class size reduction initiatives suggest small class size promoted a sense of classroom community (Achilles, 1999; Zahorik et al., 2000). These studies found teachers felt better able to develop a more in-depth knowledge of each student and to provide more personalized, differentiated, and enriched instruction that led to enhanced student critical thinking, articulation of ideas, and learning (Achilles, 1999; Zahorik et al., 2000). The teachers reported higher morale and perceived more positive attitudes about schooling among the students. The findings such as higher standardized test scores, fewer disciplinary problems, more hands-on activities, and more time on-task may just reflect the influence of the qualitative dynamics (Finn & Achilles, 1990; Graue et al, 2008; Olson, 1971). Teachers felt more at ease while teaching in a smaller class (Achilles, 1999). The context of small class size shapes the community in which the teachers and students interact, and how they interact is influenced by the sense of community which would differ significantly from the one created by the same teacher but with a larger class size (Achilles, 1999; Blatchford, Bassett, & Brown, 2005; Zahorik et al., 2000).

Small class size may be the primary contextual factor that influences classroom community (Biddle & Berliner, 2002; Graue et al., 2007; Graue & Rauscher, 2009; Graue et al., 2009; Rimm-Kaufman, La Paro, Downer, & Pianta, 2005). Teachers teach students differently and have a different attitude toward teaching in small classes than they do in large ones (Bennett, 1996; Johnston, 1990). Teachers perceive students to be more academically engaged (Mosteller, 1995; Pate-Bain, Achilles, Boyd-Zaharias, & McKenna, 1992; Pellegrini & Blatchford, 2000). Small classes may have different contextual cues or send different signals that affect teaching differently (Blatchford, et al. 2002; Kounin & Gump, 1974).

Smallness matters because teachers focus more on the quality of their relationships and interactions with their students in small classes (Betts & Shkolnik, 1999; Blatchford et al., 2005; Stuhlman & Pianta, 2009). The context of small classes influences the student-teacher interactions that occur in the classroom and the situated teaching and learning that logically flow from these contextually influenced interactions. The key to understanding the ecology of small class size lies not in the classroom student-teacher ratio but in the quality of the instructional student-teacher interactions and the relationships that result from the situated teaching and learning.

Small classes facilitate a feeling of community that enables students to develop a sense of belonging to and being invested in a learning environment (Bateman, 2002; Goodenow, 1993). Compared to large classes, small classes have fewer disruptions and disciplinary problems affording teachers more time to develop a keen sense of belonging to a learning community that is reflected in students’ increased participation, engagement, interaction, visibility, and activity within the classroom (Cahen et al., 1983). Small classes increase students’ visibility incenting them to become better students according to the firing line hypothesis (Finn, 2002). Teachers and students get to know each other better in small classes increasing their sense of belonging to their classroom community. The heightened sense of community fostered by small class size may enable teachers to improve their teaching and students to become better students.

This body of research points to the potential for the benefits of small class size to result directly from the sense of classroom community and this classroom community develops with fewer students in the classroom. Findings suggest small classes afforded teachers more time to build classroom community through increased student participation, engagement, interaction, and visibility. Teachers felt the enhanced sense of community enabled them to teach more effectively and students to become better students. These mediating factors help explain the contextual differences between small and large classes (Bateman, 2002; Blatchford & Martin, 1998; Blatchford et al., 2002). This body of research suggests small class size makes the mediating factors more likely to develop than large class size (Bateman, 2002; Blatchford et al., 2002; Finn & Achilles, 1999). Research indicates that sense of community can influence both teaching practice and student learning (Achilles, 1999; Blatchford, 2003; Finn & Achilles, 1990; Graue et al., 2008, 2009; Levine, 2003; Zahorik et al., 2000). My study of how five teachers experienced the relationship between class size and classroom community contributes to how this relationship is understood and enacted in practice.

