Earlier this week, I taught a group of lecturers from Yantai University in China, specialists in English, Maths, Law, and Chemistry. The title of my session was Applied linguistics: What is it and why does it matter to teachers? In the session we considered five essential ingredients of applied linguistics: centrality of client needs; pragmatic orientation; social and cognitive embeddedness; role-shifting and collaboration; and mode of enquiry. For more on these ingredients, see Chapter 1 of Mapping applied linguistics: a guide for students and practitioners, available as a sample chapter on the companion website.
(1) Starting with the centrality of client needs, the problem of class size is interesting because problems facing applied linguists typically involve multiple clients. Most obviously, the clients of large classes are the students who (hopefully) learn in them. But what about the impact of large classes on teachers who have to teach them? Or the opinions of parents who send their children to study? And the cost-effectiveness to the tax payers (who may also be teachers and/or parents) who fund them? An applied linguist needs to consider whether and how large classes are a problem from the point of view of all these clients. In doing so s/he may find, for example, that while teachers and parents may think that large classes are a problem, some students actually enjoy the social aspect of learning with a large peer group. Of course, there may also be differences of opinion within these client groups. Some tax payers, for example, may be happy if a lower teacher-to-student ratio reduces their tax by making public education cheaper. Others may worry that large classes mean much less learning for only a little less money. Which leads us on to the second ingredient…
(2) A pragmatic orientation to problem-solving draws on whatever expertise is needed to address the problems identified. Studies on the relationship between class size and attainment can be read on the websites of the Centre for the Economics of Education (check their publications page), the World Bank, Stanford University, Queen's University (including a study of class size in China) and the Institute of Education, University of London. Most of this research has been conducted without focus on the relationship between class size and the teaching of different subjects (how language teaching is different from, say Geography teaching, see this post in the mappling.com discussion forum). Hywel Coleman (ex University of Leeds)'s website gives an interesting account of the class size problem in language classes and provides an extensive bibliography, and Jin and Cortazzi (2004) provide a brief but useful survey of the issues.
So do smaller classes improve students' attainment? Not surprisingly, the answer is 'it depends'. While some researchers claim that smaller classes do benefit younger or more socially disadvantaged or less able learners, others find no effect at all. One reason for this inconclusiveness is the difficulty of designing large-scale research projects in what is, inevitably, a very complex situation with many interacting factors. Applied linguists who read the research literature for answers to their class size problem are likely to be disappointed. However, they are unlikely to be surprised. Similar large scale studies (reported in Chapter 9 of Mapping applied linguistics) comparing the effectiveness of language teaching methodologies also failed to take account of crucial intervening variables, such as students' beliefs about and expectations of classroom learning; the experience and skills of individual teachers; the perceived status of the teacher; the importance attached by students and teachers to assessment; the degree of surveillance of teaching by managers or inspectors; and other local factors such as the size of the room, the furniture, heat and light in the classroom etc. So, while there is a great deal of scholarly expertise available on the topic of class size and attainment, applied linguists are likely to take a pragmatic approach to research; actively questioning the assumptions and methods of the studies they read, as well as the relevance of the findings to their local context.
(3) The third ingredient of applied linguistics is the social and cognitive embeddedness of all language needs. This means recognising that language exists in sociocultural as well as cognitive spaces and asking questions about where the border between these two spaces might be - see this post on the mappling.com discussion forum). All teachers, including those who teach large classes, must consider the cognitive learning styles of their students (including being aware of the controversy over whether learning styles actually exist!), as well as their learning strategies. Which leads us on to the fourth ingredient…
(4) The fourth ingredient is role-shifting and collaboration. For example, teachers may be both parents and tax payers, and sometimes even students! And defining any 'problem' in applied linguistics, as well as the designing and testing of a solution, requires collaboration from all those interested in the problem. Thus, discussions and resource sharing within and across professional bodies (such as the IATEFL Global Issues Special Interest Group and international organisations can be very useful. One helpful booklet, Practical tips for teaching large classes: a teacher’s guide, published by UNESCO), stresses the importance of collaborating with students (designing tasks that demand their active participation), with other teachers of large classes (to share resources and cut planning time), with families (for home support of the learning experience) and budget holders (for appropriate furniture, permission to take teaching outside of the classroom etc.).
(5) The fifth ingredient, mode of enquiry, is the sum of the previous four. Taken together, these four ingredients provide a way of thinking and acting that is altogether richer and more useful than any single recipe for successful large class teaching. The four ingredients contribute to the formation of teachers who are aware of the unique characteristics of their local context. Such a teacher is also aware of similarities between the contexts of his/her colleagues and of the contexts investigated by research. S/he is willing to involve client groups in the design and testing of any solutions and to build networks with colleagues, families, government education agencies, local non-government organizations working on education issues, and teacher training institutions.
So, why 'please wear a belt' in the title of this posting? Well, in Chapter 9 of Mapping applied linguistics, we include a story about a colleague who was teaching English to a large class in Indonesia. He thought that it would be a good idea to consult with his new students on their language learning needs and preferences. He handed out slips of paper and asked them to record their thoughts. Unfamiliar with the idea that they might have anything of value to say about learning, no one could think of anything to write! One student wrote 'please wear a belt', a useful comment on how the teacher could dress more professionally. As this cautionary tale suggests, while applied linguistics does matter to teachers, the five essential ingredients outlined here do not guarantee instant success. Indeed, the active, reflective, locally-sensitive thinking and acting implied by these five ingredients may disconcert clients and colleagues used to a more prescriptive, top down approach. So, if you improvise and it doesn't work out, have another go. If you are looking for a place to start building networks, why not try the mappling.com community helpdesk? And before you start, make sure you're wearing a belt!
Jin, L. and Cortazzi, M. (2004). Large Classes. In M. Byram (Ed.) Routledge encyclopedia of language teaching and learning. London and New York: Routledge.