A Brief Look at Teaching Large Classes In Yetebon, Ethiopia, we want to serve

In Yetebon, Ethiopia, we want to serve as many students as we can through Project Mercy's school. But, as in most developing countries, the demand far outweighs the ability to serve in the most idealistic of fashions. The conflict leads to large classes. In Nigeria, I.A. Olaofe sums it up by writing: 'The phenomenal expansion in student enrollment is not matched by a corresponding expansion in human, physical, or financial resources. The number of school buildings, language classrooms, and teachers has not increased, and where teachers are available for recruitment, they cannot be hired for financial reasons.' While we have expanded immensely at Project Mercy since its inception over 10 years ago, we can't keep up with the demand. So, we do the best we can with the resources we have, trying to be a good steward of students, resources and finances. Regardless, large classes are inevitable, with an 80-1 student teacher ratio common.

So, what are some ways to take the inevitable, and make it as productive as possible for the students'

A summary of the keys may be:

'Breaking down the big class into groups for as much work as possible, and then even breaking the groups down to pairs, or threesomes since we have 3-to-a-seat desks in Yetebon, Ethiopia. Thus teachers may utilize the Think, Pair, Share philosophy.

'Encouraging as much writing as possible in an exercise book ' notes, exercises, vocabulary, individual essays or reports (with some read aloud to the class).

'Giving more students the opportunity to speak by having them converse within their groups, particularly with reading aloud assignments.

'Since the teacher can't be in all groups at all groups, it would be beneficial for the groups to have team leaders who will guide the discussion, help the lower students, keep general behavioral control over the group, and indicate problems to the teacher.

'Generating a stable environment where the rules are known, encouragement is provided, and punishment is a last resort.

'And having a sense of humor!

Olaofe primarily focuses on the difficulty big classes (he's university focused) have with listening and comprehension. This would be true of all ages plus, for the younger students, the full range of participatory and analytical class work.

Olaofe, and others, point out that visuals are helpful, be it pictures, objects, or in Olaofe's university courses (also appropriate to many grades), the use of note taking. He recommends Lecture Notes be handed out, which isn't practical in our situation or most rural secondary schools without Xerox and unlimited paper resources, perhaps. However, important notes can be written upon the blackboard before the discussion begins and copied into an exercise book. Then, it will be clear to the class where they are at a particular moment in the class. In addition, the encouragement of taking personal notes under the topic listed will keep a focus on the topic. Flash cards were also recommended, and possibly could be done at times, with 8 cards, one for each group of 10 or more in the class. These would have to be devised to be supplemental to the text.

Olaofe also promotes Think, Pair, Share, although he doesn't call is by this name. He has students brainstorm over a topic placed on the board, with individuals writing down their own ideas. Then, students in big classes break into their groups to discuss the topic, after which the groups share, or even challenge, other groups. I see this as good technique as it provides writing, speaking, listening and comprehension skills all in one session.

I've intuitively felt that in big classes, broken in groups, there must be leaders in each group. The Peace Corp Manual backs this up and explains why.

When you are facing a crowded class of 60-150 students, you need help. And your most talented assistants can be found among the energetic adolescents you are trying to teach and control. Unless you plan to sustain mechanical drills throughout the year, you will need to create class "helpers" and develop their management skills. Don´t limit your classroom role to teaching. Your success will also depend on your ability to manage students who have learned to take more responsibility for themselves.

The Peace Corp Manual also believes in the Think, Pair, Share model, and even suggests it is useful for lectures in a big class. The teacher can bring out ideas prior to the lecture for the small groups to discuss, and then let them again discuss their notes after the lecture. Related projects can also revert to the group level, perhaps with each group handling a different question related to the main question. Then, the groups can share their answers with the big class, with the teacher guiding the process and making corrections where needed.

A big class brings upon itself different class dynamics than a smaller class. A big class will alternate between formal and informal, from full class to smaller groups. The teacher's dynamics has to change with these transitions. The Peace Corp Manual emphasizes that the teacher 'should speak loud enough, and clearly enough, to be understood. The teacher's voice also must convey enthusiasm and interest in the subject, to spark the students to be as enthusiastic, so that they feel like they are having fun in learning. In addition, eye contact should engage as many students as possible to keep them attentive and engaged.'

Another aspect of the dynamics is that while it can be fluid, the teacher must be in charge. There must be a stable environment, well disciplined. This is an entire topic in itself, but I like what the Peace Corp Manual says: 'Although we emphasize that you must establish rules from the start, there is no question that in your daily interactions, rewards are more effective than punishments. Good discipline is actually a careful balance of 'the carrot and the stick.' Good rapport, which brings about enthusiastic and motivated learning, does not come with heavy, 'stick' discipline, though that is most often what is expected in large rural Developing Country schools.

Common sense, as well as most critical surveys, tell us that smaller class size makes for a better learning environment. However, it is interesting to note that a survey of teachers in Melbourne, Australia, found that learner achievement is not a function of class size per se. There is a positive correlation between class size and learner achievement when certain teacher practices are employed, and a negative correlation between class size and achievement when these practices are not employed. These practices include probing by the teacher, follow-ups, and waiting for students to formulate answers. [2]

So, common sense also tells us that learning big class dynamics, and using well-established methods of teaching such as those mentioned previously (as well as many others, undoubtedly), can and does lead to a good learning environment. Without this knowledge, teaching a big class can be a horrific experience for both teacher and student, much more so than in a more manageable, informal small class.

Finally, I like the 'practical advice' to teachers provided by the Peace Corp Manual which includes:

'share resources

'be realistic

'pace yourself

'look after your voice

'eat a healthy breakfast

'get some exercise

'and (above all) maintain your sense of humor !!! (italics and exclamations added)

1.A. Olaofe. Ahmadu Bellow University, Zaria. Teaching, Listening, Comprehension in Large Classes. Google Internet Search

2.Hywel Coleman. A Bibliography on Class Size: Section 3: Class Size and Achievement; and Section 4: Miscellaneous. Internet Search

3.Teaching English as a Foreign Language to Large Multilevel Classes, Peace Corp Informational Collection and Exchange.

4.ITTT Teacher Training Manual. Unit 20. Page 4-5