Methodology

Using case study methodology, I explored how five teachers experienced the relationship between class size and classroom community (Creswell, 2013). The school district was selected purposefully from among a population of New Jersey traditional public school districts depending on the superintendent’s willingness to have his or her district serve as the sample site (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The availability of teachers who had several years of experience teaching different subjects in small and large classes, taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, and were interested in participating voluntarily also was essential. I selected purposefully teachers who had taught small classes defined as approximately 13 to 17 students and large classes defined as more than 22 students because STAR used 13 to 17 students as its small class size and 22 to 25 students as its large class size. I selected teachers using snowball sampling because I believed that by beginning with a few teachers whom the superintendent recommended, these teachers might be willing to connect me with other teachers who would be not only interested in serving as participants but also information-rich (Creswell, 2013). Each of the five teachers had experience teaching at least two different subjects in small and large classes at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. The subjects included English, language arts, mathematics, science, history, special education, personal finance, Spanish, and technology as well as Advanced Placement and Honors courses. Teachers’ experience ranged from 16 to 33 years. Selecting all five teachers from the same district provided consistent district policies governing how teachers and students were assigned to specific sized classes.

I conducted semi-structured interviews, lasting approximately one hour, using my interview protocol (Appendix A) during January, 2013, and after the school day at the teachers’ convenience. The interviews focused on how the teachers experienced teaching in small and large classes, and how the class size context influenced their classroom experiences. Also, I tried to determine if teachers believe that they teach students differently and have a different attitude toward teaching in smaller classes than they do in larger ones.

The procedures for data analysis included deductive reasoning from my literature review and the concepts framing it, as well as inductive reasoning based on the teachers’ interview responses. All of the interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. Transcribing my field notes and interview recordings provided insights into how to organize and manage the data; identify trends, themes, and patterns; and how to interpret findings in view of the concepts framing my research. Using these insights, I compared segments of the data. This process helped determine validity by identifying negative evidence, differences, disagreements, and commonalities as well as triangulating statements and weighing alternative explanations (Bernard & Ryan, 2010).

Interview transcripts and field notes were organized, coded, and analyzed using codes (Appendix B) deductively derived from my literature review and the concepts shaping it. The codes were also inductively derived from the teachers’ interview responses in the five transcripts. This facilitated my assessment of the relationships among code categories and clusters enabling me to test hypotheses, build explanations for potential outcomes, and identify patterns across teacher responses and class sizes.

    Validity and Limitations.

I used a number of procedures to assess validity including triangulation to identify common themes and sets of teacher experiences within the interview data (Creswell & Miller, 2000). Similarly, I examined the data through the process of disconfirming evidence (Creswell & Miller, 2000). Selecting teachers from the same district helped ensure consistent board of education policies governing class sizes by grade level and the procedures for assigning teachers and students to specific sized classes. Selecting teachers through snowball sampling meant using existing classes of teachers and students of a certain grade and in certain classrooms within certain schools. Pre-existing conditions, such as teacher length of service and tenure, student academic achievement and abilities, and the teachers’ and students’ amount of experience in both small and large class sizes, might have affected my study.

Selection bias could have been a factor. A question of validity arises because the teachers’ attitudes toward class size might have been influenced by their selection for my study. Teachers who participated may have had a favorable predisposition to small class size that might have influenced their responses making them perhaps more favorable to small class size. Questions of validity could arise because I did not account for possible differences in teacher education, training, and experience. Also, questions of validity could arise because I did not try to determine whether the teaching methods employed by the teachers were best suited for small or large class sizes.

Findings

I explored the relationship between class size and the sense of community it affords to provide a clearer understanding of how class size contributes to classroom community. I conducted this study because little was documented about the ways in which small class size fostered a sense of community, influenced classroom situated teaching and learning, and offered the possibility of improving student achievement in practice—how the relationship was understood and enacted in the classroom. I interviewed five purposefully selected teachers to determine how they experienced the relationship between class size and classroom community, and the influence of the sense of community on classroom situated teaching and learning. Using the teachers as my lens, I conducted this study with their words shaping my understanding of the relationship between class size and classroom community.

My findings suggest a relationship between class size and the sense of community it affords in the classroom that small class size fosters more than large class size. The teachers’ comments suggest small classes afforded them more time to build classroom community through increased student participation, engagement, interaction, and visibility. The teachers felt the enhanced sense of community afforded by small classes enabled them to teach more effectively and students to become better students while teachers and students alike seemed to feel more at ease. Indeed, the teachers seemed to share the notion that the primary benefit of small class size is the sense of community it affords for students and their teacher.

    Sense of community.

