• Authenticity
  • experiential education
  • Hands-on learning
Cynthia Bolin, Lower School Counselor

Project Based Learning (PBL) is alive and well here at the Lower Campus and a great place to see an example of it is the enrichments. Enrichments are six-week-long courses that provide learning experiences outside the regular curriculum. This curriculum allows students to sample from a variety of topics, skills, and experiences they might not otherwise discover. I will take you through my process, using the elements of PBL, as I develop the curriculum for the next enrichment I will teach.

First some background is needed. Several weeks ago, I visited the Peabody Essex Museum and there was this incredible piece by artist Pedro Reyes called “Disarm Mechanized II, 2012-2014.” It is made up of several Dr. Seussian-like musical instruments made up entirely of the broken down parts of weapons, played via compressed air. The music it created was enchanting and I must have stood there for 15 minutes entranced by it. Then it hit me – wouldn’t the kids have fun doing something like this! Of course, we won’t use decommissioned armaments, but what if we used found objects and recyclables to make musical instruments? This was the question that I used as I thought about how I could make this work.

There are seven essential elements in PBL. The first is having a challenging problem or question that is the heart of the project. In this case, the specific problem to investigate and solve, or Driving Question (DQ), would be: “How can we make musical instruments using found and recycled objects?” The problem/question should be challenging without being intimidating. A question I have to ask myself is, “Can the students finish this project in the six hours that they will have to finish it?” As the facilitator, I have to make certain that this is possible.

The second element is “sustained inquiry,” which is a more active, in-depth process than just “looking something up” in a book or online.  The idea is that the DQ should require students to generate questions, find resources to help answer them, and then ask deeper questions. Projects often incorporate different information sources, mixing the traditional idea of “research” – reading a book or searching a website – with more real-world, field-based interviews with experts, service providers and users. For example to answer the DQ posed for this enrichment, the students might have to figure out what type of instruments there are, what materials they are usually made of, etc. The students also might need to inquire how they can best create an end product to share with others. They might ask Lucy, the Lower School Music Teacher, how to write a musical piece to play,  or ask a parent who know about video recording how to shoot a music video.

The third element in PBL is “authenticity.” In education, the concept has to do with how “real-world” the learning or task is. The belief is that authenticity increases student motivation and learning. One question I asked myself as I plan this specific enrichment is, “Will this project involve solving a problem faced by people in the world outside of school?” Or in other words, is the context authentic? Reyes’ piece made something beautiful out of something quite ugly; the kids would be make a similar statement. They would be showing others how something beautiful like music can be made by upcycling garbage. The second question I ask is, “Does this project utilize authentic processes, tasks and tools?” The kids might have to score a sheet of music, or learn how to use video editing equipment, so the answer is, “Yes.”  Most importantly, does this project provide personal authenticity – does it speak to students’ own concerns, interests, cultures, identities, and issues in their lives? As facilitator, it will important for me to help guide them to make the project meaningful for them.

The fourth element is “student voice and choice.” I want to enable a sense of ownership in the students. They will have input and (some) control over many aspects of the project by the questions that they generate, the resources they will use to find answers to their questions, the tasks and roles they will take on as team members, and the final product they will create.

Reflection is the fifth element. John Dewey, the American psychologist and educational reformer wrote, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” Throughout this project, the students and I will reflect on what they’re learning, how they’re learning, and why they’re learning. This reflection will occur informally as part of an ongoing dialogue. In addition, the students will be asked to reflect during a public presentation of their final piece that will be shared with the Sparhawk community. 

This built-in weekly reflection will lead to the sixth element, “critique and revision.” Each week the students will look at where they are and what else needs to be completed to finish the project in the allotted time. This will require that they make decisions about process and revise their ideas as needed.

And finally, the seventh element, “public product” will entail a finished piece that can be shared with others in the community. It might be a performance during a community meeting or the production of a music video that is shared. The students themselves will determine what form the final product takes.

This is just an example of how a teacher might use PBL as a framework for curriculum planning.  If you were to look, you would see many such examples in the classrooms on the Sparhawk School Lower Campus. 

