Malcolm Gladwell's Keynote Address

NECC 2009 Opening Keynote

Malcolm Gladwell, author

I, ashamedly, have never had a chance to read one of Malcolm Gladwell's books (The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers). Now that I have finished grad school, I will finally have the time! If his opening Keynote Address is anything like his writing, then I am hooked. Heady stuff, though explained in a simple way.

Practice Makes Perfect

We've all heard the phrase a million times. Gladwell, however, manages to find empirical proof of this statement, starting with the 10,000 hour rule. He says that, according to research, you need 10,000 hours of practice in something to become a true 'specialist.' All told, that is 4 hours/day for 10 years. "Mozart is a late bloomer," he joked. Mozart took 14 years to create his first 'good' piece of music.

Tying this to education, Gladwell states that it is someone's attitude toward effort that makes someone successful. In other words, it was not just Mozart's talent that made him great. He WORKED HARD!

Gladwell also described an example from an International Math exam which had a long psychological survey at the beginning. A researcher tried to find a correlation between the countries whose students completed the survey and those who didn't and the test scores on the exam. Amazingly, the correlation was that those students who finished the survey also scored better on the exam. To Gladwell, this was the perfect example of attitude over talent. Those students who had the motivation and the determination to finish the questionnaire would also have the motivation and determination to study hard and do their best on the exam.

So What's Our Problem?

I agree with Gladwell that Western countries (like the U.S.) don't teach that attitude can make a difference. Many of us believe that we are naturally born with a talent or a gift that will define us for the rest of our lives. For this reason, many children are not taught to put effort into those things with which they struggle. Instead, their strengths are emphasized. Just think of Cliff's Notes and SparkNotes, or sites that sell college papers. Why put in the effort if you don't have to? Without challenge, how can one learn anything?

Are There Solutions?

Gladwell spoke briefly about the KIPP Charter Schools, with which I am very familiar. A former co-worker of mine works at a KIPP school and has described her role to me as a 24 hour/7 days-a-week job. She has a cell phone for when students need to contact her, she works a longer day, and she works Saturdays sometimes. This school has its students try to make up for hours of instruction lost due to socio-economic status. Many inner-city children start school already at a disadvantage when it comes to learned vocabulary words and hours practicing academic and cognitive skills. They need help reaching that 10,000 goal in conjunction with their middle/upper class peers. This model is unbelievable effective, but also requires teachers to work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year! Most teachers want their summers off, or at least want to come home and relax and not have students calling them at home. Or is this the problem with our education system? The precedent is set and the status quo is hard to break.

...and then there's Fleetwood Mac

Somehow, Gladwell managed to turn the conversation into a study of the history of the band Fleetwood Mac. Through a series of short vignettes, he concluded that Fleetwood Mac, who only broke big after their 16th album, never gave up and eventually put in their 10,000 hours to reach success.

Compensation Strategy

From here, Gladwell launched into a discussion of ‘Compensation Strategy.’ Basically, this is a learning strategy used by, essentially, underdogs, to make up for what they lack in comparison to the overachiever or the ‘prodigy.’ A study done of football players found that those drafted in the bottom percentile actually performed BETTER than those who were drafted first with high expectations. Since they weren’t expected to have the talent that the first draft picks had, they had to work twice as hard. The result: better performance.

This was tied into the education by applying the same theory to a classroom. A student who has dyslexia or can’t see the board must compensate by being resourceful. He mentioned a study in which it was found that many CEOs of large companies are dyslexic and have compensated by learning how to delegate responsibility well.

Compensation Strategy and Class Size

What was truly shocking about the speech was Gladwell’s argument against the idea that smaller class size would lead to success for all children. He explained that, in a large class, more kids have to compensate, and thereby learn self-reliance. He use the example of Asian students who outperform Western students in every way and yet often have large (40 or more students) class size.

Why I Don't Buy It

Coming from a large inner-city school perspective, I happen to disagree about class size. Our students DO compensate, but it does not help them succeed. I had a 1st grade student who copied magnificently from books and other print materials every time she was given a writing assignment. From a distance, she looked like an on-level writer. If you took the time to read what she wrote, it was copied, verbatim, from a book or the room somewhere, and she couldn't even identify the letters she had made. Other students compensate by copying answers or bullying others into giving them the answers. How this breeds success is a mystery to me, since most of these students leave our school in 6th grade on a 3rd or 4th grade reading level. We all know the statistics when it comes to level of education and incarceration rates.

Feedback and Struggles

Gladwell ended talking about feedback when it comes to learning and success. On this I am in total agreement. Feedback is the most important thing we can offer students aside from the content we teach. For my 1st grader, for instance, were I to just glance at her paper and think "Oh boy, she is really not ready for this assignment," without having a conversation, I have done her a serious disservice. A good teacher would ask questions ("What are you writing about?") or use Small Group Instruction to guide her toward better print concepts. It is also important to praise good work and let students know when they are succeeding. Too much negativity and red marks can discourage a child and 'shut them down.'

In the broader sense, as Gladwell stated, adults need feedback too. He explained that often, one's confidence in one's knowledge grows faster than the knowledge itself. For this reason, decision-makers on every level, teacher to congressman (or woman!) need to know when they are succeeding in the public eye and when they have either failed or let their constituents (yes, teachers have constituents, too!) down.

Feedback and Pop Culture

In pop culture, it is the norm to expect instant gratification. As Gladwell explained, if you don't make the hit the first time, then you're out of luck. Students often fear failure. Maybe they are justified. In the larger world, one failure may be the first and last one you ever have. I believe that a life well-lived is full of failure. It is failure that can serve as feedback and motivate us to work harder, thereby increasing our hours working on a project or a concept. What's that saying? "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger?" I'm not sure whether the Media influences kids' fear of failure, but I could see how watching pretty people on TV succeeding and winning money and when they fail, being shamed, could really have an effect on a young child. Children need first-hand experience with failure, whether it be through a Science Fair project or simply a strike out at the Little League game. Without this, they will never be adventurous and creative for fear of failure.

Final Thoughts

It took me 2 days to finally sit down and write all my thoughts down. I'm not even sure if anyone will read all of this rambling. For me, reflecting on Gladwell's speech was a way for me to organize and unload some of the thoughts floating around in my head. I can't wait to pick up The Tipping Point this summer!


  • Malcom Gladwell writes amazing books and I think you'll love all three. My favorite was Blink, but the other two books IMHO were close behind.

    One of the things that he is so good at is presenting random information that seems to have little-to-no affiliation with the topic, and then tie everything together seamlessly. You've got to be a little careful, however, because there are a lot of generalizations that come from that method. To paraphrase He's Just Not That Into You "people look at exceptions and think that they are rules... but they are merely exceptions to the rules" In other words - just because Fleetwood Mac fit into this story, not every band with 10,000 hours or playtime would've fit.

    That was a very good (and thorough) synopsis of the keynote. Although I wasn't blown away by the actual event, I took a lot of notes and had a ton of ideas pop into my head afterward.

  • Thanks!

    I agree that I wasn't 'blown away' by the keynote. Rather, I was happy to listen to a very talented speaker and thinker. Sometimes it's refreshing, and I also had a lot of ideas pop into my head - hence the blog post!

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