The numbers that really matter…?

This week, the education headlines will no doubt be dominated by the political row over the headline figure of 470 ‘failing schools’. Is it good progress, poor progress,  or not what we should be measuring in the first place…  

I have decided to be contrary and blog about other numbers that matter. The road less travelled by and all that.

So, turn away from 30 (per cent A-C GCSE’s) and consider 150. Or Dunbar’s number as some know it.

Dunbar’s number refers to the work of Robin Dunbar, an anthoropologist who argued that the brain had evolved to cope with social networks of about 150 people.

My colleague at the RSA, Matt Grist, is author of the excellent Social Brain blog. His most recent post, Social brains, social networks, big ideas and social change, points to fascinating work being done to combine recent insights such as this from evolutionary psychology with policy and practical application.

The theory goes that you find this number popping up all over the place as the limit to the size of social networks people can cope with. Historical and contemporary examples are dispersed through life like a mundane version of the Valenzetti Equation – the numbers of friends and acquaintances you possess, Christmas card lists, church communities. I might add Facebook friends lists.

If our brains are limited in the social complexity they have evolved to cope with, the idea is that when we try and break these limits we might see problems.  People can’t take in the complexity of the social arrangements, and therefore Alliances become hard to form, social norms are harder to reinforce and so on.

To draw a practical implication of my own, it reminded me immediately of Human Scale Schools.

Dunbar’s number is disputed – is it 150 or nearer 300 as others suggest?  Does is it shift depending on your use of modern technologies like bebo or instant messaging? But the weight of opinion tends towards the view that humans have evolved to deal with a certain size of social network. 

Either way, it is interesting to note that Human Scale Schools tend to contain 300 students or less, and possess a emphasis on the relationships within the school.

Equally, perhaps it should reduce our surprise when schools which experiment with large classes of up to 90 students, as some Opening Minds schools do, find it can work very well.

I’m sure I’m not the first to make the link, but it illustrates the far reaching consequences that such new knowledge could (should?) have on the way we organise schooling in future.

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