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Monday, August 15, 2011

Outliers, The Story of Success: Implications for Education

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, The Story of Success, prompts one to consider the subject of success.  What is success?  How does one obtain it?  Where does it come from?  As I read through the book, I assessed Gladwell’s ideas with respect to education.

Personally, Gladwell’s research and theory struck me as informative, eye opening and challenging.  I was happy to learn that successful collaboration could lead to success. I was similarly pleased to read that success is possible for all, and that the adage, “hard work pays off,” does have some merit. 

Professionally, Gladwell provides educators with many points to ponder and work with as we build optimal school environments.  When Gladwell tells the story of the Rosetans, he writes, “The Rosetans were successful because of the world they were from, because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills.”  As educators, we cannot be successful by ourselves; we are dependent on one another in a school building or system as the Rosetans were dependent on one another in their Pennsylvanian home.  What kind of schools will we “create for ourselves” so that we can facilitate success for our students?

Gladwell asserts, “We make rules that frustrate achievement.”  He points out that arbitrary cut-off dates impede success for many.  As educators, we need to relook at our schools' structures.  We need to consider who is successful in our schools and who is not successful.  Then we have to find out which structures are impeding success, and as he suggests, we must be “less passive” as we rethink and remake schools so that all students have an opportunity for success.

In the past few years, visiting consultants have commented that our school halls need to be covered with motivational statements such as “Effort Matters!”  Gladwell supports this.  He writes, “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise.  In fact researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”  Educators can’t give up on this message–every child must understand that effort and practice matter.  Educators can promote this message by rewarding effort, commenting on effort, making connections between effort and daily success, and engaging students in open circles and other discussions that focus on what effort is, what it looks like in the classroom and at home, and how one builds stamina for regular, effective effort in academic and other endeavors. (Pink provides more information on this in his book, Drive.)

Opportunity also matters. Gladwell describes how one can be of genius intelligence as scored on an IQ test, but not overly successful in life.  He explains that intelligence has a “threshold” and “smart enough” is all you need to be successful.  He further states, “intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.”  In other words, there’s more to success than your IQ quotient.

Caring communities matter too.  Gladwell tells the story of Chris Lanagan’s life to exemplify this.  Lanagan is a man of incredible intelligence, but he was also a man with little opportunity.  Lanagan’s college years took place in a school where “They simply didn’t care.  They didn’t give a --- about their students.  There was no counseling, no mentoring, nothing.”  Similarly Chris’s home life didn’t foster “practical intelligence.” Practical intelligence is defined by psychologist, Robert Sternberg, as “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect."

Gladwell also tells the story of Oppenheimer, who was similarly intelligent as Lanagan.  Unlike Lanagan though, Oppenheimer was raised in a family whose style could be defined as “concerted cultivation. . .an attempt to foster and assess a child’s talents, opinions and skills.”  Concerted cultivation promotes confidence, assertiveness and a sense of entitlement–“an attitude perfectly suited to succeeding in the modern world.”  A lack of concerted cultivation on the other hand, promotes a quiet, submissive nature.

As educators, we want to promote concerted cultivation in our students by helping them to “know themselves as learners,” and to speak up for themselves.  We also want to provide an environment that recognizes, values and promotes students’ talents, opinions and skills.  Similar to the Ethical Culture School in New York where students were “infused with the notion that they were being groomed to reform the world,” our schools need to run with a foundation of success-driven, child-centered, concerted cultivation values–values that are relooked at and revised regularly to meet the changing needs of our students and society.

“He had to make his way alone, and no one–not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, not even geniuses–ever make it alone,” states Gladwell.  Students need to hear and understand that message.  Similarly schools and educators need to take that message to heart as they build collaborative educational systems where teachers work with teachers; students work with students, and teachers work with students side-by-side to facilitate success.

It’s important that educators understand the cultural legacies of students.  It’s also important that students themselves understand their cultural legacies.  Gladwell writes, “. . .you have to go back into the past – and not just one or two generations.  You have to go back two or three or four hundred years, to a country on the other side of the ocean, and look closely at what exactly the people in a very specific geographic area of that region did for a living.”  Our students, in part, are their past.  We will understand them better if we understand their culture.  It would be in our best interests as educators to understand our students’ cultures well in order to provide them with the best education and communication for success.

Work has to be satisfying for one to be successful.  Gladwell describes, “His work was complex: it engaged his mind and imagination.  And in his work, there was a relationship between effort and reward.”  He further explains, “Those three things – autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward – are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.”  As educators, we need to keep these three categories in mind as we plan and deliver lessons.  It’s also important to impart this knowledge to our students.  Finally, school administrators have to consider these categories as they structure schools and lead personnel–at times, the teaching professions’ rewards can be difficult to access as teachers often work tirelessly while the rewards are invisible and difficult to access thus creating despair and a cycle of defeat.  “Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning,” Gladwell writes.  Making learning meaningful is important for student success.

Gladwell’s book points educators in the direction of school reform with the student, not MCAS or other assessments, as center stage.  It matches the movement towards 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking skills.  Gladwell’s book also supports greater professional development for educators in the areas of cultural competency and history so educators understand the historical and cultural context of their students’ lives.  Outliers challenges educators to restructure the school day to create caring educational communities that promote effective effort and meaningful, creative learning endeavors.

A skilled colleague led an educators' book group in my school with Outliers. We profited from sharing our thoughts and ideas as we discussed the book.  Let me know if you have further implications for education related to this valuable text.