How many students do you want in your child’s class?

I am a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell.  I find that his books The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw as well as his regular contributions to the New Yorker are all fascinating reading.  Gladwell has a knack for finding visionaries in interesting fields of study, and then bringing their work together to thoughtful, if not controversial, conclusions.  It’s not just the work of others that he brings to light, but his own interpretation of such work, and that I think earns him the moniker of “visionary” as well.

However, at this weekend’s Imagining Ontario’s Future conference, organized and sponsored by the Ontario Liberal Party, Gladwell, in his keynote address, said something that raised my hackles.  On the topic of education he stated, “I know that from time to time there is a lot of interest in the power and importance of reducing class size but the data shows class size is the biggest dead end in the world.”  For a synopsis of his address, see this article from the Toronto Star.  Now I know that this isn’t a new idea from Gladwell.  He came to this conclusion in his article Most Likely to Succeed (New Yorker, Dec 15 2008).  Gladwell, of course, is basing his conclusion on data, fair enough, but having taught for over 10 years in a high school, I know first hand that you cannot dismiss the effect of class size so easily.

The point that Gladwell makes is that the effectiveness of an individual teacher has a much greater effect on student learning than does class size.  I will not argue with that.  But how does one find the “right” people to become teachers and how do you train them properly and keep them effective?  Gladwell struggles to explain this and offers more questions than answers.  I agree with him; I believe that we need to keep searching for ways to allow teachers to become more effective.  In the meantime, however, reducing class sizes may have less of an impact, but it does have an effect.  We must decide on an optimal class size and enforce it.

I’m not advocating for tiny class sizes.  One year — I don’t know how this happened, some quirk of time-tabling I suppose — I taught a class of ten grade 12 advanced English students.  This was less than one third of my normal-sized classes of 30+.  I was surprised at how what a terrible experience it was, for me and my students.  It was as if some critical mass had failed and the dynamics of the class seemed to falter.

If I were the king of the world, what class size would gain my royal approval?  Hmmm, 20 . . . maybe 22 at maximum.

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