I had the opportunity on a recent winter vacation get-a-way to read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I had read his two previous books The Tipping Point and Blink and enjoyed them both. Two of my educator colleagues had recommended Outliers so I was looking forward to having the time for reading.
I wasn’t disappointed except that the book ended too soon as I was enjoying the examples of patterns Gladwell identifies in the study of successful people.
Two of his points connected strongly with my thinking about how we prepare students with the knowledge and attitudes to understand success. How far can you go on natural ability and talent? Where does hard work fit in? What effort does success require? What makes hard work fun?
Several years ago I read Rafe Esquith’s book, There Are No Short Cuts. Esquith got that line from a musician who was asked by one of Esquith’s students how he made such beautiful music. The answer the student received was, “There are no short cuts”. That banner went up in Esquith’s classroom as the key to students understanding a critical component of success. (Esquith’s class web site) (Washinton Post article on Rafe Esquith)
Gladwell sites the studies of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. Amateur musicians never practiced more than about three hours a week over the course of their childhood and by the age of twenty totaled 4000 hours of practice. Professionals had steadily increased practice time every year and by the age of twenty had reached 10,000 hours of practice.
Ten thousand (10,000) appears to be a rule when studying successful people. From musicians, such as the Beetles, to ice hockey and soccer stars, to Bill Gates this level of practice and experience appears. These are great stories to share with students who often see successful people as naturally talented and/or lucky. Knowing about the effort people invested is helpful.
Another piece of Gladwell’s writing that caught my interest identified three qualities of work that need to be present for work to be satisfying: autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward. All three are equally important for students to find school work (learning) satisfying.
Autonomy— a sense of being your own boss. …being responsible for decisions and directions. I often point out that in an elementary school you find kindergarten students making more choices in a day than fifth graders. Those younger students are often more motivated. Successful alternative programs or academies are often built on increasing student autonomy… Note: this is critical in coaches and administrators building teacher motivation by increasing teacher autonomy.
Complexity—- Gladwell shows how wet-rice farming peasants in China had laborious work like peasants in other feudal systems but differed in that their work required an exactness.. “complexity” … the work wasn’t just back breaking, but required care and thought. I often share that when teachers try to make “tested material” simple for learners, it actually makes internalization more difficult. The mind seems to work best when tackling complexity. As an example, I suggest taking a culminating activity for a unit of study and opening the unit with it. As students struggle in that complexity, they gain a reason for “working hard” to learn the material.
Connection between effort and reward—the wet-rice farmers had to pay a flat rate of their harvest to the landowner so when their thinking and hard work increased yield, they profited from it. Students need to see a connection between the efforts teachers are requesting and the desired outcomes the student seeks. In Tapping Student Effort, I explored the need for teachers to know and sometimes build pictures of the students’ future in order to show the connection between effort and the reward in the future.
Autonomy, complexity, and connection between effort and reward make work meaningful. If we want students to invest effort in school, we need to make learning meaningful. For many students “passing the state test” is not a meaningful task. Teachers need to invest in finding those meaningful learning activities where student learning can later “show up” on the state test.
In an article in the Feb (2009) issue of Phi Delta Kappan, Upper Elementary Grades Bear the Brunt of Accountability, Lorin W. Anderson reports the following on meaningful learning [page 416].
Strategies for helping elementary students make sense of core subjects have been identified. For example:
• Students are more likely to make sense of language when teachers spend more time coaching rather than direct teaching (Allington and Johnston 2001).
• Students are more likely to make sense of mathematics when they’re solving real problems in collaboration with their peers (Ginsburg-Block 1999).
• Students are more likely to make sense of science when instruction builds directly on students’ conceptual frameworks, that is, the ways in which students currently understand the natural world (NSTA 2002).
• Students are more likely to make sense of history when instruction incorporates the sounds and images of videotapes, streaming video, and films and includes required oral history projects (Hoge 1988).
The need for meaningful work is why I am excited whenever I find the great examples of teachers engaging students in Live Event Learning.