  • experiential education
  • school environment
  • school habitat
Jennifer Silver

Middle school is truly the time when students are finding their individual voices, developing a sense of being and building their self esteem.  They are also at a crucial and pivotal place in both their academic and in their social and emotional development.  Let's be honest, their bodies and brains are going absolutely bonkers and it's our job to help them reign it all in, all while keeping their love and excitement for learning.

How do you do that, right?  We have found that teaching our middle school students experientially is our best tool in the vast teacher toolbox.  We want our students to be themselves, and we want to hear their unique perspectives on the thematic subjects that they are studying.  We have found traditional education methods only get students part of the way there.  

Experiential education:

  • Keeps the excitement in learning!  Who wants to be bored and have someone talk AT you all day?
  • Allows students the movement that their active bodies require- It is counter intuitive to expect a growing body to sit in one place for eight hours a day (As an adult it's kind of torture, am I right?).
  • Builds critical and creative thinking skills necessary for 21st century minds- Who are you as a student and how do you approach this problem.
  • Helps students identify HOW they learn best - In many cases our students have at least eight more years of education ahead of them, they need to know who they are as a student so they can be successful!  
  • Allows students to fail (often more than once!), rebuild, gain knowledge and find a solution- Life lesson, you are going to fail, if you don't fail, you don't know what to fix.
  • Teaches students to work co-operatively and independently to problem solve- Building both skills sets will serve a student long past their educational career.
  • Creates moments where students must advocate for both themselves and their classmates- This one is HUGE!  

So what does an experiential lesson look like for a middle school student?  Glad you asked.  Our current theme in the middle school is Invent, Explore and Discover.  Here's some examples of our students becoming the thematic lesson. 

  • Studying Newtons three laws of motion: Students paired themselves off and wrote, created and starred in video skits that showcase each of the 3 laws.  
  • Learning about Maya culture: Students practiced adding and subtracting with sticks and rocks in the base 20 scale using the Mayan system of math.  Students also created Maya glyphs representing their names with traditional Maya shape structures.
  • Aztec art: Students created masks by plastering each others faces, building up the surface of the mask with clay forms and then adding the final decorative layer of found and forraged indigenous materials.

If you are interested in seeing this style of learning first hand, or exploring some of the work of our students, we encourage you to take a tour.

  • experiential education
  • progressive education
Jennifer Silver

Experiential Learning- What does that even mean right?  Families who hear "Experiential Learning" on a tour probably can not grasp how or why our educational model is so different until their child does a day visit with us, or perhaps until hey are enrolled.  To us it's really about getting deep into the subjects that we are studying, first hand, up close and personal.  We become the lessons.  

It might seem a bit like a rebellious concept, and perhaps it is.  It rebels against the style of education that many of us grew up on (I certainly did!)- sit at a desk, read your textbook, repeat your textbook back, take a test so the teacher knows you understand the information.  But, do you really understand the information?  How do you know what you know? All you can really tell is that someone can repeat back exactly what they were told.  

Whereas, in our experiential model, a student who is studying archeologists and artifacts at Sparhawk Lower School would be tasked with:

  • Learning excavation techniques, methods and best practices by studying them and then by physically becoming archeologist and digging up artifacts 
  • Creating a Cartesian coordinate system to map the recovery of artifacts - gridding the dig site and then mapping on paper the location of the recovered artifacts
  • Studying and categorizing artifacts once they are extracted
  • Students create their own artifacts out of clay and repeat the excavation and categorization process.  

We want students to immerse themselves in the experience, and by doing so they will have greater retention of information than if they simply read about the process in a book.  An experience connects all of your senses- it has smells and gives you a feeling, you witness, observe and connect information.  As I said, we become the lesson.  

  • education
  • experiential learning
  • Lower School
Lisa Hughes

Originally published September 2015

Postcard from Hog Island

An Audubon retreat for educators provides a rich habitat for a Sparhawk Lower School teacher.

Starting off the 2012-2013 academic year was your typical enthusiastic sort. And, like any class at the Sparhawk Lower school, they had to decide on a class "bird name", the name to which they would be referred to as a group by me, other teachers, administrators, parents and students for the school year. As you can imagine, there are too many too choose from at first, and each one is just perfect at the start.

