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goethe girl

Something to add to your mix, from my experience in academia (I am a Goethe scholar): the children of really successful scholars are often meager in their intellectual abilities.


Bicycles and bicyclists are a great example of the advantages of liminal existence. I wrote about it very briefly, but I think about it all the time:



I'm a high school teacher and my smallest class has 9 students while my largest class has 29 students.

My 9 students are all low-achieving students, and 5 of the 9 have ADHD or learning disabilities. They are the most difficult group for me to work with because they spend much of their time distracting each other and feeding off each others' behavior issues. I firmly believe that if you split that class up and those kids were in different classrooms with 20+ kids, most of whom were paying attention and were focused on learning, they would be better off.

My class of 29 honors students, btw, could be taught by a trained chimpanzee.

My point here is that class size, while relevant, has no guaranteed positive or negative impact on a particular class, save one detail. I have just over 100 total students, which means that if I assign all of them 5 page papers I have 500 pages to correct. The more students that I have, the greater disincentive I have to assign truly significant assignments.

I get around this problem myself by treating my HS students more like college students and assigning them fewer, but much more significant, assignments per term than many other teachers. Many of my colleagues feel that they are supposed to give HW every night that it will be collected, which means it must be more like busy work because they won't have time to grade things that are significant.

Why do my colleagues feel that they must do this? Because American parents throw a fit if you don't give their kids lots of easy HW to offset their failures on tests. I wish I was kidding. In my school we recently had a math teacher who was disciplined by the administration because parents complained that she was only grading the students on tests and quizzes not on their nightly HW.

So, back to class size. Why are we obsessed with class size? Simple economics my friends. Smaller classes equals more teachers and our unions' are all about making sure that there are more of us, even if that means pretending that class size is proven to be a crucial element of education.

If we teachers and our unions really wanted to improve education we would do away with summer vacation, start high school later in the morning and end it later (teen brains are not ready to learn at 7 am, now THAT is a proven fact) and we would stop dividing kids into "smart" and "not smart" classes and start telling them that intelligence is malleable.

Like an earlier post pointed out, what makes a guy like Sidney Weinberg special is that he doesn't believe intelligence is innate and so when he runs into a problem, he figures out how to get "smarter" and fix it. The Yale graduates tend to think they inherited their intelligence (which to a degree is true) so when they run into problems they can't solve, they figure they have reached their limits. If Weinberg thought his abilities were inherited he never would have walked into the Goldman Sachs building in the first place.

We educators know this, so why do we put kids into "tracks" and tell them that they are "above average" or "average" or worse? Because it makes our job easier. We can teach the honors kids the "hard stuff" and be confident that they will "get it" and we can teach the "lesser" kids the "easy stuff" and not have to give them bad grades. This way, everyone is a winner!

Again, American parents hate to see their kids get bad grades and thanks to their propensity to complain to the teachers and administrators about them, American teachers have learned the best ways to make sure everyone has a chance to get a good grade.

Richard Branson and the other CEO's mentioned did not become successful because they dropped down to lower class levels with easier work. They became successful by dropping out and applying the skills they did have to fields in which they were useful.

That, of course, is the other element of American education that is lacking. We are trying to cram a bunch of square pegs into round holes. Not all of our kids should be preparing for college, many in fact should be preparing for jobs, but they are not. We now have three tracks at our school; honors, college prep I and college prep II. So, if you are keeping score at home, we are expecting 100% of our graduates to be prepared for college.

In Europe and the Far East they are not trying to get every kid into college. Early on they are identifying who has the basic skills to head in that direction. Those who do not are being taught job skills, not forced to languish in classrooms that are not preparing them for the lives they are going to lead. Those 100 kids in the Chinese classroom would all be "honors" students in an American school. Remember that trained chimpanzee that could teach my 29 honors students? Give him a few monkey teaching assistants and I think they could teach those 100 kids.

