Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Outliers - William Gladwell - Review

The Outliers was presented to teachers at Estancia High School.  It has lessons that apply to education from both student success and organizational perspectives.   While motivational and entertaining, it's problems are many.  It's reviews are spotty.  The New Republic spent several pages on it.  

The Outliers delivers one incredibly strong lesson in its first chapter: beware of the effect of arbitrary decisions on people's lives.  Beware cut-off dates on ages for example.  This is admirably shown in William Gladwell's first chapter.  Hockey players in Canada are chosen on teams based on their talent, but also based on their age on January first.  Those born on December 31 are effectively one year younger than those born on January second.  Obviously many younger players won't be as adept as older ones, but so it goes.  This means it may be advantageous to have two start dates for Kindergarten in schools.

A second strong lesson of the book is that timing, out of one's control, matters.  People born in the middle 1830's in history were the most successful people in history.  Cute stuff, but not too usable.

The third lesson is somewhat unremarkable; although vital: social background and elite status matter in success.  Children of dedicated, usually wealthy, parents who are flexible in their own accomplishments do better than those from rigid, poor families.  Duh.

The point of the three lessons is that people don't succeed by themselves, but their location in time and place determines the limits on their success.    This point is told in very engaging ways by Gladwell.  It is worth the time to read his text, but there are some caveats.

Isaac Chotiner's valid question (The New Republic, February 04, 2009) on why the chapter on airlines and culture was included in The Outliers can be answered with these three related points.

First, Mr. Gladwell did not want his book to justify racism. If wonderful family and social support is necessary for success, then a variation of William Shockley's argument that affirmative action is of no practical value to people doomed to failure would be true: why help a poor black student with a single parent, when he or she could never be a great success like Bill Gates or Bill Joy.

Second, the Korean chapter suggests that a few tweaks to culture can fix a problem and allow reasonable success.  Similarly, affirmative action for law students seems to work out OK, as long as IQ is above 120.  Please note that this is questionable research.

Third, Gladwell above can be seen as differentiating great success, ability combined with wonderful circumstances and timing, from "good enough" success, which society can support at certain intervals such as during schooling.

Unfortunately, Gladwell made three choices that undermine his likability and discernment.  He's simply not self-reflective in his editing.  Gladwell seems so full of himself and has simple politics.

First, his excessive demeaning of Langan was coarse, bordering on mean. Langan is such a buffoon that he doesn't know there is no "thumb right on you (p. 96)" at Harvard.  However, readers of TNR's article on Zeke, Rahm's brother, may have noticed his words "But it was Harvard that was most oppressive (The New Republic, July 1, 2009, p. 27)."  Maybe Langan, wasn't all that wrong.  Furthermore, Reed College and Montana State should have been slapped by Gladwell.  They failed disgustingly; almost inexcusably.  Instead, Gladwell blesses their bureaucratic ineptness and laziness in dealing with Langan, because liberal Reed doesn't have a rigid (i.e. bad) bureaucracy.  Reed, a small liberal college, simply let go one of its most promising students. As a student at Stanford, with parents having limitations, at the same time as Langan, I struggled to get my financial paperwork delivered months after it was due each year.  I was never shown the exit - I was given emergency loans to pull me through.  One of the 'red state' arguments against affirmative action is that it's affirmative only for preferred (i.e. liberal) people.  Langan's situation makes ones wonder: is social support reliable as policy to help all people succeed?

Second, the most beautiful chapter in the book concerned how Gladwell's mother didn't claim racist discrimination in England after realizing that she and her ancestors had enjoyed generations of success because of the light tone of their skin.  Sweet.  Her blessed son disparages an abused man Langan (who has overcome a great deal) in print and left a pointless sentence in his book "Kiddo, when you leave New York, every place is Bridgeport. (p. 138)"  Yes, Mr. Gladwell may be on the A-list of the chattering class and power clique at Harvard, but his framework is immature.

Third, Gladwell acts like a 'fellow traveller.' The chapter on KIPP read like a propaganda piece by Shaw when visiting Stalin in the 1930's, where his railroad car attendants had read his work!  Yeah, sure.  My high school junior read the chapter and asked "Is KIPP for stupid people?  They work so hard, but only 83% are proficient."  Gladwell may be smart, but you could sell him some swampland near Forrest Gump.

Ten Commandments for Teachers - George Polya

I.    Be interested in your subject.

II.   Know your subject.

III.  Know about the ways of learning: 
      the best way to learn anything is to discover it by yourself.

IV.   Try to read the faces of your students, 
      try to see their expectations and difficulties, 
      put yourself in their place.

V.    Give them not only information, but "know-how," attitudes of mind, 
      the habit of methodical work.

VI.   Let them learn guessing.

VII.  Let them learn proving.

VIII. Look out for such features of the problem at hand as may be useful
      in solving the problems to come -- try to disclose the general 
      pattern that lies behind the present concrete situation.

IX.   Do not give away your whole secret at once -- 
      let the students guess before you tell it --
      let them find out for themselves as much as feasible.

X.    Suggest it; do not force it down their throats.