The Gannets. The Purple Finches. The Harpy Eagles. The list begins broadly, but is whittled down by a system of votes and teacher guidance. I've gotten quite efficient at this over the years, and for this particular class three years ago, the grand winner was the Atlantic Puffins, which was my first seabird name, and come to find out, a bird with a remarkable legacy. 

You see, the Atlantic Puffin underwent a steep decline in the 19th century across its breeding grounds on the Maine coastal islands due to habitat destruction, invasive predators and hunting for their meat and eggs. The birds are monogamous and each pair returns to their burrows on rocky island outcrops each year to hopefully lay, brood, hatch and raise a single chick before taking off to the open ocean once again. All along the northern Atlantic, from Scandinavia to the Atlantic Provinces of Canada these birds could still be found. But there were dwindling or extirpated colonies in Maine.  Until, that is, the early 1970’s, when Stephen Kress, who worked for Audubon, began his life's work, which was to bring the Puffin back to one former colony, Eastern Egg Rock Island, in the Muscongus Bay region of Maine. This project continues today, known as "Project Puffin”.

Project Puffin was a wildly exciting idea for me and the class back in 2012. We loved it, and quickly researched that we could adopt one or more of these Puffins, and thus support the continued work of Kress and his team. We set up our first bake sale fundraiser of the year, and sold enough to adopt two different couples. I promptly received glossy photos, biographies and newsletter updates about our happy puffin colony on Egg Rock.

Then one day came a mailing about something different: the Audubon Camp in Maine, featuring a gorgeous Maine Island and seven different weekly programs, including one just for educators. I was sold on the idea immediately.  One summer, soon, would be the right time to go...

Well, that right time finally came, this year. On Sunday, July 19th I hopped in my car and drove 2.5 hours up the coast to Bremen, Maine, for what was certain to be a grand adventure. My clothing options were functional: I had flip flops, water shoes and hiking boots. My bug spray and sunscreen, and most cherished, my Canon DSLR and a waterproof pair of binoculars for some serious wildlife viewing!

You see, since embarking down the road of adopting those puffins three years ago, my appreciation and fascination for the world of birds and just about anything else wild and natural has become a major interest in both my personal life and in my classroom. The bird memorabilia my students gift me each year has easily doubled. Each new academic year, are now raising bake sale money for multiple conservation programs, always looking to out-do ourselves. I am a total nature geek, and here I was pointing my GPS to an island about to be inhabited by 55 fellow like-minded nature loving educators, all looking to get jazzed about teaching children about appreciating and caring for nature.

I was certainly not disappointed. The entire experience was top notch, from the history of how the island came to be under Audubon's care to the rustic 1900's era buildings to the amazing oceanfront view and wildlife.  During my week, I worked with educators from all over the country (there around 50), and wonderfully enthusiastic and talented instructors.  For five days, I was inspired by the programming, intrigued by my colleagues, and in awe of the delicious food.  What could beat that?

I very much enjoyed this adventure. And I highly recommend to you, reader, the programs that Hog Island Audubon camp in Maine offers during the summer.  I would do it again in a heartbeat, and I am considering becoming a volunteer in the island next summer, as well as attending the island during their family programming week. It was that good.

I could not have attended this program without the support of the Sparhawk PTO, whom have me financial support without question. I felt wonderfully appreciated and encouraged as a Sparhawk educator. I also have to thank the National Audubon society for their scholarship towards my tuition.

It was clear to me, as I listened to Stephen Kress speak to us teachers one night about Project Puffin, that had my class not gone down the road of choosing the Atlantic Puffins as our class bird name way back in 2012, that I probably would not have been sitting in the audience on this gem of an island on the Maine coast. I thought, "I guess even a seemingly small decision like choosing a bird name can lead to wonderful things." I felt that something remarkable had happened to me.

~Lisa Hughes, Grade 4&5 Teacher, Sparhawk Lower School

For more information on the Puffin Project, click here.

For more info on the Audubon Camp at Hog Island, click here.


