I decided to read this when a colleague warned us at a department meeting that “Gladwell is saying that smaller classes don’t make a difference.” I’ve always enjoyed Gladwell’s work – quirky and off-beat, an unlikely combination of a wide range of anecdotes unified by evidence, sometimes a bit too forced into one theory.
While my colleagues misperception may, in fact, become how Gladwell’s second chapter is used, his argument is, in fact, more nuanced than that initial summary suggests. Gladwell cites research that there have been no studies to indicate that there’s a “real benefit” (55) between a class size of twenty-five and one of eighteen. Part of my problem with his argument starts right here. He never takes the time to explain how he or the researchers define “a real benefit.” (I even read the notes in the back to look for a definition. That Gladwell relies so much on the work of Eric Hanushek, an expert on the economics of education, concerns me. Should that be the primary focus? Should an argument rest so much one one person’s research?) Second, he belittles the idea that this smaller class size “is easier for the teacher” (55). Want to walk in my shoes for a few days, Mr. Gladwell? A few weeks? With all that’s being heaped on us, “easier” would be quite welcome. But Gladwell’s main point is that teachers don’t change their teaching style when their class sizes get smaller. To explain this, he offers no research; instead, he says it’s “human nature” (56). What he doesn’t ask is this – when $ has been allocated to make class sizes smaller, have any funds been used to train teachers to teach differently? I agree that mandating smaller class sizes and hiring poor teachers to make the mandate work is an expensive and bad idea (as, apparently, happened in California.) Instead of using that as excuse not to make class sizes smaller, let’s examine the systemic reasons that we don’t have enough qualified teachers.
Gladwell’s theory here is why David (both the original and the metaphorical) sometimes win, and his arguments are generally convincing – except in Chapter 2.