In School in Germany: Lessons in Small Groups

people having meeting inside conference room
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

When I write this post, our country is in the midst of reopening our schools and businesses. We had been on lockdown since mid-March of this year due to the spread of the Corona Virus and its potential of infecting hundreds of thousands and killing thousands without any notice. In retrospects, this virus is nastier than the Spanish Flu, which happened over a century ago, lasted two years and featured three waves- the second of the three was considered the worst. The reasons are the symptoms that are sometimes unrecognizeable and the high rate of person-to-person infection. Handshakes, breathing, coughing and just simply close contact could lead to a Corona infection.

As we continue to return to a normalcy that the majority of us wanted but it’s being considered the normalcy that may have set off the spread of the virus, we are seeing some of the restrictions that may become the new permanent norm, even if a vaccine is created beforehand. For some, it may be a blessing as we take a few steps back and consume less, while at the same time, have fewer people at an event than before.. Look at the schools for example. While children are asked to wear masks and refrain from activities that require physical contact and close quarters, class groups are being cut in half, from an average of 23-32 students in a group to as low as eight and no more than 12. Teachers and parents are wondering why some students cannot sit with their friends in groups to meet and study. Educators are wondering if this is efficiency where a large group can bring forth effective teaching in the classrooms while creating a jam-packed schedule to ensure that students are able to fulfill the requirements given to them.

Speaking from personal experience as a teacher of English, having small groups would be more than beneficial. When I started teaching English at a Volkshochschule (Institute for Continuing Education) in 2001, I had a pair of English classes, where students could come in and speak English for 90 minutes, choosing topics that they wish to talk about. Almost all of the sessions we had produced a lot of meaningful conversations where students learned from each other and from the teacher. As many as 8-10 participants were in class. While I dealt with one pole of the spectrum, the other pole was when I taught groups of 25-30 students at a pair of high schools in Thuringia and one university in Bavaria. From these two extremes, I can only say positive things about small group teaching.

 

Some advantages of small group teaching include:

    • More intensive work- This doesn’t mean working through all the points in one topic as fast as possible. It has to do with working on each point in detail so that people better understand the topic.
    • More individual contact- Even in times of mandatory distancing to avoid getting infected with the virus, individuals can receive more attention and help with problem areas than in large groups. This can be done with the teacher or through small group activities.
    • More interaction- It is a foregone conclusion that when you have smaller groups, students will have a better chance at learning and interacting in class, regardless of the style of teaching used in class. With large groups, teachers are restricted to mostly frontal-style instruction which will takeaway the students ability to join in the classroom discussions.
    • More fruitful learning- Through a combination of frontal teaching, individual work and group work, students have an opportunity to learn more and exchange with others, while the teacher has better opportunities to explain concepts better and in detail.
    • More attention in class- Through small groups, the number of distractions decrease substantially. At the same time, it allows the teacher some flexibility to introduce techniques to maintain the attention span of the students. After an average of 30 minutes, the attention span decreases rapidly and with that, a sharp increase in the number of distractions. Therefore teachers need to be aware of this and vary their techniques to encourage better learning.
    • More flexibility and creativity in teaching- As mentioned under interaction, the more varieties of teaching you carry out, the more flexible you are and the more likely the students will enjoy your classes than if you only have frontal style teaching and in large groups. Even lectures in university halls in front of hundreds of students tend to become boring after a certain time.
    • More efficiency– If you wish to finish the topic as quickly as possible, then this would be another reason for having classes in small groups. However it depends on the content of the topic.
    • Less chances of getting sick- This is one of my key points here. When you have large groups, the chances are more likely to get sick than you do with small groups. This has to do with the fact that with larger groups, there may be more people bringing a virus to spread to others. In small groups, the chances of that happening are close to zero. That is unless we have a large-scale pandemic as the Covid-19 here. From my personal experiences, I’ve been sick eight times when teaching in large groups. In small groups, the number has been zero- all within the past decade.

 

 

With the extensive use of home office combined with the computer being one of the key cornerstones of every household, small group teaching can also encourage learning and doing individual work at home. What is required is a teacher being the facilitator and helping the students out when needed. Homework is made available either by the teacher when in school, through an online platform or through a special online mechanism. The student does the work and the teacher can review it either in class or by sending back the work via e-mail. I’ve worked with this mechanism during the lockdown at my school and my daughter has received classwork and other forms of instruction through an online platform at her high school. If one takes the time to learn how the system work and tries it out, online learning combined with small group teaching opens a lot of doors to learning for all.

While costs and issues with a lack of personnel are a universal problem, these are short term problems that can be solved by getting used to the system. Having dealt with small group teaching for the second month now, I can only say that small group teaching is more effective, healthier and more beneficial than having large scale lectures and classes with 25+ students. While students can see their friends at any time and anywhere and lectures can be held online, it is a foregone conclusion that a school with a classroom size of 20+ students will become a thing of the past.

If we want to be serious about containing the spread of Covid-19 and preventing future viruses from dictating our society, we will have to change the ways we conduct ourselves. While we have a lot to do to make it happen, we must start small and let things grow and go into place. While small group teaching is a start, it is one of many that will put the pieces together in a puzzle that will promote less in life instead of more. When we do that, we will have a more efficient and enjoyable lifestyle to have.

My two cents on this topic.

FlFi10

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