  • Audubon camp
  • Hog Island
  • LGBT Safe School
  • school habitat
Jennifer Silver

Originally published July 2015

Webster defines a habitat as the place or environment where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives and grows.  Furthermore an environment is defined (medical dictionary) in two important ways:

  • The complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors (as climate, soil, and living things) that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival.
  • The aggregate of social and cultural conditions that influence the life of an individual or community.

With a few tweaks to the lingo- that's exactly what a school is, right?  

Educational habitat- The place or environment where a human naturally learns and grows.  A school is the aggregate of its complex social and physical conditions that influence the life, form and survival of an individual or community.

Sparhawk Habitat | A Graduate's Story

Louise Stilphen, the founder and Headmaster of Sparhawk School, popped in my office yesterday and shared an email that she had just received from a former student.  The email was sent to her in response to a post that she had made on her personal Facebook page congratulating the US Supreme Court on their ruling that the guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry in all 50 US states.  

As she read the following excerpt of the email to me, we both became teary-eyed. "I don't know if you knew it or not, but the community you cultivated played a pretty huge roll in my outlook on the world and how I viewed myself in it. Sparhawk was, and from what I hear, is to this day a very safe community in which to transition from the "closet" to being more open. I cannot express how fantastic it felt to be a part of such a community and to know the support was there, if I needed it, not just from my peers but my teachers as well.  Thank you for making it possible for me to be me!"  ~Connor Coggins, Class of 2009.

What a beautiful testament to the culture and habitat that each member of our community strives so hard to create.  Thank you to Connor for sharing his story, and to each member of our community that helped to influence this (young) man's life.

For information on how to create a safe school for LGBTQ students and families, check out the PFLAG Boston website at: https://www.gbpflag.org/SafeSchoolsProgram

  • choosing a school
  • community
Jennifer Silver

"How do I know when a school is right for my child?".  How your child feels when they are at a school is imperative to joyful learning.  Here's a few tips on choosing the right one.

I was one of the first of my friends to have a child, and it just so happens that I work in education- this automatically makes me the prime candidate for school related questions in my circle.  Undoubtedly the most frequently asked question is, "How do I know when a school is right for my child?"  

Here is my answer, always.

  • Do your homework, explore your options and choose a few (at least three) schools to tour that mirror your child's interests, learning style and needs.  
  • Make sure the school is within your budget (or ask about financial aid, most schools welcome that conversation!)
  • If your child requires services, make sure they are available.  
  • Call, ask the questions that are important to your family.
  • Book a tour and then GET OUT OF THE WAY.

Here is the most important part of my answer- When you tour the school, bring your child and pay close attention to how they feel.  You know your child better than anyone, and chances are you will know within five minutes if the school is the right fit for them.  The visceral unlearned response; that overall feeling that you get walking in the door, meeting the staff and students, is a mirror of that school's educational habitat.  Allow your child to explore that habitat, ask their own questions and make them part of the process.  It is SO easy to impose our own learned behavior and educational beliefs on our children but they are the ones who will be learning at the school.  Let them lead the way, your child will feel it, or they won't.  

Here are some good reads & videos on getting out of the way: 

Check out this story about a local mom allowing her child to feel the difference.

  • get out of the way
  • school choice
  • class size
  • school environment
  • school habitat
Jennifer Silver

Originally written June 2015

A few weeks ago I had a huge "Aha Moment", a perfect storm of ideas that came crashing together over a period of days.  The over-reaching theme of this idea is habitat and how it relates to children and schools.  

About a month ago, I was listening to the Moth Podcast and I happened to see a featured story entitled Mothering in Captivity being shared by Molly Ringwald (yes, THAT Molly Ringwald).  If you don't know The Moth - it's all about real people telling real (short) stories on stage for their peers.  Check it out here, you won't be sorry.  

Now, back to Molly.  I am going to share an abbreviated version of her story with you, but I highly recommend you listen for yourself.  In the segment, Molly shares the story of her bright and gifted seven year old daughter, Matilda, and her educational experience moving from a private progressive school to a (highly rated) local public school.  Molly goes on to say that Matilda firmly refuses to move schools, but as parents, they did what they felt was best and chose the local school option for her.  This move was met with a very rocky start, including many visits with the teacher and school principal, culminating in the labeling of Matilda as a potential bully based on her behavior.  She was miserable and she was lashing out.  No parent ever wants to hear that about their child, and as any good human does, Molly started the long journey of helping Matilda work through this behavior.

