Critical Mass

Posted on May 16, 2011


Overcrowding is a problem nearly everywhere, except in Montana where nothing seems to be a problem except where to pile up all the buffalo chips.

In my realm, classroom size and school size has always been an issue of effectiveness and management.

The smaller the classes, the more successful and effective I am as a teacher.  There are plenty of detractors of the “small class size” argument, but my experiential evidence has shown that smaller classes work.

  • They are easier to manage in terms of discipline and holding attention
  • They require more active and thoughtful teaching
  • They give every student a chance to be heard
  • They provide students with opportunity for immediate feedback and collaboration

These are just a few of the many reasons why smaller classes work.  In general, the more space a child has, the more comfortable they feel.  They also have more time afforded to them by the teacher, which increases the communication and learning.

Yet, when schools reach critical mass, really strange things happen.

Overcrowding in schools fosters competition.  Now, the basic theory of population density and intelligence claims that the higher the population density, the higher the intelligence of the given population.  Competition breeds the need for people to compete for resources, but also to think of ways to save those resources.  This leads to creative problem solving, and thus to higher intelligences.

However, if there are no resources for which one is competing, then for what reward will the masses compete?

In a school, there are really only two types of currency: academic or social.  These two resources create the arena of competition for which teenagers compete.

Within my current school, there are approximately 1400 plus students in a school designed to fit only about 1000 students.  That means that there are over 100 students per grade level that must now compete for resources.

The top 10% probably has about 80% of the academic currency in the school.  This theory is based on the same concept of the distribution of wealth within American society.  We know that the richest 1% of the Americans own more than the lion’s share of the overall wealth of the nation.  With the academic currency of the school pretty much guaranteed to the top 10%, that leaves social currency up for grabs.

The social currency of the school is measured in the amount of attention one gets, for good or for bad.

Sometimes, it’s a pathetic scene straight out of a Billy Madison.  You’ll see boys blaring tunes from their cars, slouching in their seats like TV-gansters, and wearing gold necklaces like Al Pacino is Scarface.

Sometimes, it’s a stupid farce straight from a JackAss episode.  You’ll see boys trying to garner the attention of girls by out-doing each other in competitions that require stupidity beyond stupidity.  Perhaps the best competition I have heard occurring is the two boys who tried to see how long the other could keep a live cockroach in his mouth.

Sometimes, it’s a ridiculous showing from a sports game.  You’ll see boys pounding each other with high-fives, screaming ridiculous nicknames across halls, or jumping on each other’s backs while running through the hallway.

It becomes mob mentality.  The more the mob incites this behavior, the more this behavior occurs.  The more this behavior occurs, the more the mob legitimizes the behavior.

Therefore, the social currency that is being favored is the behavior of idiots.  Because this behavior is being exchanged as a way to climb the social ladder, this behavior is being encouraged even more.

At what point we passed critical mass, it’s hard to tell.  I think it was sometime between receiving the illogical and misspelled emails from administration, and discovering that the school decided to allow building to occur without proper permits or fire code approval.

Yes, it’s not just the students.  They follow the lead.

I was trying to show them a different path, but it’s hard to resist easy and stupid.

By the way, my school’s new computer lab developed a leak because they rerouted a drainage pipe from the rooftop a/c units through the ceiling tiles over the lab.  It’s okay, the maintenance people showed up with their tool cart: a stolen shopping cart filled with a few buckets of tools, and a topped with a folding ladder.

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Posted in: Teaching