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Jeffrey Itell

Having not seen the data set, I can only speculate about the relationship of class size to learning. Perhaps the relationship isn't linear but rather there's a threshold class size that makes a difference. In other words, speculatively, once class size exceeds ten kids it doesn't matter how many kids are crowded into the room. Just a thought.


A rather mundane example. In a former life I worked for several years as an IT help desk tech guy in an academic setting. I worked with several students of different backgrounds. One trend we noticed was that the techs who seemed to come from more affluent backgrounds hit a wall when solving certain kinds of problems that maybe hinged on some oddball piece of technical knowledge.

My theory to explain this was that technology enthusiasts of more modest means have an incentive to tweak and tune their computers to solve problems and get the last bit of performance. They learn what all of the little settings and features do. Those with more resources don't have this problem--they can just buy or upgrade their stuff when needed, without developing the technical chops.

This is a generalization to be sure, but it jives with my own experience.


I've been thinking about that today, after reading NY Mag's profile.

Yes, some learn to be more self-reliant. Competition can be an extra incentive to do better. You want to stand out, or you see someone else getting attention or high marks, and you feel you can beat him.

Your marks improve, students compare marks, you get a reputation for being smart. People ask for help. You explain how or why, and by explaining you improve your understanding. Suddenly you've got an even bigger advantage over your classmates.

Girls also tended to get better marks in most classes, maths and sciences excepted. Not because of innate issues, but social ones. Working in the tech field, it's easy to see why it's dominated by men, and why there are very few brilliant female programmers. Again, not innate but social issues. Women *can* do it, but they sabotage their potential.


I have a son who became deaf at an early age. At first it was mild but then it progressed and became nearly total by the time he was eight. When he was twelve he had a cochlear implant and now is in his Junior year at Duke.

He has always been mainstreamed, but with lots of tutoring to help with his speech. He became adept at reading lips without formal training, and no doubt drew on other abilities to help him 'figure out what was going on around him.'

He always did very well in school, and no doubt that's because he's pretty smart. But, more than being smart, he is extremely focused. When he settles on a task he pursues it without distraction. And when he was annoyed by people talking around him he would often turn off his hearing aid (or his cochlear implant). Being deaf can have advantages too, ones that are not readily understood. People who aren't handicapped tend to focus more on the handicap and not the hidden advantages that go with it.

When my son was 8 I was telling him about a famous New Orleans Saints field goal kicker who made the record 63 yd field goal. My son, an avid sport fan, had already heard about the locally famous event. I mentioned to him that the kicker, Tom Dempsey, was handicapped because he only had part of his kicking foot. My son was puzzled by this and asked me what the word 'handicapped' meant. I told him that some people are blind or deaf and those are examples of being handicapped.

He looked at me (with two large hearing aids clasped to each ear) and said, "my friend Shelby thinks I'm handicapped." I started to feel bad for him, but then he brightened up and said "but that's just because I say 'what' a lot."

Nick Davis

Great article. It dovetails well as the sociological counterpart to Sharon Moalem's "Survival of the Sickest".


Attention Deficit Disorder is like this: http://www.mental-health-matters.com/articles/article.php?artID=836

Bill Mill

bethat should be "be that"

Benjamin Jacobson

I'm a teacher and believe me when I say that I would love to have smaller class sizes. I currently teach 34 at the middle school level.

A possible reason for the discrepancy noted is that teachers are not changing their techniques to meet the needs of a smaller class. In fact if these statistics are at all relevant then the teaching method must have been held in place as a control. The real advantage of smaller classes is the ability to alter the method of instruction, to let individuals discover the information instead of having it drilled into their heads through rote memorization techniques. A teacher who has a smaller class, but executes the same lessons is missing a great opportunity.

However, in my school class sizes tend to fluctuate wildly from year to year (it's semi-rural), so a teacher is never given the time to adjust lessons to a smaller class and most instead pick lessons that facilitate the most students. A guarantee of smaller class sizes would allow for teachers to develop lessons that took advantage of the situation.

I don't want to ramble on much longer, but suffice to say that the latest trends in education tend to encourage inquiry based, constructivist methods that are best implemented in a small classes.

Åsa Stenström

I have had daily migraine for 30 years. Nowadays I can almost work full weeks with the help of treatments and medication, BUT I have to do it in my way. That includes the ”waking-up-procedure”. I often wake up very early because of my migraine. I go up, take medication and then I have to do something that takes the focus from my migraine. I can't go back to sleep while it's still aching. So, what do I do? I spend a lot of time on the internet. I read books. And it turns out that I am a very wellinformed person! That's good!

If I was more healthy, I would know less. Knowledge about several things is good when you work with information and marketing like I do.

