I promised to write more about how I think Magic Numbers, or the natural social organization of humans, affects education and learning. So here goes.
I am 54. When I talk to my contemporaries on PEI who were educated in one room schools, I hear a very different story about the school experience than what i hear when I talk to many of their children today.
Robert Harris - One Room School House, Canoe Cove 1881 (Confederation Library)
None of these schools had more than 50 students. Most had closer to 30. They had a wide range of ages and abilities. In practice, the teacher acted as a learning facilitator. Much of the teaching was done by the older students who helped the younger ones. So while the teacher was an authority figure, she was not the sole talker. Most of the teaching was in the form of a series of conversations between the students themselves. She did not claim to know everything either and called on the wider resources and knowledge in the community to help if needed or pointed the child to the library.
School was integrated into the full life of the community. All the students lived in their community and walked to school. The teacher lived in the community. Marion Reid had retired from teaching when she started her family. A group of parents came to her house one day and made her a deal - they would bay sit her younger children if she would return to teaching their children.
School was augmented by work and life in the community. Children were not excluded from work or their full responsibility for the community in which they lived. All the children had work to do at home or on the farm and learned a great deal of practical things about how the world worked from all the other adults in the community. They were not apart from the work of their families or the community. While there were always naughty kids - they were naughty in the context of a community that had their eye upon them and where the consequences of doing the wrong thing were immediate and powerful.
Very clever kids found that the community got behind them in their efforts to do well - this is part of the story of Anne and Gilbert of Green Gables.
But you say - this was not a very effective school. That is why we needed to consolidate. The kids need the physical resources that come with scale. Not effective?
The kids were fully engaged in their learning and in their full community. Literacy was very high. Now nearly 40% of Islanders cannot read efectivelly. Next time you watch Ken Burns' film on the US Civil War, think of the literacy of the private soldiers whose letters are featured. I am sure there was bullying of a sort at times but not what we see so often today. It is inconceivable that a community would suffer the mindless vandalism that we see so often today. By walking to school and by participating in the work of the community, kids were in much better shape than today.
So what has all of this to do with Magic Numbers?
The one room school house was an "Emergent Design" that fitted naturally the formal learning needed by children into the life of their community. Being emergent, the design, like a good local fishing boat, emerged over time to best suit the real conditions. Being emergent, it had a scale that fitted the Magic Numbers of our natural organization. By fitting into that scale, it created by design the optimal social conditions for learning and social engagement. It was also very inexpensive and depended on few outside resources. By linking so tightly physically to the community, it also reduced the real childcare issues and cost that face every family through all the ages. As with Marion Reid, the community could organize to deal with these issues.
We have replaced this system with an industrial model that violates most of the conditions of natural organization. It is no wonder for me now that learning engagement is low and that we see kids estranged from their families and their community.
A typical PEI school breaches the overall size needed to have as the basis of a community that polices itself - 150. There are no subunits of 8 - 15 or 35 that could reduce the stress of an organization that breaches this condition. So gangs emerge instead. Gangs are the feature of a society with low social capital. Without a formal structure, theses self defense structures emerge and prey on the weak and the different. You see this in prison, in the Soviet Union and in Sicily. they are a product of an authoritarian response to poor community. Bullying is endemic. Learning is reduced to speeches and bribery.
Bussing kids all over the Island will soon not be affordable as oil prices will make this process too expensive.
We have isolated our children from a social environment where learning happens as a result of conversation. We have isolated them from those other children who are both younger and older than them. We have isolated them socially from their families and from their communities. We have isolated them from the work of their households and their communities. We have isolated them from adult life. We have isolated them from their bodies. And this is better?
Could we not experiment with a few new/old one room schools again. Imagine what they could be like - especially in an internet world.
With a shrinking population of children, the pressure will be the opposite. The pressure will be to consolidate even further. Yet in our heart we know that smaller and more local is better. If we look at this more carefully, I bet that we will find that lots of very small local schools will be both better and cheaper.
Why not try a few? After all - we know that they work and they could not be worse that what we have now.