The personal learning network for educators
Another one of my favorite books over the last few years is Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. For those who haven't read it, Gladwell tells the untold stories of success. Rather than telling the typical story of intelligence and/or ambition, Gladwell argues that the true story of success can found by spending more time looking around those who have succeeded - their family, where they were born, even their birth date. He argues that the story of success is much more complex that it initially appears.
The first chapter immediately caught my attention for two reasons. First, it's about hockey. As a Canadian I am obligated, by law I believe, to pay excessive amounts of attention to anything related to hockey. The second reasons is because much of what he wrote about relates to us in education. The chapter is about cut-off dates; the dates that decide whether an athlete plays with one cohort or another. Gladwell argues that these artificial cut-off dates create an unfair advantage for young athletes. At an early age, maturity is sometimes mistaken for ability which creates an imbalance of coaching, access, and opportunity. The cut-off date for hockey is December 31; most NHL players are born in January, February, and March. The cut-off date for baseball is July 31; more Major League baseball players are born in August than any other month.
Two things Gladwell wrote in this chapter have a directly applicability to education. First, the idea of success:
We cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don't matter at all. (p. 33)
Individual merit makes for a better story - a better After School Special if you will - but the context in which students are learning makes a significant difference to the level of success possible. We create the conditions - the rules - in which the students are expected to perform. We personalize success to a point where we see it as an outcome of will and some form of pit bulldetermination. However, the second thing Gladwell said shows how our "rules" can get in the way.
Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others to the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And, most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play - and by "we" I mean society - in determining who makes it and who doesn't. (pp. 32-33)
What rules do you make that frustrate achievement? Have you ever prematurely written off someone as a failure? Are you too much in awe of those who succeed? These are some tough questions that only you can answer in your private moments. They are more questions for reflection than public declaration. I think we take too much credit for the students who are successful and too little responsibility for those who aren't. I believe we should only take credit for the successful students to the level at which we are prepared to take responsibility for the students who fail.
The rules we create - zeros, late penalties, homework scores, attendance - all have the opportunity to frustrate achievement. These are rules we create since most schools/teachers have slightly different "rules" about all of these things; some have no "rules." The point is that we need to reflect on what rules/routines we have put into place that might be getting in the way of our students true ability and/or potential. Our "rules" can distort achievement levels that make it hard to find the "truth" in what a student knows or doesn't know; can or can't do.
There need to be rules - this is not about anarchy - but our rules need to be used as vehicles for learning, inclusion, and support. I've said many times that the punishment paradigm will not produce the academic epiphany. Reflect on your "rules" and ask one simple question: Are my rules frustrating achievement? If 'yes', get rid of the rule....and yes, it is that simple!