Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, examines different types of successful people in an attempt to explain how exactly these people attained the success that they do. Gladwell focuses on the Beatles and other musical prodigies as well as technological innovators and New York attorneys, but much of what he discusses can be applied to the field of education in general in order to help to facilitate the success of each student.
The first chapter, entitled “The Matthew Effect,” discusses Canadian hockey players. Gladwell makes the case that succeeding in hockey, while seemingly a meritocracy, is actually directly related to one’s birthdate as those born in January, February, or March represent 40% of the members of any elite hockey group, with only 10% being born in October, November, or December. Because of the cut-off date, those with birthdays that fall earlier in the calendar year have an advantage over those born later in the year because at eight years old (when most of these plays begin their competitive career), a few months makes a huge difference in terms of speed, size, and strength.
Those few months result in selection to the top teams as a young child. The top teams then provide the best coaching, more practice time, and additional perks that only serve to widen the gap. Ten years later, when the players are 18 years old, although the couple of months in age does not make a large difference, the opportunities those couple of months gave the older player over the last ten years does make a huge difference, and there is no way for the younger players to compete. As Gladwell puts it, “In the beginning, his advantage isn’t so much that he is inherently better but only that he is a little older. But by the age of thirteen or fourteen, with the benefit of better coaching and all that extra practice under his belt, he really is better, so he’s the one more likely to make it.”
In many of our schools, without realizing it, we do the same thing. We track our students into different levels, based on their skills at a randomly selected time. For many students, they are put into a specific class in early elementary school, and they are trapped in that track for their academic career. This is especially true of heavily skills-based classes like math, reading, and foreign language (like Hebrew). Being in the lower level does not always encourage them to improve these specific skills, so they are destined to remain in this lower level without the opportunities that a different level may afford.
Applying Gladwell’s findings to education would mean that students who begin their education with certain skills or are more apt to learn these certain skills are forever at an advantage over the students who are not. Additionally, students who transfer into a different educational setting, and do not have any of the requisite skills to be successful in their new environment, will forever be at a disadvantage because of their particular situation. This is especially distressing because the lower levels of classes often contain the students who are less engaged in the course material and are not as motivated to study and sometimes are taught by less-experienced teachers who may not have the content knowledge required by the higher levels.
Students at any level require differentiation and should not forever be labeled by an initial placement, precluding them from the opportunities that a higher level may afford them. In his The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey echoes this idea, describing an academic setting where “bright” children were accidentally labeled as “dumb,” and “dumb” children were labeled as “bright,” and they were treated as such. Five and a half months later, the students were tested, and the “bright” kids who had been treated as “dumb” kids had lost IQ points while the “dumb” kids who had been labeled as “bright” had gained points, simply because of how they were treated and the expectations that were set for them. In order to explain this, Covey quotes Goethe, saying “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.” When schools track students and do not offer opportunities for mobility, they are not encouraged to grow in a way that maximizes their potential.
The second chapter of Outliers also provides information applicable and beneficial to education. This chapter, entitled “The 10,000 Hour Effect” combines the stories of computer programmers (such as Bill Gates), musicians (such as the Beatles), and revisits the hockey player example to show that mastering a craft is not just chance. Gladwell explains that although natural talent and passion are important, in order to truly be great at something, one needs to log 10,000 hours in the field. Great hockey players are great hockey players, he argues, because their initial birthdate puts them on the best teams that get the most practice time, allowing for them to log their 10,000 hours before anyone else. The Beatles, Galdwell explains, went to Germany before they came to the United States, where they performed for hours and hours every day, logging their 10,000 hours, and Bill Gates happened to attend a school that had a computer on which he could practice before making use of the equipment at university. Then, Gladwell shows, by the time there was a need in the field of computer, Gates was an advantage over most others as he had already logged his 10,000 hours.
Applying this to education for our kids, at-home reinforcement is essential. The researcher Harold Himmbelfarb also found the 10,000 hour mark to be significant, stressing the value of reinforcement, stating that this schooling does not have a serious “conversion” effect, only impacting a student who received similar messages in other social situations such as family and friends. In order for education to make a meaningful impact and truly transform an individual, a few hours here and there does not suffice. A student needs to be fully immersed in cultivating the needed skills and dispositions, practicing his learning, and reinforcing it at home. Only then will it be a part of him like music to the Beatles or computers to Gates.
This is why, at Einstein Academy, we infuse our learning in an interdisciplinary fashion. Students have the opportunity to foster future ready skills and social-emotional growth throughout their day rather than in specific classes or during specific units. We individualize learning for all students rather than tracking them in a way that prevents optimal growth. We partner with families to bring the learning home and get those 10,000 hours. And we foster a joyful learning environment so that kids are encouraged and inspired to find their passions and keep growing.