The five teachers felt students developed a greater sense of community in small classes because they were better able to get to know each student and students were better able to know each other than they could in large classes. The five teachers shared the notion that small classes afforded them more time to teach and focus on how students were learning and less time managing student behavioral and disciplinary issues. Anne (teacher 1), Beth (teacher 2), Elaine (teacher 4), and Jane (teacher 5) emphasized how the context of small classes created an environment in which students relate to each other and the teacher better, creates an enhanced sense of belonging to the class and with each other, and an environment more conducive to improving student achievement. Carol (teacher 3) focused more on how small classes developed a class personality which seemed to reflect a sense of community. The sense of community was neither as strong nor as conducive to learning in large classes the five teachers reported. Anne, Beth, Elaine, and Jane stressed how students just did not develop a sense of belongingness or community in large classes. Carol highlighted the importance of how students were not aligned or in synchronization but more of a loosed confederation than a close body of colleagues in large classes. The teachers shared the notion that students in small classes were more likely to form a much keener sense of community than students in large classes.

Anne emphasized how the qualities inherent to smallness created more of a sense of community “There just is something special about having a small class of 15 or fewer students. There are contextual advantages to smaller classes that are missing in large classes.” Beth emphasized the sense of belongingness that small classes fostered “Students feel as if they belong to the class and with each other more in small classes. It’s almost as if they feel like they’re members of a special club which I have never experienced in larger classes! Students want to be there more in small classes because they relate to each other and better.” Carol made a more focused point concerning belongingness “It depends on the personality of the class. If the personality is not aligned as it isn’t in a large class then the students are not aligned with each other. Personality is chemistry; the chemistry among the students and it differs by class size. Large classes just lack the right chemistry for learning and for teaching.” Jane echoed Carol’s emphasis on personality “Small classes are more personable. Students are more successful in small classes. Feel as if they belong? Not all students do in a large class. But students feel like they belong in a small class. Feeling they belong matters to the students. It makes them better students than in large classes.”  Large classes were extremely frustrating for Elaine “All students benefit from a smaller group environment. I benefit from a smaller class environment. You never get through your lesson for the day in a large class! You’re always controlling kids. It’s just like fighting fires in larger classes; you never get time to teach or at least I feel that way. I love teaching but I can’t do my job as well when classes are large.”

The teachers’ responses indicated certain factors contributed significantly to the relationship between class size and the sense of community it affords in the classroom that small class size fosters more than large class size while others had little if any effect. The major factors include classroom management, visibility, engagement, participation, interactions, and learning environment. The minor factors include pedagogy, morale, and demographic differences.

    Classroom management.

All five teachers stressed that they spent less time managing and organizing small classes because of fewer student disruptions and discipline problems. Consequently, all five teachers reported spending more time teaching and focusing on how students were learning. Anne and Carol focused on how small classes were easier to manage while Beth, Elaine, and Jane found students behaved better in small classes which they felt stemmed from their being more effective teachers in small classes. Reflecting her frustration with large classes, Anne exclaimed “I feel as if all I do is manage behavior or control the class in large classes and not teach! It’s easier to manage and teach with fewer students.” Beth was similarly disappointed with large classes but not as frustrated “I have fewer disciplinary problems in small classes which give me more time to teach so students learn more.” Large classes left Carol feeling exasperated “If I’m in front of the class, then the kids in the back are out of control. But when I’m in the back, the kids in front are out of control. Kids who are harder to control are always further away from me with 29 kids in the class. Nothing gets done or done right in large classes!” Elaine echoed Carol’s feelings “There’s just more bad behavior in large classes and less learning. The kids try to out-do each other in misbehaving in large classes such as those with more than 20 kids. I just feel as if I do not teach as well as I should in large classes because I am always disciplining kids, and some more than others. They’re not all bad in large classes; I have good students who are well behaved just not as many as in smaller classes.” Jane shared a similar frustration with large classes while emphasizing the positive aspects of small classes “Large classes give students more opportunities to act-up or misbehave which takes time away from instruction. I prefer smaller classes because fewer students mean fewer behavioral problems and more time to teach. After all, I should be there to teach not discipline; right!” The teachers delineated how small classes enabled them to experience an environment more conducive to learning and teaching than in large classes. The teachers’ comments were consistent with the findings of large scale class size reduction studies concerning enhanced classroom management resulting from fewer student disruptions and disciplinary problems in small classes.

    Visibility.

In discussing visibility, the teachers overwhelmingly agreed that much less social loafing and diffusion of student responsibility occurred in small classes (Finn, 2002). All five teachers described “gliders” as students who engaged in social loafing and did not take responsibility for their actions in class. “Gliders” were students who glided through large classes without engaging in class activities or discussions. “Gliders” often did not connect with other students during class while seeming to remain below the class radar. The five teachers inferred that “gliders” did not feel as if they were visibly on the firing line and, consequently, preferred to fade into the background during class.