(I know I seem to have contradicted myself here by saying that we should not label kids as "smart" and "not smart" and then later saying that some kids are not meant for college. I am not contradicting myself though. It is an American bias to think that being good at reading and writing means you are smart. There are many kinds of intelligence, sadly our schools are only focused on one or two of them, the ones that get people into college)


Have you considered the similarity of this theory to the theory of Michael Porter (Harvard Biz School) on the Comparative Advantage of Nations? Traditional economic theory says that regions and countries prosper if they focus on what they are better at than other regions or countries (their comparative advantages). Porter argued, contrari-wise, that they prosper if they seek to overcome their comparative dis-advantages. Thus, for example, it was an Australian who invented refrigeration, since the distance of the nation from the developed country markets put food exporters at a disadvantage. Likewise, the country still punches above its weight in telecommunications. Porter's books have many more examples.

Leo Kremer

Great stuff once again!

Perhaps another component of adversity-driven success is that adversity creates a strong desire to gain the respect of others, or prove their disrespect wrong.

In the sports world, teams often rally around the idea that "nobody believes in us." Even teams that are universally considered to be elite will try and convince themselves that their accomplishments are being overlooked or taken for granted by other teams and the media. Any published disrespect becomes bulletin board material.

As an individual example, Michael Jordan would frequently create perceived slights against himself in order to become more motivated (One imagines that he had particular difficulty casting himself in the role of underdog).

I wonder if Sidney Weinberg also engaged in this kind of self-talk?


Learning is a cumulative process. The more you know the easier it is to learn more. It's like bootstrapping a computer. When you bootstrap a student, it takes more feedback. When you bootstrap a student, you are teaching the skills they will use to learn.

Once they learn those skills, they need to be self directed. So in later years, class size becomes less relevant if that is the case. That studies don't show that doesn't mean that it is so.

Educators do research that is redundant to things that workplace trainers and others already know. Instead of looking at information design research, education researchers design their own studies and end up with the same results.


In terms of the use of adversity, consider what no child left behind does to emotionally disturbed and children who lack the necessary IQ who still need to grow up to be functioning adults. If they do no pass the same tests as other kids, the programs are closed and the kids distributed to the schools where no services are offered, and no exceptions made. As a result those schools are then subject to being closed due to these non-performing segments.

No child left behind is not working for children with learning disabilities. It is working, however, for those that want to get rid of public education all together. They want to get rid of it to fractionalize and gain control.


having spent a bit of time rumbling in the echos of education my conclusion is that teachers and their policy writers are the weak link in a number of ways. amongst these - too controlling / regimented / compartmentalising and too quick to cut off genuine learning as its messy and unpredictable. possibly better results linked to increased participation/ ideas, conversation etc flow in larger classes? inter-student encouragement and respect for gen learning? my exp in NA, uk and germany, not asia.

Earl H. Kinmonth

You write

This might also explain why the highest achieving schools--those in places like Japan and Korea--tend to have much larger classes than in the United States.

In both Japan and Korea children receive a large amount of supplementary instruction outside school hours. This supplementary instruction is typically in small, even one on one classes. Children who receive this supplementary instruction do much better on standardized tests than those who do not. This difference is, moreover, increasing.

Tokyo, Japan


I think this is an interesting concept. I was recently diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder but I was hesitant to take the medicine because for so long my anxiety has actually helped me perform at the top of my class. I've been taking the medicine now for awhile and I feel like in a way I've lost some of the motivation that would push me to succeed in the past.

I've heard a similar story from my brother who has ADHD. He stopped taking his medicine about a month ago because he said he missed having the bouts of energy that allowed him to perform (he enjoys acting and he's very active in his high school theater program) and the creativity he would have as a result of having ADHD.

I definitely think that ADHD, GAD, and other so called "behavioral disorders" are simply a way for doctors and others to describe behaviors that our society identifies as being maladaptive or socially aberrant. Is it really necessary to place value judgments on them and say that they are "bad"? I hope your books will address some of these ideas.

Chad May

I am a Principal. I previously taught in a struggling rural environment where class sizes were from 33-36 per class. Now, in an affluent suburb I observe classes which range from 14 (yes, 14!) to 24. The truth that many are unwilling to face is that there are absolutely wonderful, and absolutely terrible examples in both environments. I think that class size ranks pretty far down the list of influences. The teacher's ablility to engage students, research new methods, and manage a positive climate are far more immediate needs for attention. I am not saying "who-cares about class size", I am just saying "who cares right now.". We have bigger fish to fry.

