Small is beautiful

There is no right size of school for everyone. Some children thrive in large groups with many diverse social opportunities such as those found in most public schools and typical private schools. But many children (and adults, for that matter) feel overwhelmed by crowds and find that they don’t function at their best when surrounded by too many people. That’s one reason my primary focus here at Alt Ed Austin is on small schools.

Some readers have asked why the Alternative School Directory doesn’t include certain progressive independent schools, like the Khabele School, which has earned an impressive reputation in the alternative education community. My answer is that with a current enrollment of more than 500 students spread across three campuses, Khabele is no longer a small school according to Alt Ed Austin’s criteria. (It does, however, appear in Alt Ed Austin’s list of Other Recommended Schools.) This begs the question: How big is too big? Or, rather, how small is small enough?

My son’s school during his upper elementary and early middle school years was what some in the education world call a “microschool” and others like to call “small but mighty.”  It has about a dozen students and one main teacher (though students also learn from parent volunteers, neighbors, and guest speakers, as well as from artists, artisans, and other community experts the students visit in their workplaces). Now a teenager, my son is one of about 60 students enrolled in high school and middle school classes at another innovative school in Austin. These are just two of many intentionally small schools featured on this site, and the demand for this kind of intimate learning environment is growing. To be sure, some of the smallest schools in the directory are simply new; they plan to grow in student enrollment, staff size, and facilities—but not to exceed the size of a well-functioning community.

What is the upper limit of such a community? That’s a matter of opinion, and education researchers continue to debate the issue and to study the effects of “small learning communities” or “schools within schools” established in the last two decades in Boston, New York, and other large cities—even right here as part of AISD’s High School Redesign. The main idea behind the Human Scale Education Movement is that smaller classes and school communities lead to closer relationships between teachers and students and among fellow students, which in turn lead to higher levels of academic engagement, fewer dropouts, better test scores, higher rates of college admissions, etc. These programs generally try to cap learning communities at around 300 (so, for example, an urban high school of 1,200 students might encompass 4 separate or semiseparate learning communities that stick together with the same teachers and advisers for several years).

These smaller learning communities within large urban public schools are a good step in the right direction, but 300 is still too many for some kids, perhaps most. For my purposes at Alt Ed Austin, I’ve chosen to embrace Dunbar’s Number, a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom a human being can maintain stable relationships, which works out to approximately 150. First proposed by the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point, Dunbar’s Number has come to be seen as a useful guideline in organizing groups in business, industry, law enforcement, some European government agencies, and even online social networks. Why not education?

Here’s a brief video primer on Dunbar’s Number, by Robin Dunbar himself:

What’s your upper size limit for a school or other created community? Do you have a lower limit? Does it depend on the age of the students or other factors? Does size matter?


[Note: This post was updated slightly in November 2015.—TS]