Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Real Teachers: True Stories of Renegade Educators, by Stuart Grauer (SelectBooks, 2013), which was a finalist for a 2014 San Diego Book Award. It comes from a chapter titled “Hostile Indian Attacks Schoolhouse,” in which Grauer profiles Native American Roger White Eyes — a teacher at the Red Cloud Indian School on the Lakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Taking part in the Wounded Knee Memorial Motorcycle Ride with Roger White Eyes and other Native Americans, Grauer reflects on the ideal group size for learning — with its application for schools. The excerpt is reprinted with permission of the publisher and author.
For something so important to school design, it was becoming hard to ignore how very little research had been done on small class sizes. Surely the Harley Davidson Corporation did more R and D on their smallest bike, the Sportster, than all the school agencies and researchers combined had done on small classes or, for that matter, small schools.
Even before Jesus, many have found twelve, also referred to as a duedecuple, to be the optimal group size. The biblical Jacob had twelve sons, who were the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In ancient Greek religion, the Twelve Olympians were the principal gods of the pantheon. The chief Morse god, Odin, had twelve sons. Sacred circles typically included twelve plus the leader. Psychologists refer to a twelve person “sympathy group.”
Malcolm Gladwell taught this concept: “Make a list of all the people you know whose death would leave you truly devastated. Chances are you will come up with around twelve names. That, at least, is the average answer most people give to that question…. At a certain point, at somewhere between ten and fifteen people, if the group is to be focused we begin to overload.” For nearly a century, classes of eight to twelve students have sat around the legendary Phillips Exeter Academy Harkness Tables. Those of us who do extensive work in circles recognize the invisible barrier we pass when group size moves from twelve to fifteen and the circle begins to run out of space for individuals.
In New York City schools, if you become unmanageable as a student, you are put in a resource class. Containing? You guessed it: twelve students.
In twelve, you become a part of a whole, and yet you are never anonymous as larger groups allow — your voice or lack thereof is significant and will not go unnoticed. I had a couple challenges with this lack of anonymity. First off, I was not a Native. Secondly, I felt a bit alien in the biking world. From the way I felt in my hulking suit of leathers, I may just as well have been dressed in a full buffalo skin, and a greasy layer of sweat was to accompany me wherever I went all week. My complexion was all wrong, and I even wore a helmet, rare for riders in the north where riding is just about the purest form of freedom. The experience got me thinking about how Lakota kids feel leaving the reservation and living in the white world.
The Lakota people traditionally say, and Joseph Marshall III has rendered this warmly in his Native stories, if you are not sure about your own courage, find someone who has the courage you want and follow him or her. If you follow long enough, the courage in you will begin to come out, and it may not be long before you hear something behind you and realize someone is now following you. I soon found this to be sage advice both as a rider and a teacher, and I will never forget it, as Roger and Glenn [Gunville], master riders both, eased me into the group.
Dave Janis, an Oglala Sioux, was our leader. This was both appointed ahead of time and obvious as he established his leadership and leadership style. The twelve followers not only witnessed a tour de force in his riding, power, and presence, but remained within one degree of connection to it because of our group size. He was thick and tough, spoke with a gravel voice and had a long, thick, braided ponytail. Dave dwarfed his Harley Dyna Super Glide in size and power. Like many people who look scary, he was quite warm.
I don’t know how many people can form an intimate group or at what point people hide in rows. It obviously depends upon the environment and the people. Nor do I expect the educational research community to take the phenomenological intuitions of an Indian biker group as hard data, though I will suggest that our nation’s schools are in enough trouble to consider looking outside of the box some, maybe even far outside of the box. At any rate, back home, my small schools research group had been able to compile controlled, empirical research data through various sources. In a prominent nationwide review, for instance, two of the top five top-ranked schools in the nation (and eight of the top twenty) featured classes with fewer than fifteen students, a statistical wake-up call. Few teachers in the America of today have ever had a class of twelve for a sustained amount of time, and so they may not realize why it is so empowering and connected for participants, and why it is a number of such heritage and even reverence. And if one member experiences weakness or pain, it is relatively easy for the rest of the group to share it while it is absolved.
We headed north. I did not know the names of all twelve riders, but learned quickly to recognize them from tribal emblems sewn across the backs of their black leather vests. Roger, from the rear, was my teacher, and I definitely knew and appreciated that he had my back, literally. The idea of a sub-tribe or class of twelve had become captivating by this point — it was turning a situation that could have been alienating into one of belonging and collective experience.
On this particular day, the first formal day of the memorial ride, our goal was to move through three Indian reservations starting with the Oglala Lakota, stopping at the tribal halls of the next two along the way, and then heading on to North Dakota. We stopped for lunch at the first reservation hall. There, our tribe was obviously enthused as five plentiful trays of food were laid out before us. I would not want for the world to offend the good people who created those generous offering, and I had my share of them. However, coming from a foreign background, I may have been less enthused than the rest of my mates. Because what I saw was not five different types of food, but rather one type of food: high-fat, high-salt fast food — all of it, of course, finger-lickin’ good. I could find nothing that appeared to have recently grown out of the ground. The only choices were the catchy designs on the to-go boxes. Hence, where my good-natured hosts saw five entrees, I saw one choice with no real alternative. It amounted to a socio-political condition with one of the more appealing and folky sounding names served up in academia, a Hobson’s choice: when your alternative choice makes no real difference.
This observation is not without useful application to our topic: teachers have had to accept larger classes and they’ve had to accept smaller classes, both with about the same social dynamics. Twenty-one students? Thirty students? The research was showing them to be about the same. Between group sizes of around twenty and thirty (and in most cases even between fifteen and thirty), researchers had not been able to find much difference in the efficacy of class size — the change amounted to no change. And yet, all the class size reductions and additions we could find in journals had been made within those limits, all the changes were just rearrangements inside the Happy Meal box. I could easily surmise already, still fresh in the saddle, that changing the biking group from twenty-five to thirty riders or vice versa would make no difference to my experience on the road. Do you want fries with that?
We now understood why small class research had been practically abandoned. This was a whack on the side of the head. The more we researched and found twelve to be an extraordinary number, the more we also had to consider that a recommendation for classes of twelve would be considered a disturbance and a frustration to standard theorists and practitioners, but the theoretical challenge remained: should we identify and study ideal design features of great education and great group formation, or only the most practical and convenient? As small schools researchers and advocates, we were not suggesting revolution, nor were we suggesting that every school could do this, but we had to ask: could classes of twelve ever be practical, even sometimes? Maybe certain classes? Maybe once a week? Maybe in private or charter schools? Maybe as a special funding target? Should we not seek to learn the best practices? Should we not be open to radical yet unexplored avenues? What if the country’s educational systems were widely perceived to be in decline, even by its leaders? Wouldn’t that be cause to look for something different?