Anne bemoaned how large classes made students less visible “Some students just get overlooked in large classes. The more students, the more students get overlooked. Students know they can hide in large classes where there are 20 students with them so they glide through class. This doesn’t happen in smaller classes of about 14 or 15 or so.” Beth echoed Anne’s frustration “It’s harder to pay attention to everyone in large classes. I just don’t have time to make sure everyone is paying attention so many students just glide in large classes.” Carol exclaimed the “glider” problem with deep feeling and conviction “There are just too many gliders in large classes! Gliders are students that just glide along without getting engaged! They do not ask questions. Gliders make no connections because it’s easier to glide in large classes. In large classes, gliders get drummed out of the system; they just come in and do what they need to do and go to the next class. But when I see the gliders in another class that’s smaller it’s a shock because they are really talkative, ask questions, and engaged!” Although Elaine was less extreme in her comments, she was similarly frustrated “Students get off-task more in larger classes. Once off-task, large classes enable them to just glide by because they know you just don’t have time to pay attention to everyone.” Jane echoed Elaine’s concern but focused more on the positive context of small classes “Everyone steps up to the plate in a small class whereas not all do in a large class. Students are more likely to pay attention, participate, and be engaged in small classes. Students don’t glide when classes are small because they’re involved.” The teachers’ comments reflected how they experienced increased student visibility in small classes.

    Engagement.

All five teachers emphasized that students were more engaged in small classes. All five teachers attributed heightened engagement to the increased visibility and greater sense of being on the firing line in small classes. Carol expanded on the increased visibility and belongingness by describing that there was a greater opportunity for students to goof-off because they perceived themselves as more anonymous in large classes.

Anne stressed the importance of visibility for increased engagement “Students are engaged more in small classes because they cannot hide from the teacher. When students are more engaged, they learn more.” Beth echoed Anne’s feelings “I provide more individual attention in small classes. Students become more engaged because I pay more attention to them in smaller classes.” Carol spoke with deep feeling about the problems of teaching in large classes “There’s more goofing off in large classes because students feel more anonymous. Students glide; not engage! Students sense they can goof-off and glide because there are just too many students for the teacher to control.” Elaine and Jane emphasized how increased student engagement stems for having more time in small classes.  Elaine emphasized how “There are more opportunities for interactions in small classes. Students seem to expect more attention in small classes, and they get it! This leads to greater engagement.” Jane explained how “A teacher can be more interactive in smaller classes. The more time teachers have to interact with students, the more and better students engage in class activities.” The teachers shared the notion that students were more engaged in small classes because they were more visible and more often found themselves on the firing line.

    Participation.

All five teachers spoke with conviction that students participate more in small classes than in large classes. All of the teachers experienced students participating more because they were much better behaved and disrupted class much less in small classes. Anne especially enjoyed feeling more like an educator and less like a disciplinarian in small classes. Similarly, the teachers experienced having much less time to encourage students to participate or provide feedback in large classes. The teachers stressed how they took advantage of having fewer class disruptions to encourage more students to participate more often and meaningfully in small classes.

Anne spoke with deep feeling and conviction about how small classes enabled her to feel more like a teacher and less like a disciplinarian because of increased student participation “Students participate more in small classes because there are fewer student disruptions. Students simply behave better and are better students in small classes. Because students participate more and more meaningfully in small classes and behave better, I feel like a teacher should feel; not like a disciplinarian!” Beth experienced deep frustration with the lack of time for meaningful participation in large classes “There just isn’t time for everyone to participate in every class in a large class! Large classes rob students of a real chance to learn. Why do they assign us to classes with more than 20 kids?” Carol echoed Beth’s comments while emphasizing the value of the small class context “There’s more participation in small classes because I have more time to involve everyone. There’s a lower amount of feedback in large classes. I simply don’t have time to connect with all students in a large class as I can in a smaller class.”  Like Carol, Elaine and Jane strongly agreed that small classes afford them more time to involve and pay attention to all students causing students to participate more in classroom activities, discussions, and work. Elaine felt deeply that “Students have the ability to get more immediate feedback and extra exposure; so they participate more in small classes. But I also have more time to involve students which leads to greater participation.” Having more time to involve students and have them participate more mattered to Jane “There are more opportunities and time for students to participate in small classes. I have more time to involve everyone. No one can avoid participating in small classes. Students participate more meaningfully when they have more time.” All five teachers shared the notion that students participated more because they were more visible and teachers had more time in small classes.

