Conservapedia:Advantages of Small Classes

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This is a rebuttal to Conservapedia's Advantages of Large Classes "essay", conceived by Andrew Schlafly when he believed he was going to be teaching an especially large homeschool class, and wanted to rationalize supposed "advantages" beyond "more money and attention for me!"

First, the actual advantages of small class sizes[edit]

Small class sizes are well known to have many advantages over large ones, to the point where average small class sizes are a positive factor in college rankings. Among the advantages for small classes in public school are:

  • Much more individual attention can be given to each student. This is the crux of the matter, and illustrates why private tutoring is so sought after. There are numerous elements to this:
    • The class can adapt to the needs and interests of the students more easily, making them more interested in the lessons, and thus more willing to learn.
    • Any student having difficulty with a particular lesson is less likely to fall through the cracks. In large classes the instructor might not realize a student is failing to understand the material until that student has failed the test. At this point it is too late, and the class will be moving on to another subject, making it unlikely for the student to ever learn the material in question.
    • Small classes foster better student/teacher relations. A teacher in such an environment will learn all his students' names quickly, and learn their interests. Such a relationship makes it much more likely for a student to seek help from a teacher, when needed.
    • It is much easier to cheat in large classes.
  • More in depth assignments can be given. A teacher teaching a class of 100 rather than 12 is unlikely to assign more than one comprehensive paper (and rarely even that), is much more likely to rely on multiple choice exams rather than essays, and cannot give nearly as much feedback to each student.
  • Smaller groups encourage participation more than large ones. Lecture hall-type classes rarely have any discussion whatsoever, and when they do it is very easy for students not to be involved. In a small class one cannot hide and hope to be overlooked. Participation is often mandatory.
  • It is easier to get students to speak up in discussions in front of smaller groups than larger ones.
  • Any potential advantages of larger classes have an upper limit. Clearly a class of 40,000 would be of advantage to no one, whereas smaller class sizes have no downward limit (obviously providing there is at least one student). A one-to-one ratio of teacher to student would be private tutoring, a luxury many people pay top dollar for, as well as a reason why many parents homeschool their children (Which shatters all irony meters when these alleged homeschoolers are grouped into a large class to nullify any advantage thereof).
  • Good preparation for many college environments, especially in upper level classes, which often have class size limits in the teens, rather than the 30s, as is common in high school.
  • More pressure to attend class, as one's absence would not go unnoticed.
  • Any discipline problems are easier for a teacher to handle when a class is small.

On to the rabbit hole of Andrew Schlafly's "insights"[edit]

Schlafly's list itself deserves scrutiny, as he makes some curious claims. According to him, large classes are better for the following reasons. Each sub-header is a Schlafly-ism and the text sections are our comments.

Better competition with more students[edit]

Schlafly assumes that students actively compete with one another for rank, rather than grade. This is generally not true, as students strive for an "A" more than just a grade good enough to beat their classmates (whose grades, in most situations, they may well not even know). When applying to college, students are in competition with every other student of their level in the country, which is where the true competition lies. Furthermore, competition, when taken too seriously, can have negative effects, including incentive to cheat, as well as incentive to sabotage the efforts of others. It can also discourage students from working together for mutual benefit, such as forming independent study groups in preparation for an exam. It is precisely for this reason that many professional schools in the United States now only give pass/fail grades for at least some portion of the course of study.

More ideas and insights to learn from[edit]

This assumes more students involve themselves in discussion, while in reality in large groups of people many will sit silently, blending in to the background. Additionally, the larger, lecture classes rarely have any student discussion, meaning the only ideas and insights they hear are the teacher's, while small classes frequently involve lively discussions.

Better experience at speaking in front of large groups with more students[edit]

Again, this assumes that the students do speak. Larger lectures rarely involve discussion, and individual presentations are even more scarce.

For those students who are hesitant to speak in front of others, it is much easier to get them to do so in front of a smaller class, and build up from there.

Less of a problem with cliques, as more students reduce the power of small groups[edit]

This is a social element, which has little to do with learning. However, contrary to what Schlafly says, cliques are more likely to form in larger classes, where students identify and interact with their personal friends rather than the class as a whole. It is hard to tell how Schlafly understands the word "clique", but the most common definition is a small friendship group within a larger group (such as in a class or workplace). In contrast, small classes often lead to closer knit groups, much as smaller communities do. This is not the same as a clique.

Better social opportunities, just as bigger parties are generally better[edit]

Largely the same point as above, concentrating on socializing rather than not learning. It should be noted that students ideally do the majority of their socializing in school outside of the classroom. This is a good argument for large schools, but not for large individual classes. The social element is actually one of the more common arguments against homeschooling, though if the student is involved in various activities with others, or homeschool classes, this is less of a factor.

The comparison to parties makes no sense, for two obvious reasons. One is that a classroom is nothing like a party. The other is that the assertion itself is obviously subjective, and arguably untrue. While it depends on the nature and purpose of the gathering, perhaps the best size for a party (in general) is in the range of a half dozen to twenty or so participants, arguably a similar size to the ideal class size.

Finally, given that Conservapedia keeps a site policyimg against "talk, talk, talk" and that Schlafly frequently admonishes users that they should be there to learn rather than to pursue petty discussions, it seems a little bizarre, and perhaps insincere, for him to place such emphasis on social interaction in the classroom.

