Teaching and Tutoring

Waaaaaaaay back, right when I started this blog, I mentioned that humans could only remember seven plus or minus two bits or information at any given time – and that this could be exploited for speedy learning of vocabulary.

I therefore question why we have an education system in which each class has 30 to 35 students.  How the hell can a teacher focus on each of these students at once, to make sure they’re always learning something they find interesting and stretches them?  Answer: they can’t.

I think the problem started in the Victorian era, with the introduction of free schooling.  Nothing wrong with that, but there was obviously an incentive from the government of the time to keep costs as low as possible.  After all, the schools weren’t there to (directly) make money.  This meant that the class to teacher ratio was kept as high as was reasonably possible, and this model has been passed down through public schools ever since.

Of course, the main problem with large classes is that every student has to sit through the same lessons and do the same activities.  It’s not reasonable to expect a teacher to be able to simultaneously have 30-odd pupils doing different things.  Sometimes, a student might be clearly progressing faster than his classmates, and the teacher will give them more difficult assignments – but this happens comparatively rarely.  Even then, the teacher is supervising only two (and at most three) different activities, and students progress at a lowest-common-denominator pace.

And this is silly.  It’s no wonder some of the end-users of our schools get bored and behave as delinquents.  Personally, I always found that if I worked hard at school for a week or so, I just ran out of things to do.  Then, it was a week of doing nothing while the rest of the class caught up, and I just sat there inattentive.  This inactivity might spill on for several weeks in a depressing cycle of binging and going cold turkey (in terms of schoolwork) – I’d be lax for several weeks and then struggle to catch up later in the term.

I have never had a tutor before (although I’ve been one), but I suspect they’re normally only called in when students are struggling with a subject (as opposed to when they’re doing really well with one).  I contend that they find certain subjects hard because they never got the basics, this being a consequence of their teachers being unable to given them sufficient personal attention.  It is depressing to sit through classes one doesn’t understand, and galling that the simple remedy of one-on-one learning could solve the problem easily.

What I’m therefore proposing are class sizes of seven plus or minus two, in accordance with Miller’s Law.  This would strike a perfect balance between teaching and tutoring – we wouldn’t have to hire one teacher for every student (unreasonable), but at the same time we wouldn’t have an education system that artificially slows the rate of student progress.  A teacher could then focus on all of his students simultaneously, making sure that they were neither finding their course too easy or too hard, too slow or too fast.  This in turn would mean that since students would reach higher levels of education faster – it’s not impossible to believe that students could learn all the material from primary and secondary school in half the time (since occasionally children labelled as “gifted” are allowed to do so).  They could then move on to higher study, in which they could work more independently.

Here’s the maths: if we reduce class sizes by a factor of ~4, and speed children through their education twice as quickly, we only need twice as many teachers as we do today.  We’ve just made a load of tutors redundant, so they can take up some of that slack.  Even better, teachers have fewer assignments to grade and report cards to fill out, so the number of extra staff needed is even smaller.  And don’t forget, we’re not wasting any time on exams – each teacher will know exactly what each student knows, and so formal examinations (with the lengthy marking and re-marking processes) are no longer needed.

In other words, by simply re-structuring our education system, we can make far better use of time of its end users – children – without markedly increasing the amount of money spent on teachers.  Since pupils would rarely be at a loose end, we might find other societal problems caused by education-for-the-masses would slowly die out.

The bottom line is that one size never, ever fits all – and to try to make a system that caters to everyone is one that is ultimately bound to failure.


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