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Large groups and worksheets: A waste of your money and your child’s time?

There has been concern raised from time to time about education support agencies that offer a ‘cheap’ tuition style: very large classrooms, one unqualified teacher at the front of the room, and students sitting in rows, with heads bent over worksheets for hours at a time. We recently heard from a former student of one such school that the only time there was interaction with the teacher was ‘when we finished our work and she marked it’. What of real teaching? And what of interaction with other students?

 

It’s been several decades now that modern teacher training warns against the ineffectiveness of such a system. Though some students may benefit on a surface level from memorisation and rote learning, which is the purpose of repetitive worksheets, this will not teach a child to think for themselves – for example to apply concepts in a new context (which is what most exams test). And while primary and secondary schooling has come a long way from this model, class sizes remain large.

 

If at university level, large-room lectures are combined with small group tutorials and practical classes to ensure students learn effectively… the fact that in primary and secondary school the bulk of learning is done in a large-class format creates some obvious concerns.

 

Paul Surgenor of UCD Dublin states in his paper on large and small group learning, ‘the learning environment should provide an opportunity for students to obtain a deep understanding of the material’. He notes observations by researchers that in order to gain a deeper learning the following four components are important:

Motivational context: students need to see both learning goals and learning processes as relevant to them, to feel some ownership of course and subject

Learner Activity: students need to be active not passive, deep learning is associated with doing rather than passively receiving

Interaction with others: discussion with peers requires students to explain their thinking, this, in turn, can improve their thinking

A well structured knowledge base: the starting point for new learning should be existing knowledge and experience. Learning programmes should have a clearly displayed structure and should relate to other knowledge and not presented in isolation

 

Biggs (1989) in UCD Teaching and Learning 2010, ‘Teaching Toolkit: Large and small group learning’ https://www.ucd.ie/t4cms/UCDTLT0021.pdf

 

Clearly, the large-group, worksheet-based approach is problematic. As parents have little control of class sizes their children are placed in, it becomes imperative to really question how much value for money they are receiving from their cheaper tuition services. A class at half the price with four times the amount of students, lead by an unqualified teacher who does not actually teach the students, is probably a waste of money and time!

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