An Unexpected Breakout of Collegiality

Something that has disappointed me about Philosophy 105 so far is that, despite the professor’s clearly stated invitation for we across the lectern to engage in active debate and discussion, there is a paucity of student participation in class: outside of the usual suspects — leather-jacket guy, etc. — most of the class never says a word.

And then something happened this morning. It snowed. And so what is usually a class of 30 became a class of 16. And the dynamics of the class changed in a palpable way.

More people than ever before made contributions. Some who hadn’t said a single word to date. The class was more of a discussion than a lecture. It was as if an important population threshold had been dipped below and whatever combination of reticences had kept people quiet was suddenly not there.

I don’t want to exaggerate the change — we didn’t achieve Algonquin Round Table-levels of thrilling interplay — but that it was so obvious a change makes me wonder whether there is a natural size for the university classroom that, if exceeded, transforms the environment from one of collaboration to one of performance.

Of course a class of 30 would, in many situations, be seen as a luxurious ideal. And certainly this format, setting aside the reticence issue, seems to be working well.

This has me thinking a lot about my time at Trent University in the mid-1980s. One of Trent’s calling cards was “small group teaching” and because I’d never experienced “large group teaching” elsewhere, I never really saw what the big deal was: I simply took it for granted that a tutorial of a dozen students plus a professor gathered around a table was how university worked.

The further I get from Trent, and the more I see how other institutions work, the more I come to appreciate its virtues: at least back then Trent, through thoughtful architecture, the college system, class size and educational philosophy managed to achieve something very, very special. At the time I thought it was commonplace; obviously it is not.

On Friday, assuming the weather returns to normal, the class size will balloon back up to 30 and, I’m afraid, the unexpected breakout of collegiality will become a distant memory. It was nice while it lasted.


Robert Paterson's picture
Robert Paterson on February 5, 2009 - 04:04 Permalink

Peter you have just seen “magic numbers” in action Fibonacci Numbers — The maximum number of people that can have some sense of trust is 150 — the Dunbar Number

5-8-13 are groups where close interaction is possible — 8 is best if you want to get some where. Over 13 it gets worse in a non linear progression. Most teams fall inside this grouping. In the military the section is between 8-15 — this is the group that you die for

Best meetings are 5 — 8. Most boards are 12 -18 and are already in trouble. Most classes are over 25 and are doomed. As you have seen, people just shut up at the higher numbers — but while all this has been known for thousands of years — our education system knows none of this

Pat Garrity's picture
Pat Garrity on February 5, 2009 - 05:11 Permalink

It has to do with class size, no doubt, but it also has to due with maturity levels. No one says anything first or second year classes, third sees a bit of a chance, and fourth is full of discussion.

Alan's picture
Alan on February 5, 2009 - 19:01 Permalink

That is why the Foundation Year at Kings in Halifax was so good in my first year. The whole class of around 100 students took all classes together with only one elective. A joint morning lecture each day except Tuesday and you broke into smaller tutorials every afternoon in groups of about ten. Debate and discussion were the norm by mid-September.

Stephen Good's picture
Stephen Good on February 7, 2009 - 01:19 Permalink

I’ve seen both extremes as well — also having been at Trent and taking classes in Shakespeare and Hegel when there would be only three or four people with the professor in the tutorial. No where to hide, no point showing up if you hadn’t done the reading and weren’t ready to contribute. Then working at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas and learning that people could get an undergrad degree and never have to find a library book, never write an essay and never rise above “I’m just a number” status. People could graduate their bachelor’s degree and only have filled in multiple-choice exams (Scantron cards) the entire time they were there. A bunch of textbooks and your exams and you are good to go. How can you be given a univeristy degree and never be marked for class participation, never have to write an essay, never actually have to learn how to use a library? That’s not education, that’s crowd control.