Solving the Public School Numbers Problem

British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, based on research he conducted first on baboons, has posited that the maximum cognitive load we advanced primates can handle comes when we hit somewhere between one hundred and two hundred fifty relationships. One hundred fifty is the number many researchers use as an average number of relationships we can maintain in a social tribe if we want unity, coherence, and common purpose. Beyond that, we lose the social coherence required to maintain meaningful social norms.

In a typical middle or high school, teachers will teach many different classes; typically five. As a result, the number of student contacts a typical public middle or high school teacher will have is likely in the neighborhood of one hundred fifty.

Our schools have a perfect student to teacher ratio then, right? We fit the number of student contacts for teachers right at the average cognitive load that they can handle. Wrong. Teachers also interact with other teachers, administrators, and parents. Oh, and then there are their private lives. One hundred fifty students is just too many to handle with all that we expect of our teachers. Relationships are at the core of the learning dynamic. Even the most gifted of teachers struggles to know one hundred fifty students in a way that makes each of them feel safe and connected enough to learn.

Schools have tried a number of different things to make school feel smaller and to personalize the learning experience for students. Schools within schools, personalized learning communities, online courses, and advisory groups are a few examples of ways that schools can weave the social web of the student tighter within the economic constraints of the system. None of them have demonstrated a significant impact on accelerating student learning.

There is one abundant resource that nearly all schools overlook when attempting to solve the numbers problem; the students themselves. Maria Montessori acknowledged the significant role that peers play in shaping the world of the young learner. Consequently, the Montessori method of education employs peers in an increasingly significant way as learners grow. Universities employ graduate students to decrease the ratio of learners to experts. The military has a hierarchical system of short term promotion based on merit with which a strict adherence to method and action can be upheld. Large families naturally employ older siblings in caring for and instructing younger siblings. It is the nature of human social groups that every person is both learner and teacher.

Research I conducted with J Bryan Henderson, then graduate student at Stanford University, now professor at ASU, in 2010 demonstrated that a structured Peer Instruction protocol could have significant short term gains on student understanding of science concepts. Students learned more from the process of discussing and testing ideas with each other, than they did being taught directly by the teacher.

Young people can do far more than we expect them to. We seem to have figured out how to academically challenge young people with Advanced Placement classes, International Baccalaureate programs, Cambridge Assessments, and the like. We are also quite good at developing athletes who compete at a very high level. Where we fail to challenge young learners is in the realm of the social.

Effectively utilizing the student human resource in roles of leadership and instruction would be a major paradigm shift. Poorly handled peer grading, and mismanaged group work are part of everyone’s schooling experience and serve to undermine the argument that young people are capable of both teaching and leading. In most cases, it is likely not the young people themselves who fail in ad hoc peer learning experiences. Rather, it is a failure of a successful supportive structure, and a lack of an empowering school culture.

Sports teams, summer camps, scouting organizations, even student governments within schools all successfully employ young people in leadership roles that bring deeper meaning to the experience within the organization. Perhaps it is time we better utilize the most abundant teaching and leadership resource we have in our schools for classroom practice as well – the students themselves.

Photo credit: “Friends” by Alexis Brown CC Zero


About Jack West

Teacher, team member, father, neighbor.

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