Schools as Social Systems Part One: Class Size and Teacher-Student Interaction


November 28, 2012 by sarahmortonisp

In her textbook Development Through the Lifespan, Laura E. Berk calls schools “complex social systems” in which “class size, educational philosophies, teacher-student relationships, and larger cultural context provides important insights” (p. 319). 

In regard to class size, Berk found that Tennessee kindergartners assigned to “small” classes “scored higher in reading and math achievement each year”, while “placing teacher’s aides in regular-size classes had no impact” (p.319). The reason for this, according to Berk, is that in smaller classes teachers “spend less time disciplining and more time teaching and giving individual attention” and “children who learn in smaller groups show better concentration, higher-quality class participation, and more favorable attitudes toward school” (p. 319). From first-hand experience, I agree with Berk. Every Sunday morning my sister Hana, my dad, and I volunteer at “KidsQuest”, a childcare program at Gateway Church. We lead a “smallgroup” of first and second grade boys, who behave noticeably better when split into two groups than in one mob–where as soon as you get one group of boys to stop playing with legos, another has begun making paper airplanes. 

In regards to Teacher-Student Interaction, Berk claims that teachers focus too much on “repetitive drill” and not enough on “higher-level thinking, such as grappling with ideas and applying knowledge to new situations” (p.321). Instead of repeating times-tables from flash-cards, students could solve or even write their own word problems dealing with multiplication. As for the impact of a teacher’s relationship with his/her students, it’s huge. Berk warns teachers of educational self-fulfilling prophecies: a situation where children “may adopt the teachers’ positive or negative views and start to live up to them” (p. 321). Even worse is when teachers “emphasize competition” or “publicly compare children, regularly favoring the best students” (p.321). How can we expect struggling students to rise to the occasion when they’re constantly compared to more successful ones? Berk also says that teacher expectations “have a greater impact on low achievers than high achievers”, but that, unfortunately, “biased teacher judgments are usually slanted in a negative direction” (p.321). 

So, in summation, smaller class size is more optimal for focus and learning in children. Berk labels optimum class size “no larger than 18 children”–far from our public schools’ reality. When interacting with children, it’s critical to be sure that teachers are caring and encouraging, rather than picking favorites and comparing children. Studies show that children who feel they are in a negative light from the teacher may “respond with anxiety and reduced motivation” (p.321). If the class isn’t small, split it into groups! If a child is struggling, encourage him or her instead of comparing them or making them feel inadequate when faced with competition from their peers. 


One thought on “Schools as Social Systems Part One: Class Size and Teacher-Student Interaction

  1. Hana Morton says:

    Great post, Sarah! In response to something you picked up on, I too think it is vitally important to include students in the learning process. In my opinion, teaching students to become personally invested/involved in their own education is perhaps the greatest task of a teacher! So, I believe that encouraging students to write problems for each other to solve or giving them an opportunity to teach a concept to a few peers would be a very empowering experience.

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