    Interactions.

The five teachers overwhelmingly agreed that they experienced more meaningful student interactions in small classes. Anne, Beth, Carol, and Elaine spoke with deep feeling that they not only had more frequent and higher quality interactions but also provided more immediate feedback in small classes. Jane stressed small classes were more interactive because she had more time to make them so.

Anne spoke with deep conviction about the value of interactions “I can have more frequent and higher quality interactions in small classes. The more I interact with students, the more they learn. Having more time in small classes means higher quality interactions. This is an advantage over large classes.” Like Anne, Beth found students learn better through more frequent and higher quality interactions “I can answer more questions in small classes and provide more immediate feedback. The more I interact with students, the more value I believe I add and the more they learn.” Carol echoed Anne’s and Beth’s comments “My small classes are more interactive. I feel my students learn more and learn quickly in small classes.” Elaine and Jane found the increased amount of time afforded by small classes contributed to more frequent interactions. Elaine delineated how “There are more opportunities for interactions of higher quality in small classes. This is what a quality education should be about!” Jane believed that she and her students benefitted from small classes “A teacher can be more interactive in smaller classes because she has more time to do so. Based on my experience, I know students learn better the more I interact with them!” The teachers’ comments were consistent with the findings of large scale class size reduction studies concerning increased quality of more frequent interactions.

    Learning environment.

The five teachers felt deeply that small classes created an improved learning environment because they had more time to teach enabling them to more effectively use the daily lesson plan and curriculum. Anne, Beth, and Carol stressed students collaborated, shared knowledge, and learned more in small classes. Elaine and Jane emphasized small classes enabled teachers to individualize instruction, get to know their students better, provide more immediate feedback, and develop a more accurate assessment of student performance.

Anne felt deeply that “There is more learning in a small class. Students simply learn more and better with fewer students in the classroom. We should have only 15 or 16 students per regular class.” Anne extended the rationale by questioning the value of large classes “How can students be expected to learn anything well when there are so many students in the classroom that the teacher simply doesn’t have time to teach properly!” Beth shared Anne’s feelings while emphasizing the advantages of small classes “Students are more collaborative in small classes and there is less or no time for collaboration in large classes! It’s learn if you can or are willing to do so in large classes; you don’t have this option in small classes!” Carol felt deeply that students benefited from small classes “Students get a lot more out of the class because of smaller size. Small size makes a difference. Students learn more and become better students when classes are small!” Elaine also focused on the advantages of the small class context “Small classes are more personable and have the opportunity for more personal connections; students are more on task in a small class. The teacher can give more specific feedback and students are better able to properly grasp concepts. Small size means better learning!” Jane exclaimed how small classes enable students to experience epiphanies “In small classes, all students are connected with the teacher and lesson. Students have the ‘light bulb’ go on regularly! I sense students experience the ‘light bulb’ going on frequently in small classes. The class has value; it’s meaningful to the student especially beyond that class on that day. It’s genuinely a worthwhile experience, and the student sees how the class matters.” All five teachers shared the notion that large classes did not make possible enhanced student collaboration, knowledge sharing, and learning and compelled teachers to standardize instruction. The five teachers strongly agreed that they taught more effectively and students became better students in small classes.

    Pedagogy.

Although none of the five teachers said specifically that small class size made significant differences in their teaching styles or lesson content, the teachers conveyed how they individualized instruction more based on the specific needs of individuals, small groups, or students grouped by ability level. Anne shifted her pedagogy from whole-class instruction to more one-on-one or teacher-small group instruction. Although Beth reported she taught the same way regardless of class size, she found that students paid closer attention to her lesson plan, learned more, and had more meaningful experiences in the small classes. Like Beth, Carol, Elaine, and Jane said they did not change their pedagogy but stressed how small classes provided them with much more flexibility to adapt their lesson plan daily to unique or unforeseen circumstances.