Angela Dune

Public schools in Korea and Japan do have large class sizes but virtually all middle-class parents in these societies send their children to after-school cram schools that feature quite small class sizes. The insane competitiveness of the educational system in these cultures is responsible for their 'success'.

Mr. Feathertop

Actually, I don't find the class size to be counter intuitive. All things being equal a smaller class size will achieve higher results, but all things being equal is of course a huge assumption.

As the class grows, the marginal negative utility of adding another student decreases. Going from one student to two students is going to be a big compromise. Going from 25 students to 30 students is not going to changes things much.

In addition, the single most important factor in the classroom appears to be the personality of the teacher. Psychology inform us that humans learn a great deal faster when it is fun or interesting. Teachers vary to the degree that their personalities are suited to making a classroom fun or interesting.

The lower the average class size, the more teachers needed on a system wide scale.

The more teachers needed, the less selective the school system as a whole can be. Society has to reach lower down the quality scale to fill all its needed positions.

Ergo, the average ability of each teacher will be lower.

Ergo, the quality of the average classroom will decline.

Therefore, the lower classroom quality will mitigate against the virtue of having a more favorable student teacher ratio.


Two somewhat related points to the comments:
1. I attended a private school. Private schools are thought of as the best of the best. But, in reality, they benefit the worst of the middle. Top students thrive anywhere. Bottom students struggle almost anywhere. But, those in the middle have the potential to go either way. In a private school setting where 98% of the students go to college, they are lifted and do better than they probably would have in an environment where 45-50% of the students go on to college.

2. As for the biggest determining factor being the teacher, I totally agree. The classes in college which I remember and enjoyed had the best professors. Those with terrible professors sucked, regardless of the material. I nearly switched my major to African-American studies during my first year because the only prof I really liked was my prof for an African-American Literature class. Unfortunately, he left for another university.

Matt R.

Self-reliance in learning is a critical factor. Once a student is out of high-school, learning is all self paced (my college professors thought nothing of failing me for not doing the homework).
I think it comes down to the basics of accountability. In the American system, too many think that learning is a teacher pushing knowledge, and that the responsibility to push this knowledge into the brains of students rests solely on the teachers. If the students adopted a personal policy of "I have a responsibility to learn this as much as the teacher has a responsibility to teach this.", then the learning relationship would flow more freely.

Anna  Boyle

My son did worse in a small class of 14 . He only had four other boys to socialize with. There was no dynamic diversity at school. I think the variables in a larger group can be very good. Likewise I imagine if its too large the group may suffer for lack of continuity.

non-disadvantaged dyslexic

Being the product of schizophrenic parents and living with some of the challenges that arise from the autism spectrum (dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, etc.)has had its advantages. Being raised in a disheveled, imbalanced environment definitely affects your brain and your attitude. Personally, I've come to believe that if you do not allow bitterness in your heart and you move on, you can overcome many obstacles. I'm a better mother to my two young, bright boys because of my extraordinary upbringing. If I'd been coddled or priveleged, I wouldn't understand the consequences of poor mothering choices. I've come to understand that a little hardship doesn't hurt children in the least. Too much pampering and wanting everything "perfect" doesn't help them develop problem-solving skills. Furthermore, it's not a good example to them if I can't suck it up a little when the going gets tough.
Technology sometimes works against our children in this day and age. Children are not learning the basic orientation skills that we were brought up with--such as learning how to read a calendar by the 1st grade. My hope is that sooner or later, we'll figure out how to bridge the gap between sensory-deprived children and technology. Educators should be applauded these days because the majority of children are not learning simple common-sense skills at home. 
Dyslexics, by the way, are not cursed. We just see (and perceive) the world differently. I think being different or perhaps "a bit tetched" has wonderful advantages! 

non-disadvantaged dyslexic

Ahem, "priveleged" corrected: privileged. Blocked with that word am I. Perhaps it's a Freudian slip.

