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Posted: Sep 9, 2005 16:14


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By: Lon Woodbury

Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestselling book THE TIPPING POINT, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, makes a fascinating point in relation to the magic number of one hundred and fifty. He explains that the average human brain can only handle a maximum of 150 genuine social relationships. For example, while reviewing hunter-gatherer societies, he found the average number of people in their villages was a little less than 150. When the group grew larger than that, the members tended to split into two smaller groups to keep the number of each group below 150, which is within the range of human ability to form complex social relationships with each member of the group. He also asserts that in the military, the largest military unit that can function effectively without a rigid hierarchy and numerous rules is less than 200. Any group that consists of more than that number becomes unwieldy and functions only through a system of more or less arbitrary rules. However, a group of 150 or less has the potential of functioning very effectively in an informal manner. Everybody in the group has some type of ongoing relationship with every other member, even if only as an acquaintance, thus allowing a group consensus to develop.

This presents fascinating implications for education and schools. In the network of Emotional Growth/Therapeutic Schools and Programs, small schools and programs have traditionally been favored because one of the most important goals is to teach students how to develop healthy relationships. Professionals in the network usually see a school of 200 or more students as a very large and unwieldy school. When a school approaches a size of 200 or more, it becomes much more difficult to successfully help kids, which appears to be a lesson those directing the schools and programs have learned through trial and error.

It appears that with groups of 150 or less struggling teens, it is easier for everybody in the group to know everybody else. However, when the group becomes larger, some become strangers to each other and the group as a whole becomes dysfunctional. In a larger school, sub-groups, often called cliques, form and become relatively independent, thus they begin competing with each other. In a small school, a student "underground" can be exposed and dealt with by a competent and sensitive staff, but dealing with it in a larger school requires the staff to control every aspect of the students' lives, which is rather draconian and suffocating.

As an aside, this perhaps explains some of the problems of large public high schools, some of which reach the size of 3,000 or more students. A student attending one of these huge public schools will have a few close friends, approximately the size of a family of fewer than 20, a larger group of acquaintances, perhaps up to 150, and a huge number of total strangers. When schools were consolidated to take advantage of economies of scale, starting in the 1950s, the implications of how humans function in large groupings as opposed to small groupings was totally overlooked. A student in a small school is more likely to feel like part of a community, while a student in a huge school will look elsewhere for a place to belong. Students who don't have a family they feel accepted by will look elsewhere, sometimes to peers and sometimes gangs will make them feel as if they belong.

Most school and program heads in the Emotional Growth/Therapeutic Boarding School network intuitively realize that the size of the school has a very strong influence on what kind of school they will have in order to be successful. When working with struggling teens, most stay away from anything over 150 students. They range from smaller programs of under 20, which provide intimacy and universally close relationships to those approaching 150, where students have a larger variety of acquaintance relationships. Often, the size of the school depends simply on the intuitive preferences of the school head.

For the parent choosing a school for their child, the size of a school is a very important consideration. If their child has great difficulty in developing any kind of relationships, perhaps a small school that forces the child to develop relationships with all the students and staff would be best. However, if a child has a lot of relationships, some good and some bad, a larger school might fit his/her needs better.

As the author Gladwell points out, some numbers are very important where a slight increase will create radical changes based on the human brain's inherent abilities. This concept of the size of schools and how different sizes apply to schools and programs for struggling teens would be a fascinating study. Perhaps somebody will do a dissertation someday to further flesh out exactly how the various sizes of schools influences how a school should be managed and what size is best for different behavior/emotional problems.

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