Anne insisted she did not change her pedagogy based on class size while explaining how she varied her teaching methods “I used less whole-class instruction and much more individualized or small group instruction in my small classes.” Like Anne, Beth insisted she taught the same way regardless of class size despite experiencing differences in how students responded to her teaching in small classes “I teach the same way in small or large classes but in small classes you see the ‘light bulb’ go off and students taking pride in their work. Students seem to learn better and get more meaning out of my smaller classes. I feel students follow my lesson plan more closely.” Carol felt deeply that students benefited from the flexibility afforded her in small classes even though she believed she taught the same way regardless of class size “Group work is harder to do in a large class and it’s easier to observe students in small classes. I have smaller groups in small classes and students seem to get more out of them.” Elaine experienced teaching differently in small classes even though she expressed no change in pedagogy according to class size “It’s easier to move on without answering all questions in a large class. In a large class you just have to move on and can’t answer all questions or you’ll never get through your lesson for the day. You just can’t approach large classes the same way.” Jane summarized how the teaching experience differs according to class size “The difference between small and large classes is the difference between turning a schooner and turning a freighter. It takes much more effort and time to turn the freighter. You can change direction more easily in a smaller class.” The teachers’ combined comments gave credence to how small class size enables teachers to affect their pedagogical orchestration to benefit students.

    Morale.

All five teachers experienced having higher morale and less stress in small classes. All of the teachers reported having more time for instruction in small classes causing them to be more relaxed about achieving their goals and have greater enthusiasm for teaching. Carol stated with deep feeling and conviction that simply being assigned large class sizes of 25 rather than 15 caused her great anxiety which she believed adversely impacted her teaching. All of the teachers agreed that they perceived a more positive attitude about schooling among the students in small classes. Anne was enthusiastic about small classes “I enjoy small classes more and students’ attitudes are better. Students enjoy small classes, learn better, and are easier to teach making my job what it should be!” Beth had negative experiences with large classes “In a large class you’re just hoping to make it through each row every day. Most days I just hope to make it through two rows and that’s not calling on every student! Large classes take the fun out of teaching.” Carol was overwhelmed with anxiety that adversely affected her teaching experience in large classes “When I look at my roster and see I have been assigned huge numbers of kids, I get stressed out! This carries over into class because of the stress of being assigned 25 kids per class rather than 15. Large classes ruin the learning environment!” Elaine and Jane emphasized the positive learning and teaching context of small classes while sharing their frustration with large classes.     Elaine exclaimed “I enjoy and love small classes! The students seem better adjusted and I can teach more effectively than in large classes.” Jane echoed Elaine’s comments “I have more time for teaching in smaller classes and enjoy teaching more. The students enjoy small classes more and don’t seem to learn as much in large ones. I teach more effectively in small classes.” The teachers’ comments were consistent with the findings of large scale class size reduction studies concerning teachers experiencing improved morale and a more positive attitude toward teaching in small classes.

    Demographic differences.

None of the five teachers felt that class size had any significant effects according to a student’s race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, or level of English proficiency because they believed that their responsibility was to mediate such differences. Yet, Anne and Beth stressed that mainstreamed special education students benefitted more from smaller classes. Elaine expressed that even though students whose native language was Spanish seemed to perform better in smaller classes they often did not seem to perform as well as others who were more fluent in English. All five teachers felt strongly that their primary responsibility was to make sure no performance differences manifested according to a student’s race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, or level of English proficiency.

Anne and Beth experienced no demographic class size differences except for mainstreamed special education students. Anne explained “I find no differences among different groups of students even though mainstreamed students seemed to do better in small classes.” Beth echoed Anne’s comments “I experienced no class size differences by demographics but special education kids did better.” Carol extended the no demographic class size differences theme “There are no class size differences among my students by race, ethnicity, free lunch status, gender, or ELL. Whether or not a student does well isn’t a function of class size in my experience.” Elaine believed that finding no demographic class size differences reflected the way she perceived her role “My job is to make sure there are no differences.” Jane echoed the other teachers’ comments “I have more time for teaching in small classes so there are no differences.” The teachers’ comments were inconsistent with the findings of large scale class size reduction studies that found small class size benefitted most at-risk students who were eligible for free or subsidized lunches, minorities, English language learners, or attending large economically disadvantaged urban schools.

Discussion

My study found evidence of a relationship between class size and the sense of community in the classroom that small class size fostered more than large class size. The five teachers believed small classes fostered a classroom community centering on interrelated practices of teaching and learning situated in the classroom. They shared the notion that small classes promoted a greater sense of community in the classroom than is possible in large classes. The enhanced sense of community influenced how teachers taught, perceived students to learn, framed their perceptions of schooling, and created more favorable attitudes toward teaching. The teachers believed the enhanced sense of community fostered by small class size shaped how students felt as if they belonged to the classroom and became better students.

