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The elephant in the room: Large class size

In Botswana it is custom that year in, year out whenever examination results get released, all fingers point at teachers, accompanied by the vilest of adjectives.

Batswana treat teachers as slaves and they have never taken it upon themselves to really understand the truth about the education system, holistically.

That there is no political will when it comes to education is glaring. If there was, government would have long addressed the elephant in the room. But hey, it helps Batswana sleep better at night knowing they have punching bags in teachers.

Society has never held politicians to account, due to the demigod pedestal politicians stand on upon assumption of office. Policy is not implemented and this has taken the education system to the dogs. 53 years and each year the pit gets deeper and darker!

Friday January 17, 2019 Junior Certificate examination results were released: 44, 048 sat for the exam, 20, 219 males and 20, 829 females. Out of those three obtained merit; 484 A; 4, 205 B; 9, 833 C; 14, 181 D; 6, 088 E; and 5, 920 learners were ungraded. The long and short of it is that 26, 189 learners failed the exam. I know to sugar coat the mess, BEC labels D as pass, but as an educator I state here and now that grade D is fail. Only 37.5% of learners obtained grade C or better.


What is the problem?

There is a plethora of, but today the column shall focus on large class size and its impact on learning and resultant exam results.

 The main factor that has led to the continued decline in Botswana examination results is large class size and student teacher ratio. Edward Ashimwe says student teacher ratio, “expresses the relationship between the number of students enrolled and the number of teachers in a particular school.”

I’ll add subject. You could also say it is the number of learners attending a school divided by the number of full time teachers in that school. A ratio of 1:10 means that there are ten students for every one teacher.

To bring it home I will give an example of a core subject in a Junior Secondary school. If in school x there are five teachers of English and 300 form ones enrol into that school, 300 learners divided by 5=60. The ratio thus is 1:60. Because JSS are 18 streams, multiply 60 by three for each teacher, it means core subject teachers: English, Setswana, Agriculture, Science, Moral Education, Social Studies, Maths each have 180 learners to teach in total.

Think about a Teacher of English who has to mark four scripts for each of the 180 learners! 720! Now let’s talk continuous writing assignments! Let that sink!

At present, Botswana school class size stands at a simmering 62 with a minimum of 50 across most schools, especially rural Botswana: primary, junior and senior secondary.

In 1994, the Revised National Policy on Education recommended that at Junior Secondary class size be at 35 and 30 for Senior Secondary. 26 years later class size has doubled! Yet we chant knowledge based economy like Boxer in Animal Farm, “Napoleon is always right…I will work harder!”

This is what happens when there is no political will and citizens are spectators who only stand up when exam results are released, to scapegoat poor teachers, who are victims of the oppressive, unjust and retrogressive education system. A moribund system that ensures their working conditions are akin to walking on hot coal. Edward Bernays aptly put it when he wrote that, “The public is not cognisant of the value of education, and does not

realise that education as a social force is not receiving the kind of attention it has the right to expect in a democracy.”

Teaching and learning are communication based of which intimacy is integral. In a large class, it is difficult to get satisfactory knowledge of learner’s needs. Also, the teacher will not remember names of all learners and unfortunately learners don’t respond to a teacher who doesn’t know them by name.

Teachers with fewer learners in their classes are able to give student individualised attention. This enables them to address any learning difficulties the learner might have. One on one attention is very important in order to get the best out of the learners. This is the primary reason why parents opt for private schools.

In order to teach effectively, a teacher must know the learners needs both social and academic. This is foundational in planning and implementing instruction. Activities must be planned taking into cognisance learner interest and learning styles. Thus, large class size becomes an act of exclusion as sometimes the teacher flies with the fliers or delays them while stuck with slow learners. In most cases it is the mediocre who suffer as they are neither here nor there.

With a class of 60 students crammed up in one room, only one method of teaching can work, lecture, which was never good. Learner centred pedagogies that allow learners to learn by doing are impossible. One thus resorts to the banking model of teaching leaving out the majority of learners. These are the learners found in the D, E and Ungraded bracket come national exam results.

Already there is acute shortage of resources is schools: computers, books and reference material. Imagine 60 learners getting into a school library! Number one there will not be enough space, chairs not to mention books. Secondary school computer labs were designed to carry 40 learners! Where does the remaining 20 go? This is a nightmare on the part of the teacher as they can’t even make do as there is nothing to make do with.

Feedback! Marking for a large class is a torture! The teacher will thus compromise and not give learners enough class exercises for practice. Imagine a teacher of English marking 180 compositions! The marking will be rushed and feedback consequently wanting.

In the sciences and practical subjects, learners learn through observation and then practice. How do 60 students gather around to observe a teacher demonstrating a science experiment? And where is the teacher going to get the apparatus for all of them to practice?

Large overall class size means large classes for optional subjects. An HE lab has a maximum of 8 stoves, how does one teach 30 learners using 10 stoves in 80 minutes? And then there is the nightmare of projects where these 30 students have to share four sewing machines…

A large class gives reluctant learners a place to hide. Learning does not happen where there is passivity. And it is these reluctant learners who will ultimately fail. Sometimes these reluctant learners end up dropping out: a phenomenon that plagues rural schools.

Large classes are generally stressful on both the teacher and the learner.

The recent exam results speak of a government dead set on ensuring the majority of citizens live in abject poverty so they are hand out candidates. Education used to manufacture poverty!

Plato was right, “It is the government that must flow from education, not education from the government.”

Educationally Speaking




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