I run my own company. I see a lot of people who have very heavy workloads. Of course there are times when my workload is bigger as well, BUT because of my migraine, I have a "built-in-limit" for how much I can do and I think that I might be more effective when I work, because I never know how for how long I will be able to keep working.

Matthew S.

As an educator, I've swallowed the Kool-Aid that the magic number for class sizes is less than 20. This is backed up by my (scant, less than two years) experience. For example: http://www.ed.gov/pubs/ReducingClass/Class_size.html

The whole issue of comparing educational systems has so many confounding variables as to be unmanageable. Different populations, different curricula, and different cultures unsurprisingly lead to different results. Somehow, we want American schools to be all things to all students, and also, to lead the way in educating the future trailblazers in all disciplines and vocations. This is an impossible goal.

How, exactly, do we find more Sidney Weinbergs? P.S. 13 had only one, while Yale has hundreds of Waddill Catchingses. And, is one Sidney Wienberg worth the disproportional numbers of dyslexic prisoners? Educational laws in America have emphasized helping the many over the few, and assisting the bottom over pushing the top (it's "No Child Left Behind," not "Our Children Will Lead the Way"). For some reason, we seem to think that by pushing the bottom, we push the top as well. Instead, I fear that we're just narrowing the curve.


Consider O.J. Simpson. I quote from Wikipedia: "As a child, Simpson contracted rickets and wore braces on his legs until the age of five." And yet put himself on the short list of all-time great running backs.

John M.

I know that when I got into high school and started to study subjects that required abstract understanding like chemistry and math, the only way I was able to do the work was to combine with other students in a group to talk about it. If I cold explain it to another student, or have it explained to me, I understood it far better than if a teacher just recited it to me.

Steve Portigal

The butler story is echoed in this bit about Obama being mistaken for a waiter



Again turning what we think as common-sense on its head and now I have to go think about this.

Dr. Delaney Kirk

I have had classes that were too small (the students became self-conscious and I couldn't get much class discussion) AND too large (I couldn't do the same experiential exercises; team presentations took up too much class time or the teams had to be too large; the students didn't feel a personal connection). Would be interesting to know what the JUST RIGHT number is...

Larry Benz

I am not really sure this is altogether different concept that has been highlighted in your previous work cited in the War on Talent where IQ fails in comparison to tacit knowledge. Dweck's Mindset does wonderful job of providing the framework behind this which is simply how one views knowledge-either as fixed or malleable. Perhaps dyslexics and those who "climb" themselves to the top have a greater propensity for a malleable mindset.

Jeffrey Blout

Like Ernie above, I’ve experienced, secondhand, the advantage/disadvantage dynamic of living with a loved one who is deaf. My father was born with a significant hearing deficit - doctors estimated about 80%. Growing up during a time when deafness was often viewed as a shameful handicap - similar to a mental disorder - my father never learned to sign and had a difficult time even admitting that he was hard of hearing to people such as waiters or cashiers. In many ways, he was denied his deafness.

Although my dad has always worn hearing aides and read lips like a master, we were forced to raise our voices in order to be heard making it nearly impossible to express tenderness with the volume always turned up so loud.

Over time, my father’s deafness has grown steadily worse, but while we were shouting an amazing thing was evolving beneath the conscious plane; we were creating our own non-verbal shorthand based on gestures, expressions and knowledge of one another.

My professional and social life has been enriched by my experiences in communicating with my father. I’ve had several deaf co-workers who have complimented me on my ability to make myself understood through enunciation and by demonstrating an economy of physical cues. Sometimes, you can say more with less.

Incidently, my father ran two businesses before his retirement several years ago. I believe it is fair to speculate that he drove himself to succeed and provide for our family out of his innate sense of duty, but just as important was his drive to overcome his handicap. He has always considered himself the underdog. It is possible that he over-achieved because the messages he was receiving told him he would fail.

I’m clearing my reading docket looking forward to next week’s release of Outliers.

simon Patfield

Smaller class sizes means hiring more teachers, so that lowers the average quality of teaching. Might that be a factor?

ML Harris

An outside the box solution to the problem of class size and education quality:
Perhaps the teachers are active problems in the academic development of children. Considering what we know about kids, inquiry based learning, growth and fixed mindsets, and the like, perhaps our notion of what is useful behavior for a teacher is completely out of whack with what is actually useful behavior. And that as class sizes grow, perhaps the teacher, with attention stretched, moves to modes of teaching that are actually more effective and leaves the "personal touch" pieces (that may be less than useful) for kids in richer school districts.

*Full disclosure: I did my MBA at a small class size school, but did my BS and my high school at large institution.


Malcolm, first, I can't wait for the book to come out.

