Skip to main content

Size Matters And Small Is The Big Idea

     In education, I have always loved BIG. I have embraced big ideas, big resources, big tech, big budgets, big plans, big dreams or big projects. But as much as I love BIG, I now need to formally advocate for small.
     Size Matters. And although big has its rewards, much of what we want to accomplish in education will only be possible if we think small. That’s right. Small works and it works well.

     The research for small has been evident for some time. Core benefits from small schools include increased student achievement, increased attendance, higher teacher satisfaction and improved school climate (Supovitz & Christman, 2005: Howley, et al., 2000).

     Indeed, the case for smaller learning communities and environments can be made from all learning perspectives and applications (see latest Hechinger Report article What Big High Schools Get Wrong to find out more).

     Let’s extend from schools to classrooms. Ask any teacher about their effectiveness, as well as student success and teacher satisfaction, when it comes to class size. Compare 40 versus 25. I doubt you’ll find one that will advocate for bigger. And it’s not just because it’s easier. It’s because it’s truly better for the students.
     What do students enjoy and need? The list includes personalization, choice, support, attention, engagement, creativity, collaboration, positive relationships and success. All of these are more likely and more consistent in smaller classes.

     What do teachers enjoy and need? This list includes student achievement interaction, mentoring, rigor, thinking, reflection, participation, collaboration, engagement and positive relationships. Again, all of these are more likely and more consistent in smaller classes.

     Whether it’s because of new standards, tech integration, 21st century skill development, career readiness or more, several key things are needed for future student success in the global economy. Most experts agree that students will need to be highly collaborative, communicative, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, versatile, technology-skilled and critically thinking. All of these are highly enhanced in smaller class settings.
     Back to smaller schools vs. larger schools. After having worked in both large and small schools, there are some essential differences. Students and staffs in small schools know one another better. Small schools respond more quickly to change, innovation, ideas, crisis and local needs. What staff will have a better chance of collaborating and moving forward? A staff of 150 or one of 25? It’s not complicated. Indeed, if one studied the most innovative and creative schools from around the nation – whether standard public schools, charter or private – you will typically notice one thing in common. They are smaller schools.
     Extend this to larger entities such as school districts. Are our large school districts or smaller ones more capable or less capable of change, innovation, implementation, creativity and personalization? Without naming names, do you think districts with thousands and thousands of students, as well as thousands of staff, are really going to be able to share a common vision, let alone collaborate?

     Maybe analogies are helpful. Is your favorite restaurant a small, local one or a large chain one? Regardless of the industry one compares it too, education, like many of those, is an experience. And one’s experience - whether it’s students, staff, parents or community members – is what matters right? And isn’t our experience usually improved with smaller, more personal attention and customization? We know it is and this really resonates with schools.
     The primary criticism here is always going to be money. And there is no way to get around that. To go from 40 to 25 in terms of class sizes will cost money. We need more teachers and not less. And this is especially challenging now as we have less teachers going into the field and not more. However, maybe if their experience was enhanced – such as something more successful, personalized, enjoyable, manageable and rewarding – maybe more teachers would choose the profession and less would leave.

     How about the size of our schools? We’ve tried it all – small learning communities, schools within a school and more. These are the right idea, but will never be the same experiences as a small school.

     One fix to me going forward would be to not build any larger schools. When we build new schools, break it up and create several smaller schools. Will that cost more? Maybe, but maybe not.

     If we know that size matters, then we may not have a choice. For any of our initiatives, innovations and intentions to actually work and make a difference, we’ll have to address the size of all of it. It’s time to start thinking BIG about how to be small.

(photos courtesy of Foter)


Popular posts from this blog

Evolutionary Education - 5 Things That Could Be Extinct Soon

It has often been uttered, that “only the fittest survive.” But when it comes to education, it seems things that might not even be that fit have continued to survive. However, just like in living species through time - dinosaurs, saber tooth tigers and the wooly mammoth just to name a few - even things that have lived on for a long time eventually go extinct. So, with that in mind, it seems educational evolution is occurring too and extinction might be inevitable for a variety of standard educational pedagogy, tools and practices.
Textbooks/Single Source Curriculum: (this includes ebook textbooks too). Regardless of whether they are digital or not, depending on and surviving on one text as the foundational source of information and context - regardless of course, age group and purpose - seems almost prehistoric at this point. Information changes daily and resources are born every minute on line. Anyone doing serious academic wor…

If We're Banning Phones, We Won't Connect Our Students To The Future

For those of us that follow the news, especially education news, we don’t have to wait very long for an educator, or educators, to give us the excuse for a blog post. This week’s winner goes to the principal and staff at Korematsu Middle School in California’s East Bay Area.
     They were recently featured, and apparently heralded, by an article in Ed Source ( for their recent compliance and control upgrade that bans students from using their cell phones at lunch and during their free time.
     According to principal Matthew Burnham, they tried to let the 7th and 8th grade students use their cell phones last year during these times and it was, according to them, an abysmal failure. The school claims that due to the students being “glued” to their cell phones, no one was talking and interacting with one another. And after watching the movie “Screenagers” and drinking from that proverbial firehose of biased information, this school was trying to …

21st Century High School Student Bill of Rights

Since I began teaching in 1990, I have repeatedly heard the term “reform” with regards to our educational system. And as someone who has always believed in and practiced teaching that worked to be real world, relevant and student-oriented, I can still get excited about the “possibilities” of real change. However, even with all of the classrooms, schools and some systems that have embraced new standards, new technology, project-based approaches, democratization/student voice and more, it’s almost appalling how little has changed in many of our nation’s high school classrooms. They are still dominated by outdated pedagogies, resources, activities and learning environments. Many still live and die by the lecture, low level note taking, and low level quizzes and assessments, as well as teacher/administrator mindsets not in line with anything related to 21st century workplaces or careers. 
     This lack of overall progress has lead me to be more anxious, adamant and even angry about t…