One day as they were driving in the car together, Molly and Matilda were listening to a Radiolab podcast (another amazing podcast, check it out) entitled Inside Out Cage about Gorillas and the transition from concrete zoos to nature based ones. As they listened, the narrator talked about the gorilla's first experience in its natural habitat after having been in concrete captivity for years.  He explained the gorilla's movements of gently touching the grass and reaching toward the sun and sky for the very first time.  It's at this moment where Molly looked at her daughter in the back seat of the car and observed her mimicking the movements of the gorilla.  As she watched her daughter,  Molly realized that Matilda was not in her natural habitat.  Together, over the following years, they rebuilt that habitat for her, helping her to find the natural space where she could best learn, grow & thrive.  This was the start of my "Aha moment."

Habitat.  A humans habitat - What does that mean to me?  What does it mean to my son?  How is Sparhawk's habitat different- and what specifically makes it work so well for our family and so many others?  This really stuck with me, I thought about that word over and overagain for the next two days.  Frankly, I couldn't help but think about it, because we were visiting friends over the weekend whose child had just found her perfect school habitat, and then the city alerted them that they were kicking them out of their building, but more on that in a future post.  

I came into work at Sparhawk on the following Monday, and I bumped into my co-worker and fellow Sparhawk Mom, Jennifer Esty.  At the tail of our conversation she said, "Oh, I listened to the Moth podcast this weekend and I heard this actress talking about her daughters habitat...."  She barely got the words out when I excitedly interrupted "Molly Ringwald!  I heard it!  HABITAT!"  We both had the same "Aha Moment" over the weekend.  As moms, Jen and I have had extensive conversations about the Sparhawk School environment and what it has done for our children and the other students at this school.  In our conversations we often referred to this school as their environment, but it is bigger than that - in truth it is a habitat.  

  • community
Jennifer Silver

Emily WhiteOne of the phrases that you hear most often about the culture at Sparhawk is that we "know our students well."  If you are unfamiliar with Sparhawk, you might think that we are just talking about their academic lives- Billy is a B+ student who likes robotics...  but, in truth, it's much much more than that.  

The Sparhawk culture has been both organically and intentionally created over the past 20+ years.  The cultural intention of Sparhawk can be ideated, but doesn't truly come to fruition without the actions of the community.  We CHOOSE to be invested in each other.  We share in each others' successes, and encourage one another during loss or challenges.  We seek to understand the intricacies of personalities, and celebrate individuality.  Most of all, we listen to our students and value their insightful contributions to our community.  

The depth to which we know our students is highlighted at our graduation ceremony.  Each year, members of our faculty stand before the audience and give individualized tributes and speeches for all of the graduating seniors.  Teachers weave together recountings, fond memories, achievements and joy, showcasing the deep connection and understanding that we have of each student.  Here's a snippet of a story that was shared at the 2016 graduation by Emily White about graduating senior Jordan Michel:

Ten years ago I started my Sparhawk career at the Farm Campus. I happily began teaching Italian for the 1st time in an elementary school.  And ten years ago, Jordan Michel, you too started your Sparhawk career at the Farm School and began studying Italian for the first time in your life.

After a decade, we can reflect on some of the most valuable things that Sparhawk has taught us both: fundamental ideas like patience, perseverance, openness to learning, trust, and bravery. These are just some of the necessary pieces to becoming a fair teacher and a role model student.

Indeed all of our graduates have some of these traits--There are countless memories I could share to demonstrate how they possess them, but I will talk about just three that I think best illustrate some of the finest aspects I see in you, Jordan. In my opinion, these are never-faltering parts of your personality. You embody these qualities and they define how you interact with others. 

These are also some of the exemplary features that turn people into what we like to call good humans. And Jordan, you are just that, a good human. 

Traveling to Nicaragua with you this past winter proved it; the trip allowed me to witness true and generous offerings from the heart. You find joy both in giving and receiving from others, and have much to share of yourself.

You never shy away from an opportunity to help those in need. This is your way of demonstrating kindliness.

