Have you read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest work David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants? He is very talented at making interesting connections that most of us miss, and writing about them in an engaging way. This book is more of the same, including a chapter on when small classroom sizes may do more harm than good. I was quite interested in reading his analysis because Trevor had 25 kids in his class last year, and at his new school he is in a class of 10!
Gladwell first lays a foundation for his argument by discussing the relationship between parenting and wealth. At a certain point, having a lot of money makes parenting more difficult. One very wealthy guy he interviews concludes:
My own instinct is that it’s much harder than anybody believes to bring up kids in a wealthy environment. People are ruined by challenged economic lives. But they’re ruined by wealth as well because they lose their sense of self-worth. It’s difficult at both ends of the spectrum. There’s some place in the middle which probably works best of all (p. 47).
Interesting stuff! Gladwell then suggests that the relationship between parenting and wealth is not linear, but instead an inverted curve. When parents reach a certain level of wealth, money makes parenting more challenging. Likewise, when classroom size gets too small, he believes it also follows an inverted curve. His evidence includes studies that show little difference in outcomes between different class sizes, and anecdotal cases from teachers. He adds to this that the primary reason outcomes do not improve when class size is lower is because teachers don’t change how they teach. They do the same things as in larger classes, just less! Also, with large classes teachers manage the number of interactions between students, whereas in smaller classes, the emphasis is more on the intensity of the interactions.
As a parent who has spent way too much time on this topic, visiting countless schools, studying the literature, ringing up the nation’s top researchers and asking them point blank about the issue of classroom size, I believe good-old Malcolm is missing a few things in his analysis.
Two of the strongest predictors of a good education are small classroom sizes and teachers that know how to teach. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. Malcolm focuses on classroom size without factoring in quality of teaching, so his inverted curve likely proves true in some situations. But if competent teachers are factored in, not so much. And there are many other variables that have been shown to impact education, so making definitive conclusions about classroom size is really very hard.
As a parent I want both a small class and a great teacher (or teachers), and presently we are fortunate to have both. While many parents care most about grades specific to reading, writing, and arithmetic, I am more interested in teachers that know how to facilitate the emotional development of my son. Because his ability to manage his emotions, particularly in all sorts of relationships, predicts success in the world far more than his ability to add two numbers! Don’t get me wrong, I want him to learn the basics, it’s just that they are not as important as most people think. Which gets us back to the classroom size debate. If your metric for measuring outcomes is academics, then some studies will likely show no difference. But if your metric is measuring emotional development, then you simply cannot beat the combination of an amazing teaching and a small class.
All that to say that our kids need to learn to flow like the Savegre River! They need to learn flexibility with their emotions, with each other, and with the ups and downs of life. If you read Gladwell’s latest book, enjoy his stories, but be weary of some of his conclusions.