By Mirah Langer
King David High School Linksfield, in Johannesburg, Gauteng, has recently embarked on the implementation of large-class teaching.
This teaching practice allows the most significant number of students to be exposed to the expertise of a master teacher within a productive classroom environment.
“The success of large-class teaching is all about the respectful relationship built between the teacher and students,” says King David High School Linksfield’s deputy principal, Mazal Sacks, about the practice that she has implemented over the last few years.
“The classroom is big, but the relationship is intimate,” says Sacks, reflecting on the last two years of what started out as a fledgling experiment in the Hebrew department, of which Sacks is the head – and has already resulted in resounding success. The first class to be exposed to the large-group class structure matriculated in 2015. The results – their Hebrew marks went up by an average of at least 10% between their mini-preliminary assessments and their final examinations – indicate the exciting possibilities for this style of tuition. Sacks attributes these soaring results to the multifaceted benefits – academic, social and psychological – of a teaching practice about which many teaching professionals might feel hesitant.
At first, Sacks also felt unsure about the prospect: “I was worried that parents would complain that they did not want their children to be taught in such a big group.” Yet, at the end of 2014 when Sacks decided to give the innovative concept a go, “None of that, at all, actually happened,” she says.
Getting the research right
At the start of the implementation, the master teacher, who has dedicated 28 years to her profession, felt both “excited and very nervous. I’d never done anything like this before.”
She started off by researching more about the teaching method: “The idea is that it is better to have bigger classes with fewer experienced teachers than having smaller classes with many teachers.” Large-group classes are considered those with more than 35 students.
There were also many practicalities to sort out – but they were all underpinned by one key value: “I learned one very important thing, and that is I have to reach every single student in the class.”
As such, the classroom arrangement of desks and teaching space needed to be reconfigured. “A square-shaped room is the ideal classroom space; then the desks can be put in a diamond shape and no student has their back to the front. Also, each desk has to have enough space between it, so that I can walk comfortably and check students’ individual work,” explains the King David Linksfield educational icon.”
Constant interaction and observation
A constant effort is made to be walking around the classroom at all times, “so that no student feels they have an advantage or disadvantage… I teach from the front, back and middle and no matter where I am, everyone can see me.” To allow her this flexibility, Sacks works with a computer and projector to ensure the work is clearly visible to all – and so that she is not stuck at the front writing on the board.
Group work, particularly in pairs or trios, also works effectively. However, Sacks, ensures that this is combined with close attention to individual needs. “I do check their understanding more: I will go and check one-on-one, asking to see what they have written so far. I do this more than I did for the smaller classes.”
To nurture this sense of care, learning the names of students as quickly as possible at the beginning of the year was crucial: “They have to feel important,” says Sacks. “No matter where you sit, you are being supported.”
Sacks also ensures that no students are more dominant than others when it comes to class participation. She does this by calling on specific students to answer a question, rather than
just opening it up for general comment.
Furthermore, the reality of the class composition is that the students need to be at relatively the same level and already have a solid grasp of the subject. “The weaker the student, the smaller the group should be. But in big groups, they must all be able to understand at a competent level.”
The best of the best
Sacks suggests that an assistant in the large-group classroom is useful – particularly as the practice should also serve as a training space for junior teachers to be elevated. However, a highly experienced teacher is needed to lead a large-group class: “You have to be fully and absolutely prepared and professional. You must be the best that you can be every day.”
This ensures that students develop respect for the teacher’s good reputation – which, Sacks says, is ultimately the best tool for discipline. The teacher is also responsible for effectively “selling the brand” of large-group teaching as an experience of “prestige”. “You make them feel like the chosen ones. They feel privileged to be in the class. I make a point of showing them how important they are to me and how happy and lucky I am to teach them,” says Sacks.
And then, once all these elements come together, something magical happens in the classroom…
“You do your best, and if they feel they are in the best class and motivated, then the sky is the limit – they want to fulfil that expectation of them.” Furthermore, for once, peer pressure becomes not a hazard, but an inspiring and energising force, insists Sacks. “They influence and push each other. The strong students in the class make those getting Bs and high Cs want to achieve more – and they do. They become strong, driven, motivated and hungry for success.”
Passion and professionalism of paramount importance
In addition, Sacks enthuses, as a teacher, it is an exuberant and stimulating experience. “It energises me to be the best I can be. I love their questions and as I am teaching, I come up with more strategies. There is a lot of reward and satisfaction that comes with this success.”
This year, Sacks is teaching two large-group classes: one of 47 Grade 11s and one of 55 Grade 12s. The dynamic energy of these bustling broods has infused the school corridors to such a degree that students are now requesting to be in the large groups. “They simply love it,” she says.
Ultimately, this mentor teacher suggests that the success of the teaching practice comes back down to its paradoxical nature: how, while the class might be large in structure, the investment in each student is tailored down to the most detailed and delicate scale.
“Each student must feel fully contained. It doesn’t matter where you sit in the room: I see you and you are each at the centre of my class and my focus.”
Category: Spring 2016