It is hard to imagine a better role model for any young man than you, Jordan. You are the perfect gentleman--always holding a door, waiting for all to be served before eating, gracious and sincere. You are a compassionate friend--always supportive of your peers’ endeavors and willing to listen or offer helpful advice.  You are a welcoming smile to newcomers--you accept all without judgment, and realize the opportunities newness and diversity can provide.

Being such a role model, you can only imagine the great fortune I feel knowing that you have been this to many, but most luckily for me, to my own son Nico. Thank you, Jordan for being this to him and to others. 

In listening to this speech a few years ago, and rereading it now, I think the statement that "We know our students well" is too limiting.  The truth is simply that we know each other well.  To many of us, faculty and students alike, Sparhawk is a second home.  We are growing together, sharing defining experiences that will help shape our future choices and we are building human connections that will last a lifetime.

  • community of kindness
  • kindness
  • Academic
  • Differentiators
  • experiential math
  • Hands-on learning
  • Lower School
  • progressive education
Louise Stilphen


At Sparhawk, students of all ages are given the opportunity to solve practical, real-life problems as well as those found in math books. In other words, we combine traditional skill- development and practical applications. The applications, often called “hands-on” or “experiential” learning, allow students to use and practice their emerging toolbox of skills, in context, and in ways that are intrinsically interesting and make sense to them. The result is greater enthusiasm, commitment, sustained interest and, ultimately, comprehension. This dual approach also illustrates the reason for math learning.

I have never heard a child ask why they need to learn how to read, or write.  Sometimes, however, kids ask, “Why do I have to learn math?” This is because math is hard work in a way that other academic subjects are not, and this is true even for those with math talent. Math is a new language, a foreign one in the sense that few students have much explicit experience of it before coming to school. Children, on the other hand, are immersed in language experiences even in utero. They learn vocabulary by listening as parents talk away to them and provide nouns for everything gaze or hands encounter. They observe social cues and use verbalizations to interact with others, even before they speak their native language. They literally dance the rhythms of syntax, internalizing the patterns while still very tiny.  These are the algorithms of spoken language.

On the other hand, parents don’t talk baby-math to newborns, and even if they did, it would not be “math,” per se; it would simply be words with no reference, and without reference, 2+2 or Pi squared is 9.869604401 are just pretty nonsense syllables, in other words more English, Chinese, or French. We don’t read math books to children. Not even math-talented parents do this. Yes, there are some early exceptions to this rule, but usually it is because a child is, seemingly, mysteriously endowed with some understanding from a rare brain’s organization, that is not attributed to instruction. We have had such children at Sparhawk. However, direct instruction and math immersion is rare in most families and language immersion natural.

Counting, is not math, it is memorization. One-to-one correspondence is a foundational skill that does occur naturally: One cookie for you and one for me; Let’s count the trucks on this page; but beyond that, for most children, the foreign language of math starts once they begin school. The direct parallel would be to imagine a child whose only experience in language arts, before coming to school, consisted of recitation of the alphabet. No stories. No conversation.

Math is not only a foreign language, it is an abstract, ordered, logical and convergent language that, in the earliest years, requires a connection to the real world; it needs reference to real objects. Otherwise, math is intangible and mysterious, abstract and untouchable at a time of life when much of experience and understanding is concrete rather than abstract, and in the absence of experience, meaningless. And, if one is asked to do hard work, one should discover, “What’s in it for me? Why am I learning math?” In the absence of sense-making, math can also be frightening, as we all know it is to many. To too many, in fact.

These are the reasons why experiential math activities are the foundation for our very youngest students, and as children move through early elementary grades and show developmental readiness, more time is devoted to abstract reasoning and increasingly formal instruction in the standard scope and sequence of math concepts. Number facts are memorized and students develop skill in solving mental-math challenges. The combination of traditional skill development, the tools, and enticing challenges to solve, makes for a successful and fear-less approach to math learning. Both text and touch are essential and synergistic ingredients in early math learning. 


The Learning Way: Meta-cognitive Aspects of Experiential Learning 

Hands On, Mulit-Sensory, Math Activities


  • experiential education
  • math
  • mathematics
Louise Stilphen

Explore what differentiates Sparhawk School from a traditional model in regards to group and class sizing.

