Tag Archives: Gladwell

Inverse Relationships: Project Based Subjects and Class Size

By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

A classroom containing 18–24 students appears to be the ideal number. Anything less and you lose the unique excitement that comes from a critical mass of engaged students. ~A Commentary and Review of Malcom Gladwell’s research on small class sizes; David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

The Hattie Research

I was introduced to Visible Learning by John Hattie   a few years ago. After studying the data, and doing a course that focused on the data, I was forced to reflect on my beliefs and practices as an educator.

As an IT professional that actually uses meta data to make decisions, I knew the power of data about data.

I think the one point that must be made is that the data and analysis used by Hattie is what is known as long-tail data. Hattie did not find a “smoking gun” or a “big reveal”. He found a collection of things, that when working in combination, make a difference in learning out comes.

This data, when studied, must be studied as a collection. Focusing on a single point, and believing doing “that one thing” will make a difference, is a mistake.

The Hattie data can be viewed here. 

The following image focuses on the areas addressed in this post.


The Class Size Issue in Project Based Subjects

The relationship between class size and project based subjects is inverse compared to studies that look at traditional courses where instruction is rote, and the differentiation needs to be very focused.

Of the top 22 Hattie indicators, 10 connect directly to courses that at project based:

  • Self Report Grades
  • Piagetian Programs
  • Response to Intervention
  • Cognitive Task Analysis
  • Classroom Discussion
  • Teacher Clarity (Students Questioning Teacher Instruction)
  • Reciprocal Teaching (6 Facets of Understanding)
  • Feedback
  • Formative Evaluation
  • Self Questioning

Class size has been a central focus in nearly every school improvement plan I have been connect with. In fact, I recently helped build a schedule that was nearly solely dictated by class size.

As some one who solely works in project based subjects, team driven contests, and peer reviewed assessment I can attest that small classes are detrimental to learning in these environments.

When a class falls below 12 students, the student input, instances of serendipitous discoveries, the diversity of teams, and the needed conflict to fuel trial and error scenarios  all diminish. To be clear: the class becomes boring and stagnant.

Students need to be formed and re-formed into teams and groups in a project based environment. They need variety of opinion. They need to take the lead and be the teacher; they need to lead their peers; and they need their peers to explain “what went wrong” when failure happens. And failure will happen more often than trophies are presented.

If a class size is too small, this process (learning spiral) becomes repetitive and predictable. In my experience, small classes can be a stimulus for groupthink.

As a teacher, I can entertain and keep the energy going. As a believer in a student-centered environment where there is no “front of the room”, being the center of attention undermines that belief.

Successful Projects are Busy and Messy

I recently visited three MIT powered Fablabs. All the labs were busy, messy, and had learners ranging in age from 16-60.

These people were working on entrepreneurial projects, or science projects. The work is difficult at every turn, and the skills are interdisciplinary. In fact, I doubt it is possible for a single person to do their entire project alone. There is collaboration, and exchange of work and ideas, and a general consensus that failure is going to be very common.

These labs run programs and open work days based on simple metrics:

  1. The capacity of the room
  2. The availability of the staff/instructors to help people with specialized equipment

They do not balance sessions to keep the number of people to an optimal level of learning, because they know that having a variety of people means having a variety of talents and ideas.

Project based subjects are not about giving everyone an opinion or platform for an idea. These subjects revolve around taking an idea and making it a reality. Students not only have a variety of known talents, they also have a hidden talents.

Engaging students with a group of people they may not socialize with; allowing them to team up to offset each other’s weaknesses; and scaffolding peer/self criticism into every project is the secret to unlocking a students potential. New potential will lead students to see new opportunities.

Creating opportunity for students should always supersede creating small classes for the sake of creating small classes.



Hour of Code: It Is Not Enough


By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

The Hour of Codeis a very popular event and activity hosted by Code.org. Millions of students around the world participate in the large coordinated events, and continue to use the website to learn programming. Code.org is a good resource to get students and teachers interested in programming.

In the last year I have listened to numerous educators and administrators comment how their school participated in The Hour of Code. In many instances, I felt that these people believed this single event, and or uncoordinated participation of classes on the Code.org website, constituted a real effort in problem solving, computer science, design, and programming. I have news for everyone, an hour of programming, or even a month on Code.org, is only a half-step on a very long journey.

The Scope

When an educator thinks about the word mathematics they will cycle through categories of mathematics. These include, but are not limited to, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, applied math, statistical analysis, etc. Computer programming, no matter how graphical, has always been based on mathematics. If a student asked if they could do math for an hour once a year would that be celebrated?

The IEEE, which sets standards for engineering and technology worldwide, recently listed the top 10 programming languages in use in 2016:


Students would need to be exposed to at least three of these languages in order to find meaningful understanding outside of the classroom environment. In a balanced programming curriculum, students would spend at least a year with a new language, while incorporating any other languages they have learned.

The scope is immense. Within each language are tools and nuances that need to be explored. A student does not need to master three languages, but they need to know how to read them, research within them, and implement solutions by following best practice design patterns.

Programming (Coding) is not Computer Science (CS)

In a programming module or course, students can freely create, and create for a variety of audiences. Students can solve problems, make random games, or simply create a utility to improve a user experience.

In a computer science (CS) module or course students need to look at a problem, study a set of data, create a hypothesis, and test that hypothesis. Here is an example of a computer science activity.

Spending small amounts of time exploring programming does not develop the skills needed to engage in CS driven initiative. K-12 curricula need to specifically define CS modules and standards. Educators need to be cautious of students working without testing ideas and well articulated theories. Accidents happening outside the context of understanding will often be confused with competence.

10,000 Hours

In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.

There are 52 workweeks in a year. The standard North American workweek is 40 hours long. That is around 2080 workweek hours a year. In roughly five years, a person could develop a new mastery if they solely focused on that endeavour.

Students, however, cannot do the same thing everyday for five years. Students need a well rounded education, and time is in high demand and short supply. In fact, if students used only their scheduled time for programming, they would need 17-21 hours a week for 13 years, to reach 10,000 hours of mastery.

I am not an advocate of an unbalanced and obsessive lifestyle. To help students choose a healthy and steady path to mastery, the curriculum needs to encourage independent study, portability, and third-party opportunities.

Independent study is critical to develop competency in programming or CS. Independent study requires students to find problems and propose solutions. Teachers giving students problems to solve on a flexible schedule is not the same as a true independent study.

Portability simply refers to the students ability to work anywhere. Students are people, and people find inspiration in the most random of places. When inspiration hits, work needs to happen.

In 2005-2007, I developed a partnership with Sun Microsystems in the Middle East and my school. They had a training division (and separate training company). I wanted my computer science students to learn Linux with corporate professionals. This third-party relationship was the first I had ever created for students, and it was one of the best opportunities I have ever given students. Schools need to make these relationships, and if possible, allow the experiences to happen off-campus.

Programs like The Hour of Code are fun and engaging. However, as educators and professionals we cannot lose sight of the goal. All of us must help students find new opportunities, choose a path to mastery, and keep them moving after 100s of potential hours of disappointment.

Mastery does not mean you are finished learning, it means you have accepted you will never stop learning.