Easier to deal with conflicts, as a loss of six or ten students on a particular day has less impact[edit]

It is unclear what Schlafly means here. It is likely he is talking about scheduling conflicts, in which students are forced to miss school. If he is talking about conflict within the class, causing the loss of six or ten students as casualties, then he is teaching some very different classes than anything I have ever seen. Assuming he means absence, his point isn't well founded. Absences for these reasons are likely to scale with class size, so the smaller and larger classes are likely to lose similar proportion of students, not similar numbers.

Better preparation for the college environment, which tends to have larger class size than high school[edit]

As stated above, most non-lecture classes in college have smaller classes than most high schools do. Any student taking mostly lectures is likely not getting his or her money's worth, as there is nothing one gets from a lecture that one can't get from a video or a transcript of that lecture - or, hopefully, shared notes from a friendly classmate.

Greater efficiency in the use of educational resources freeing resources for other educational activities[edit]

Bugler, the parodist who added this point to the essay, is right about this. It makes economic sense to have larger classes, which is the sole reason why larger classes exist. It is the classic example of putting financial expediency ahead of quality of education.

Additional "insights" made by Andrew Schlafly on the essay's talk pageimg[edit]

Schlafly has made a few further noteworthy comments on the subject (and off subject) while defending his essay on its talk page.

The social dynamics of the classroom are no different [from a party][edit]

According to Schlafly, "a large party is usually better than a small party, all else being equal. There are more people to meet and interact with. The social dynamics of the classroom are no different."[1]img

It is astonishing that a teacher can see no difference between classroom dynamics and a party atmosphere. While large parties succeed because of the mingling which takes place (meeting and interacting with people), this kind of interaction has very little role in a classroom, where focus should be on learning, whether from the teacher, a text or a focused discussion.

A small class means seeing and hearing from the same handful of people over and over. Tedium and depression set in quickly[edit]

[2]img This is a dispiriting attitude for a teacher to take, and in reality this kind of "tedium and depression" can only result from dealing with a particularly dull and uninspiring set of students (and/or teacher). Actually, most students and teachers who have had some experience with a small class agree that lively and insightful discussions can take place, with greater time for students to explore their own and others' opinions.

There is also a lost irony in this statement, in that Conservapedia, having a narrow range of regular contributors and a restrictive point of view, involves seeing and hearing from the same handful of (dull and uninspiring) people over and over. Tedium and depression may well result from this.

In Schlafly's classes, in particular, the idea of having a wide range of views expressed by his students is substantially less than in most other learning environments, as most of his students appear to be from similar backgrounds: white, Christian, conservative, middle-class teenagers. This certainly does not mean there is no variety in his students' insights and personalities, but the similarities likely far outweigh the differences.

Most of mankind's greatest works, writings, insights, discoveries, proofs, etc., were by teenagers[edit]

[3]img We're still awaiting Schlafly to back this up with some examples. It simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. While there have certainly been a few examples in history of great achievements and breakthroughs by teenagers, such cases are rare, and most of humanity's greatest works have been created by adults.

Following some prodding, Schlafly gave three "examples": Gödel, The Gospel of John, and "great works of literature". Gödel is a person and not a work, writing, etc., and was best known for his incompleteness theorems, published when he was 25. Schlafly believes that The Gospel of John was written by John the Apostle (disputed) and has a theory that John was a teenager when he followed Jesus (see hereimg). Neither of these is generally accepted, and even if they were, it is unlikely John was still a teenager when he wrote the Gospel years later. This is also only one book of the Bible, out of more than 60, hardly "most". As for the "great works of literature" he mentioned, without any examples, it is difficult to know what he is talking about. None of the generally acknowledged greatest authors did their best work in their teenage years.

For our own examination of some of mankind's greatest achievements, and the ages of those who accomplished them, see the greatest achievements in human history.

The larger your class, the greater the chance of something special coming from the students, all else being equal[edit]

[4]img If, by "something special", Schlafly means the odds of the class containing a child prodigy or great genius who creates one of "mankind's greatest works", then yes, arguably the chances of this increase with the class size (although still remaining slim). However, this would seem to be an argument based on "reflected glory", the prestige of teaching a notable student. Schlafly's focus should be on teaching his students, not looking to them for profound breakthroughs.

In terms of ordinary insights, the result of thinking about the subject and applying intelligence, then, providing the class contains a balanced range of abilities, a smaller class will provide about as much insight as a larger one, as well as giving more time for these insights to be explored.

Our society is becoming more introverted, and sociologists say it is not healthy[edit]

[5]img Schlafly here implies that smaller classes encourage greater introversion than larger ones. This is not true. In a small class, there is greater motivation to participate, show understanding and opinions, which can help an introverted student to become involved and develop greater confidence. Meanwhile, in a larger class environment, an introverted student can remain relatively anonymous and avoid interacting with the class.

Maybe liberals like smaller classes . . . because the students' minds become easier to control and mislead in smaller groups . . . The mind-control is better with smaller classes[edit]

[6]img[7]img Aside from implausibly connecting liberals and public school teachers with "mind control", a favorite theme of Schlafly's, this is simply not true. Dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini well knew that one of the most effective means of instilling propaganda was to address a huge gathering, where crowd psychology added a sense of unity with little space for dissent. In contrast, a small group of individuals has a more informal feel where individuals are more likely to question and form their own opinions.

Furthermore, the notion of "mind control" is highly ironic coming from an ideologue such as Schlafly, who blatantly seeks to indoctrinate his students with ultra-conservative ideas.