About Dunbar’s Number and Quality Education

Recently I came across a concept known as Dunbar’s Number that really resonated with me, having just started the school year.

The idea is that based on the size of the human neocortex, there is a limit to the number of people we can “know” at any given time. To know, in this case, means to have a social relationship with, to know not just their name and face, but who they are as a person and how they relate to others. It’s a limit imposed by the brain on the size of our social circles, and estimates (because this is certainly not an exact science) place it somewhere between 100 and 230 people. The most commonly cited number is 150 people.

While this is certainly interesting in its own right when compared to the numbers of “friends” that many people have on sites such as facebook, it really hit home for me when I got my class rosters for the first time last week.

Teaching six classes, each of them at the maximum capacity allowed by law in my city, I see over 200 students every single day.

That’s not just 200 names I need to memorize and papers I need to grade, but two-hundred young individuals with different wants and goals and in the classroom. Two-hundred kids who want and need and deserve to be more than just a name on an attendance sheet.

According to Dunbar’s theories and research, no matter how hard I want to or how hard I try, I can never truly relate with all of my students at a personal level. There are just too many of them. What is so bad about this is that it is precisely that kind of connection that leads to the greatest insight, learning, and growth in students.

Think back to your favorite teachers when you were a student. Were they the ones who didn’t know your name, or the ones who knew and cared what you were doing outside of school? Sure that still happens with plenty of teachers and students, but I think there’s something fundamentally flawed with a schooling system where this physically cannot happen between every student and every teacher.

Teaching isn’t—or shouldn’t—just be about getting through the curriculum. We’re not there just as knowledge dispensers, living encyclopedias. But even if we were, being able to tailor the material and curriculum to the specific needs, interests, and personal histories of our students guarantees that they will learn more and have a better understanding of the material.

I realize that overcrowding in the classroom is a problem precisely because there are too many students and not enough teachers, and I realize there is no simple way to fix this (although affording teachers the respect and professional stature they deserve in an attempt to convince the next generation that teaching is, in fact, a career worth pursuing would certainly be a good start), but I think it needs to be said yet again that the current system is unfair to both the teachers and students who are trapped within it.

It is an unfair expectation that teacher be able to know and interact at the personal level with two-hundred people every day (maybe as many as two-hundred-and-fifty once you include co-workers and other school staff), to place on them such a heavy load and still expect the results and excellence that came from a time when teachers had half as many students to engage and entertain.

But more importantly, it is unfair to the students who must fight for the attention of their teachers, struggling to be known as something more than just a name on a slip of paper. It is unfair to ask them to succeed and excel when their teachers do not have enough time in the day to sit with them as individuals and discuss their personal educations. To me, this is one of the greatest shames of the American education system.

All that said, I love my job and would not give it up for anything, and despite the overwhelming odds I will continue trying to make my classroom a place where all students can be known and all voices heard. Because for now, that’s all we can really do.

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About Schools and Being Educated

As the holiday weekend comes to a close, the day that millions across the country dread silently approaches. That’s right. For many, the first day of school approacheth.

The undeniable fact is that far more students dislike school than enjoy it. This is more than just about any fact or statistic depresses me to no end. It shouldn’t be this way. There is no one party responsible for this—neither the ungrateful students nor restrictive schools are entirely to blame. Both sides share responsibility, and both must make concessions to fix this.

First, let’s address the schools.

The concept of fairness and equality in education is a great and noble goal. Unfortunately, the practices associated with that principle often fall far short of their goals. Many policy makers mistake “the same quality of education for all,” with “the same education for all,” which has disastrous effects for everyone involved. This where restrictive and inflexible curricula and standards that favor rote memorization over true and fundamental understanding come from.

Standardization is one of the worst things to happen to education, for the simple reason that only measurable artifacts can be standardized. But learning and understanding often can’t be quantized across a large and diverse population. In today’s environment, schools and teachers are implicitly instructed to favor the product over the process simply because products are easier to measure.

But in education, the process is all that matters.

Especially in the increasingly digital world we live in today, the memorization and regurgitation of facts is becoming an antiquated skill. While I would prefer that students be able to recite from memory Newton’s Second Law or the date Magna Carta was signed (F=ma and 1215, in case you were wondering), today it’s so easy to look things like that up on smart phones that there seems to be no point in even bothering to memorize them. I’ll address the issues with that later, but it’s certain that no one’s life or career will ever depend on their ability to recite trivia from memory any more, if at all they ever did.

Schools should focus not on how much students can memorize, but on how well they can use the resources presented to them. School should be a place for the enrichment of thought and cultivation of understanding, not a place to sit for hours on end and have facts jammed into your head.

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The rigid structures of the school day, the emphasis on shallow assessments, and the passive way in which all too many students are taught to learn are slowly but surely killing education. If we want to thrive as a country and as a culture, they need to change. That said, there’s no simple solution to this problem, no matter which politicians or policy-makers say otherwise.

Now for the students.

You don’t know how lucky you are. That’s not your fault, and I certainly didn’t when I was your age. Given the way things are now, it seems impossible that a little over a hundred years ago there was no mandatory education.

If you go to school, I don’t care what happens in the rest of your life you are privileged. Less than 1% of the human population has ever had access to the kind of education at your fingertips every day. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, but think about that for a bit. For most of human history, the opportunity to sit in a classroom and do nothing but learn was restricted to only the wealthiest and highest born children. That’s how far we’ve come.

You are privileged because you’re not forced to spend every minute of every day struggling to support yourself and have enough food to make it through the day. Even if you work part-time jobs, the fact remains that five days a week you are given a time and place in which to only think about exploring the world around you and discovering yourself.

Because that’s your primary job as a student. As you are now you’re incomplete. Take the time during the school week to figure out who you are and what you want. Learn to write, learn to think, learn to explore and be self-sufficient.

Yes tests can be tedious and frightening, and sure the rules and regulations can seem restrictive and counterproductive, but that will always be the case, even after you’ve graduated and moved on. Now is your chance to learn how to deal with that pressure while being free from the many responsibilities that will saddle you when you’re older.

If you find yourself wondering when exactly you’ll use the things you’re learning in school, maybe you never will. That doesn’t detract from the value of having learned them. A secondary education is more about learning how to learn than about the particular facts and formulae you end up learning. You’re learning skills, practicing on what might be trivia so that later you can use them on things that will be more directly relevant to your life.

And never forget that your education isn’t free, even if you attend public school. We, the adults of your community, pay through taxes for you to receive the best education possible. This isn’t charity, and it’s not for your benefit. It’s for ours. We are investing in your education so that you can go on to do great things that will make our lives better and longer in the future. We pay for you to be educated so that you can cure the diseases that would otherwise kill us as we age, or clean up the disaster we’ve made of the planet so we don’t choke to death on all the smog, or even so you can invent the device that heats up butter just enough to make it spreadable but not enough to melt it.

No matter who we are, there will inevitably come a day when we need you, and for that reason we want you to be as prepared as possible for when that day comes. Remember that the next time you’re debating the value of the things you’re learning in school.

By all means enjoy yourselves, but also take full advantage of this time in your life where your major responsibility is to learn and grow and develop as a human being. Trust me, it won’t last nearly as long as you think it will.