Second, I had a question on the article: you talked about how Mr. Weinberg's stories were often myths that helped him in gain favor. However, you seemed to take on faith today's business leaders' tales of their own learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia, ADD). I wonder if those stories aren't, in fact, also myths used by business leaders to gain favor as well?



Neither of my parents grew up with much, and then they built a successful business. After some tumultuous times the business was closed and we went from having some to having less than enough. Overall my childhood changed some, but not dramatically. We moved to a smaller house, we didn't go out to eat much, and when we did it was places like Subway. We didn't go on vacations and when we did it was in the car and we stayed with family, nothing extravagant.

The lack of money was evident and if my brother, sister or I wanted something it was on us to get a job and buy it ourselves. Interestingly college was not something seen as "optional" in our household, but my parents didn't have a lot to contribute. All three of us ended up getting through school (two with honors, one just missed it) and we're all reasonably "successful" at this point.

The reality of the "loss" of our financial stability was something I thought always contributed to the betterment of us as a family, and my siblings and I as children, your article sums that up perfectly. The desire to have what “they” have, but not necessarily become one of “them”.

I'll never forget in college I was riding to another town for the weekend with two fellow students. Both of their dads were rich and they had more than they'd ever need, as did the kids. I told them when my parents company went under it was the best thing that ever happened to me because it taught me what a dollar meant and that they should be so lucky. They both looked at me like I just insulted their mother and never heard a word in our discussion that followed. If only they could read this article now and understand…


Really, Mal? Overcoming disadvantages may make a few individual excel, armed with skills that the privileged don't possess. But their success is a statistical outlier that the powerful can use to preach that "hard work is all you need to succeed" and that the playing field really is level after all.

Some small number of seeds sown in the desert or the tundra will sprout, but the vast majority will die.

"The man who boasts of walking seven miles to school, barefoot, every morning, happily drives his own grandchildren ten blocks in an S.U.V."

Doesn't this anecdote support the point that those who experience disadvantages know that, on aggregate, they impair performance?

Your comment re: school performance in Japan and Korea is truly baffling. Parental involvement in education in J&K is FAR higher than here. In the US, children spend more time with their parents than with all their teachers. Much of that "parenting" time is spent watching TV, to the tune of 6+ hours/day.

Furthermore, J&K use a 12 month school year and a longer school day. Add on cram classes and Saturday school and students see their teachers more frequently than their parents. Try adjusting your figures for teacher-hours/pupil and see what the result is.

I have attached my comment from earlier this year re: your article on Myrhvold's "IP-litigation-extortion" startup. I expected you to issue a correction or clarification because taking the word of a convicted IP monopolist at face value is not honest journalism.

"Myhrvold's company, Microsoft, was convicted of anti-competitive practices concerning intellectual property for actions taken when he was their Chief Technical Officer and 3rd in command. It's an interesting choice to use him as your primary source on an article concerning intellectual property.

What his new company does is generally known as patent trolling. It exploits our broken patent system and inhibits innovation. You should not be able to get a patent on an "invention" without a working prototype. A concept and a drawing is not enough, no matter how many high-priced lawyers you have. Brainstorming ideas is fine, but it occurs in every graduate school and company in the world. The differences between Myhrvold and Bell or Myhrvold and Kelvin could not be greater.

Furthermore, Myhrvold's attitude and character are well illustrated by his quote: “People in biology and medicine don’t do arithmetic.” That is simply ridiculous and shows a profound lack of understanding. Quantitative data and statistical analysis are the foundation of biology and medicine."


loved the article - but can you really draw conclusions based on one underprivileged man's success?


One additional thought on teacher/student ratios. I recall research that indicated that the most significant variable in teaching results was the teacher. Is it possible that a truly outstanding teacher will engender exception results as a tutor, in a class of 10, 20 or 35, while a less-gifted teacher will produce the opposite? If so, juggling class size will not produce any sizable change in outcomes. Recruiting and retaining and rewarding exceptional teachers will. (And smaller class size may make teachers much more content with their jobs, even if it can't be shown to improve results.)


Well, Oliver Sacks and other neurologists have provided a fair amount of anectodotal evidence about intellectual "handicaps" (either present at birth or due to acquired brain trauma) which promote the emergence of intellectual "gifts."
Neuroplasticity researchers argue these come about as the brain compensates and develops new pathways/modes of being.

(This doesn't always happen and the whys of this important question have never been explained.)

I look forward to reading the book.

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  • I'm a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of four books, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference", "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" and "Outliers: The Story of Success." My latest book, "What the Dog Saw" is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. I was born in England, and raised in southwestern Ontario in Canada. Now I live in New York City.

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