Three Concepts of Social Science….For New Schools

This short little essay by Arnold Kling hits on 3 key ideas from social science that I think are useful for people creating new schools.

1. Emergence vs design.

Most schools create rules/policies (design) but kids and teachers only follow a fraction of them.

Most school founders don’t account for emergence of “The real cultures.”  I say cultures plural because there is one culture for students, another for teachers (which intersect in many interesting ways).

If creators of new schools allowed for emergence, they’d protect way more capacity towards “tending the garden” of whatever emerges: watering the good stuff and weeding the bad stuff.  That’s what great schools do. 

Which relates to…

2. “Dunbar number” of 150.

When we had a high school of 200 kids – pretty close to Dunbar max of 150 people that a single person can have meaningful relationships with – we had “peak caring.”

But when we added a middle school and then an elementary – went to 1250 kids total – cooperation and morality became far more complicated.

Chinese kindergartens are often in the Dunbar range, 150 to 250 kids.

High schools are much bigger though.

To overcome the Dunbar maximum, schools try to create either Harry Potter like “Houses” or simply “Grade Level Deans/Teams” – a school of 900 could have 3 grades of 300 kids, or 4 houses of 225.

3. Causal density.

Many factors contribute to something a school founder cares a lot about: enrollment.

It’s complicated.  There are big things – school location, facility, price, competition, basic offering (e.g., IB diploma).  There are components like the “optics” (affiliation with a famous brand name, or the biography of the headmaster) and “true parent experience” (what it’s actually like to attend an information session, or is your phone call returned).  And then, importantly, once the school is actually open, there are all kinds of things that affect the true student and parent experience, which drive word-of-mouth, which drives enrollment.

Investors often want an “engineering mindset” – a model that purports to explain what parents want, and therefore that this project will succeed.  Investors want a simple model, not a complex model that acknowledges the  plan will not simply follow the Powerpoint pitch deck.  A trap for founders is the temptation to report (to investors, teachers, parents) that “everything is happening on plan.”  Which tends to hide the truth and make it harder to fix things.

Success of a new school, I believe, is more likely when the founding team embraces the ecologist mindset, where because of complexity, and because how quickly parents and teachers and kids and government officials might react to new schools popping up, the founding team assumes a certain haze.  That acknowledgement makes it easier to embrace a Fail Fast model.  The Fail Fast model frees you from having to say “Yes, my ideas are working” and instead is “Of course many of our ideas are only going okay, and some are failing outright; which one should we concentrate on fixing today?”