The class of 65

No, I’m not referring to the graduating class of 1965. I’m talking about a real algebra class of 65 real students I heard about today. That number is mind-boggling, but the expectations remain the same. Get these kids (whoever they are and however many) through “the material,” and we expect results (test scores). This is wrong for so many reasons, but one often goes unspoken.

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If you want teacher attention, then you get less than 55 seconds of it per hour of class time. If you’re uninterested in the work, then it’s much easier not to do it, and class is a waste of your time and intelligence. This is the typical “behavior management” argument for lowering class size.

It is made, because the traditional classroom relies on teacher authority to function. But, in a class this size, the teacher’s influence is diluted down to the point of negligibility. The best jugglers can do incredible things with nine balls, but the only way to really control 65 is to keep them quite still. So often, this is the expected behavior.

Success in a class this size must seem almost impossible, but I believe there is a way to make it work. Get those 65 students to learn from each other.

* * *

Imagine what 65 people can do! As I walk around Brooklyn, I often think, “this street could be spotless clean, if everyone would walk out of their house right now and work for about 5 minutes.” 65 people could do incredible things! In a matter of days they could write, share, edit, and publish a an entire book of poetry.

As a matter of fact, in just days they could write, share, edit, and publish a journal of mathematics, with every student contributing their thoughts and solutions on a variety of mathematical topics and problems of their own. Then the next week they could read, discuss, critique, and write another one! This is the core of Paul Lockhart‘s algebra class. It’s the mathematical process, and it is above all else, individual.

Instead of this, the school system usually expects them all to work on the same problems during class and for homework, until mastery is reached.

* * *

Schools contain the potential for incredible new possibilities. It lies in the mind and energy of our students. By relying on teacher control, we essentially ignore this. If we can access it, schools may be an amazing place for creation and growth.

We need to reexamine how effectively we utilize and develop the talents of our students. That includes rethinking everything from scheduling and requirements down to assessment, reporting, and the format of class. Math class most definitely needs a makeover, and one that includes student driven content and activity.

We need schools that recognize the real, raw power of 65 students, instead of pinning them on some teacher like dead weight to be managed and lifted up with brute force.

Young people are so much more.

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