J. Lanier

In response to thedawg, I think the take-away here is that society or institutions are structured (in some cases arbitrarily) in such a way that they can be disproportionately advantageous or adverse to different segments. Examinination of outliers provides insights into what sets them apart with respect to the "norm" (or that vast area under the bell curve) and whether conventional wisdom explaining why they are outliers is carved in stone. Once that is understood, different, but deliberate decisions about how things are structured can be made so that access to opportunities is more evenly distributed across populations.

It also allows us to think about the nature of advantage and disadvantage in a fresh way, which is to say that these concepts might be more a matter of perspective relative to the particular structure of the environment or institution within which we find ourselves *as well as* the goals and objectives of that institution. Again, concious awareness of that structure opens up choices in changing the structure to create new "benefitis" or "disadvantages".

Many of the comments here have focused on class room size or learning. However, recenlty I have been thinking about this concept within the context of of health and disease. From the sick person's perspective, illness is a negative experience, something to be avoided or cured. However, perhaps in order to "cure" anything it might be necessary to veiw it from the illness' "perspective". Might the presence of illness or the effects of disease on the body be an as-of-yet not fully understood "advantage" from the perspective of the disease agent or "populations" within the body at the cellular or microscopic level (i.e., bacteria, viruses, metabolic processes), and if reconsidered in this light, then possibly yield innovations for satisfactorily addressing medical problems from the patient's perspective?

I think at the end of the day, by looking at what we perceive to be exceptions, we learn something about the rules we're playing by and whether ultimatley those rules reasonably serve all interests.


More info: www.ajiraairways.us


Well, in Korea and Japan (and China to an extent) most of the students supplement their regular education by going to 4-5+ hour tutor sessions/review courses where they do in fact get the smaller teacher to student ratio. I just don't think in any case will a student benefit purely by virtue of being anonymous in a classroom.


When I cannot speak from data points, I speak from experience and my experience bolsters your mention of those in large classes having as an advantage - self-reliance. I went to 6 elementary schools before settling down in a small town in 4th grade. I am really good at meeting people, first impressions. I believe our circumstances help mold us, but later our form is maintained by our perspective. This potential and real flux can really mess with disadvantages and advantages and the measuring of...don't you think? Am I thinking too granular?

Erin DuMars

You are fooling yourself to believe that Korea has "highest achieving schools." Nothing could be further from the truth.

Most Korean pupils attend schools with little to no actual oversight, and many schools operate with sub-standard curriculum, littered with baseless xenophobia.

South Korean schooling itself is based on rote-learning and violent discipline from teacher to student, and student to student. Here's a recent cell phone video of a Korean teacher punching a student on the forehead and face. This is a very common sight in high school classrooms.


And here's another video (taken by a shocked Canadian) of a Korean teacher hitting and trowing text books at an elementary student.


Think this education method produces high achievers? Think again! The average Korean high school graduate is unrigorous and anxious.

This is most certainly the reason why there has not been a Noble prize won by a Korean academic who has been educated in Korea and taught and researched at a Korean institution.


'This might also explain why the highest achieving schools--those in places like Japan and Korea--tend to have much larger classes than in the United States.'


The cultural expectation is that education is something to cherish and take advantage of.

Classes are controlled - kids don't mouth off to teachers and give them crap. They focus on their work, do their homework, and, as a consequence take more out of the system than you typically find in an American school.

This is based on my experience as a child living in Okinawa between 1964 an 68 where I attended a Catholic school with 80% non-US kids and 20% American. Those kids not from the US worked like dogs to do well. Their parents were with them every step of the way. The nuns did NOT practice corporal punishment to maintain order - the classes self maintained because the kids respected adults and would never have thought to act up in class.

Class size is not correlated to performance but societal expectations are.

Susan Rawlins

No English teacher questions the necessity of lower class size. I taught English in the public schools for twenty years. If you want students to learn to write, they must write at length every week and receive detailed feedback from someone who knows more about writing than they do (their teacher). With 30 of them in each of five classes, my students each wrote an essay every second or third week. It was heartbreaking, exhausting, and only scratched the surface of learning. If I had had 50 students instead of 150, I could have taught them to write.

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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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