Compared to large classes, small classes afforded teachers more time to engage in the practices that contributed to a sense of classroom community including increasing student participation, engagement, interaction, and visibility. Teachers and students got to know each other better in small classes. Students became more connected to the classroom community and developed more meaningful relationships with teachers and other students because teachers had more time for instruction, individualization, and in-depth interactions. Despite reporting no significant differences in their teaching styles or what they perceived as pedagogy, the teachers did orchestrate their pedagogy by significantly reducing whole-class instruction and increasing individual and small group instruction.

The teachers reported using the additional time afforded by small classes to provide an improved learning environment including more and higher quality instruction, learning activities, enriched content, and classroom management. Teachers experienced higher morale, less stress, and more enthusiasm for teaching as a result of the heightened sense of community in small classes. Although teachers did not perceive any significant class size-based differences according to a student’s race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, or level of English proficiency, they were frustrated by the lack of time to properly differentiate instruction in large classes.

    Mediating Influences.

Evaluating small class size mediating factors is difficult because the extent to which the teachers reported their experiences accurately or that their recollections, if honest, actually reflected the classroom experience is unknown. Observational data would help to interpret teachers’ interview responses and explain the relationship between class size and the sense of community it affords in practice. Teacher perceptions are weak proxies for measures of enhanced teacher effectiveness, student learning, and sense of community. Selecting teachers from the same school district ensures that they are subject to the same district culture and operating procedures governing how teachers teach and students are assigned to a class of a certain size. However, this may limit the generalization of my findings to this school district.

Selecting teachers through snowball sampling means that existing classes of teachers and students of a certain grade and in certain classrooms within a certain school are used. This may overlook the potential impact of pre-existing conditions such as teacher length of service and tenure, student academic achievement and abilities, and the teachers’ and students’ amount of experience in both small and large class sizes. Selection bias could be a factor because teacher attitudes toward the relationship of small class size and sense of community might have been influenced by their selection for my study. Teachers who participated may have had a favorable predisposition to small classes that might influence their responses making them perhaps more favorable to small classes. The validity of my findings could be challenged because I neither account for possible differences in teacher education, training, and experience nor try to determine whether the teaching methods that the teachers employ are best suited for small or large classes.

Implications.

Although the quantitative benefits of small class size are well documented, these favorable outcomes may stem from the sense of community fostered by small classes. The educational context provided by small class size undergirding the favorable quantitative findings may be more difficult to measure but might be more influential to quality teaching and learning. Smaller class size enables more frequent and meaningful student-teacher interactions improving situated teaching and learning. How teachers teach is influenced by small class size contextual factors. Students achieve more because of the sense of community rather than that which the simple reduced student-teacher ratio might suggest.

Having fewer students in the classroom enables the teacher to personalize instruction. Consequently, students pay more attention to their teacher and class work while constructively participating more in the classroom. A small class enables students to be more involved or in touch with their classroom experience so they learn more and behave better thereby enabling the teacher to teach differently than he or she would in a large class. Teachers experience teaching differently in a small class as compared to a larger one as a result. Small class size may be more conducive to forming a classroom community that enables teachers and students to make meaning of their shared classroom experiences in more profound ways than they would in larger classes.

My study demonstrates the need for more research on the relationship between class size and the sense of community. More research is necessary because the majority of class size research neither delves into how the ecology of small classes fosters a sense of community nor examines how an enhanced teaching and learning environment stems from the enhanced sense of community. Specifically, more research is needed to determine how the relationship between small class size and the sense of community it affords influences how teachers teach and students learn, differential effects on different student groups, the most effective class size for different kinds of students, and how teachers should be trained to take full advantage of the educational opportunities resulting from the sense of community fostered by small classes. The contextual factors of small class size seem to outweigh the student-teacher ratio in terms of its effect on the classroom environment, foster a sense of community more than is possible in larger classes creating a classroom Habitus, and enable teachers and students to form classroom community capital to mediate their differential educational experiences.

Evidence of how small class size contributes to classroom community and how this relationship influences classroom situated teaching and learning could undergird the development of new class size reduction policies based on this understanding. These class size policies would be more likely not only to be implemented and used effectively in the classroom but also to have the benefits of the relationship between small class size and sense of community manifest in the classroom. Such class size policies could inform the design of class size reduction initiatives that culminate in improving student achievement and narrowing the achievement gap.