We are often asked, "What makes Sparhawk School different from public school?"  There are a multitude of answers, but first, I will focus on three related factors upon which all else depends. These defining differences are: our dedication to maintaining ideal teacher-student* ratios, overall group sizes**, and student-student*** ratios. The 'right' ratios are those that assure the best support for both our students and teachers.  

Research supports the common-sense wisdom that group size, not simply ratio, is what matters most in terms of best attention for students. Small group sizes makes everything else possible. Students in a group of 20 elementary school students with two teachers simply cannot get as much emotional and academic support as a student in a group with 10 students with one teacher.  

The reason stems from the nature of human needs, and the younger the child, the more important and immediate they are. The mixing together of the various wants, abilities, interests, needs and behaviors of each of 20 personalities creates an aggregate of complexities that is greater in combination than what would exist in two groups with a 1-10 ratio each.  In a larger group, there are more distractions, in general, including visual, spatial, and auditory stimulation, and greater diversity of social challenges. If two students require attention in a classroom of 20 students, that leaves 18 children remaining with all of the aforementioned human complexities brewing. This is an overwhelming prospect for even the most experienced teacher, and even more so for a child.

This is all particularly true with younger students who have greater natural egocentricity and proper dependency on the teacher to assist them in so many ways. And, the younger the children, the greater overall diversity there will be. For example, a first-grade group may have students who do not know all of their numbers and letters and students who have been reading for a long time. What is the common ground for the teacher? In many traditional schools, it is the mid-point of the group’s abilities, or whatever state-mandated tests require be taught, no matter what the children’s statuses are. There will be children who have very little experience outside of their home and children who have traveled the world. This is where the importance of creating the ideal group in size and student-student combination comes into play.

Consider, for instance, the ability that Sparhawk has to create small, mixed-age groupings of students. This begins with the admissions process, when we select individual students not only for personal attributes that indicate age-appropriate levels of ability, motivation, and self-discipline, but also for their contribution to our community as a whole. These qualities are assessed based on day visits and, after sixth grade, also by the review of questionnaires and letters of reference from previous school personnel. Not every applicant is accepted. Public schools, on the other hand, are mandated to accept all students in its district. Students are then divided by age into groups of a certain number without regard to ability, motivation and self-discipline.  

Furthermore, at Sparhawk, we consider the whole child, not simply their academic ability, but their social and emotional ability as well when assigning groups. Where is this student going to be most successful, and what is the best grouping of peers that will help them along the way? We assign students to peer groups of others who can support one another, creating a positive student-student experience and an overall enriching habitat for all.

During the elementary school years, the foundation for future education is set. These are the formative years. Students not only develop academic skill sets, but also character traits such as self-motivation and the panoply of celebrations-of-learning that the emotional safety of small-group learning offers. 


How Important is Class Size?

For more information on group sizing and dynamics, please click here.

For more on class size reduction research, click here.

The Seven Myths of Class Size Reducation--And the Truth

*Student–teacher ratio or student–faculty ratio is the number of students who attend a school or university divided by the number of teachers in the institution. For example, a student–teacher ratio of 10:1 indicates that there are 10 students for every one teacher.

**Group size, as defined by Wikipedia: Size (the number of people involved) is an important characteristic of the groups, organizations, and communities in which social behavior occurs.  When only a few persons are interacting, adding just one more individual may make a big difference in how they relate. As an organization or community grows in size it is apt to experience tipping points where the way in which it operates needs to change. The complexity of large groupings is partly because they are made up of interrelated subgroups.

Herbert Thelen proposed a principle that for members of groups to have maximum motivation to perform, the number of members in each should be the smallest "in which it is possible to have represented at a functional level all the social and achievement skills required for the particular required activity."

***Student-student ratio; The ratio of students to one another, or what we like to call the human scale.  The larger the group the more interaction there is between students, and the younger the student the greater the challenge to negotiate the world of other children, whether for academic or social help. Lessons safely learned over time, in intimate groups, are often a challenge for teachers to provide at all, let alone individualize, and for the children to request.


  • academic
  • intellectual
  • small class size
  • student teacher ratio