Evidence of the relationship between small class size and classroom community could identify the optimal class size that improves achievement best for specific kinds of students. Understanding the educational benefits stemming from this relationship could motivate policy makers to provide the state and federal funding necessary for statewide class size reductions especially ones targeted for at-risk students such as those who are attending large economically disadvantaged urban schools, eligible for subsidized lunches, minorities, or English language learners as well as to offset the financial, material, and human resource inequalities among schools. Policies grounded in understanding the relationship between small class size and classroom community and how it shapes classroom situated teaching and learning would increase the likelihood that class size reductions designed to increase student achievement especially among at-risk students would be undertaken, funded, and properly implemented.

Research-based class size policy could result in a more equitable distribution of the financial, material, and human resources necessary for disadvantaged districts to achieve the same benefits stemming from the relationship between small class size and classroom community as those experienced by affluent districts. Such policies would inform school districts about how to allocate scarce financial, material, and human resources equitably including assigning students and teachers to specific sized classes. Findings from my study suggest class size policy should be based on understanding how the benefits of small class size stem from the sense of classroom community resulting from having fewer students in the classroom.

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Appendix A

Interview Guide

  • What is the smallest and largest class size in which you have taught?
  • How did you experience teaching in the smallest class?
    • And in the largest class?
  • Were there any particular qualities of the small class that you experienced that were different from the larger class?
    • How would you describe these qualities?
    • How would you describe the differences in the qualities?
  • What are some of your feelings about teaching in a small class as compared to a large class?
    • How would you explain these feelings?
    • Have your feelings evolved over the time in which you have taught?
    • If so, how have they evolved?
  • Suppose I was a student in your class, how do you think I would experience the class?
    • Why?
    • What would it be like?
    • How might my experiences differ if I was a student in your small sized class as compared to the larger sized class?
    • Why?
  • How do you think that diverse students experienced your smaller sized class and your larger sized class?  Why do you think this (repeat interviewee’s response here) might have been the case?
    • Boys?
    • Girls?
    • Students of different cultures?
    • Students of different ethnic groups?
    • Students belonging to different minority groups?
    • Students of different ages?
    • Students eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches (i.e., impoverished backgrounds)?
  • Do you feel that smaller class size enables you to do some things differently than if you were teaching in a large class?
    • What are some of these different things?
    • (If interviewee seems hesitant or unsure, suggest some of the following as thought starters):
      • More small group activities
      • More interactions with individual students
      • Get to know students better
      • More in-depth interactions
      • More individualized or differentiated instruction
      • More time teaching
    • How would you describe your experiences of these different things?
  • What do you think might be the effects of smaller class size on:
    • The way you teach?
    • Student-teacher interactions?
    • Classroom behavior?
    • The ways in which students learn?
  • Do you find yourself using different teaching methods in small as compared to large class sizes?  If so, what might be some of these methods?
    • For small classes?
    • For large classes?
  • You have shared a lot of information about teaching in a small sized class.
    • What would you say are some of the qualities that appealed to you most about small class size?
    • And, least?
  • Do you think that there are inherent advantages of smallness?
    • That is, do smaller class sizes have certain contextual advantages over larger class sizes?
    • If so, what are some of these advantages?
  • How would you describe what you think would be the ideal classroom experience?
    • From the teacher’s perspective?
    • From the student’s perspective?
  • Last Question:  Do you have anything you want to add that we have not talked about?

Appendix B

Code Tree

  • Small Class Effect
    • Positive
    • Negative
  • Large Class Effect
    • Positive
    • Negative
  • Sense of Community
    • High
    • Medium
    • Low
    • None
  • Classroom Management
    • High
    • Medium
    • Low
  • Visibility
    • High
    • Medium
    • Low
    • None
  • Engagement
    • High
    • Medium
    • Low
    • None
  • Participation
    • High
    • Medium
    • Low
    • None
  • Interactions
    • High
    • Medium
    • Low
  • Learning Environment
    • High
    • Medium
    • Low
  • Learning Activities
    • High
    • Medium
    • Low
  • Pedagogy Orchestration
    • High
    • Medium
    • Low
    • No Effect
  • Methods of Instruction
    • Whole Class
    • Small Groups
    • Individual
    • No Change
  • Morale
    • High
    • Medium
    • Low
  • Demographic Effects
    • High
    • Medium
    • Low
    • None

 

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