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Bummer Boy takes on Gladwell, Part 2

In Part 1, I took a philosophical approach to my critique of Malcolm Gladwell and his book, Outliers.  I promised a second part and I’ve really struggled writing it despite having some pretty strong feelings about the book. Not having the book in front of me (I returned it to the library…remember the library?) hasn’t helped, but I think it’s more a simple case of writer’s block. Thankfully, Justin stepped up and wrote a killer post that captured much of what I was thinking.

Thus, to get this stuff out of my system, I’m taking more of a rapid-fire, shotgun approach to this post.  In no particular order…

  • Gladwell claims to have written THE story of success.  But, does he ever define “success?”  As best I can tell, he equates success with “earning lots of money.”

  • Or, maybe by success he means mastery.  After all, this so-called 10,000+ hours to mastery rule seems to be the main takeaway from his book.  Yet, if mastery/expertise only comes after 10,000+ hours of work, how does he have any credibility on anything he says or writes?  Has he spent 10,000+ hours deeply researching “success?”  Furthermore, who does he think he is speaking about learning at a conference of ~18,000 educators?  Surely, he has been learning about learning for 10,000+ hours, right?  He qualifies as an expert on learning, right?

  • Relatedly, the title…Outliers.  In the statistical sense, an outlier is any data point from a sample that is very different than the mean of the sample (typically more than two standard deviations from the mean).  It can be significantly higher OR LOWER than the mean.  So, the first problem is that outliers are not necessarily “higher.”  The second problem is that outliers are not necessarily “better” than the mean.  In fact, in many instances, outliers are problematic; they exist on account of error and not because they are truly significantly different than the mean.  Or, their existence is not due to error and a researcher must consider that the theory underlying the study is flawed.  So, one could argue that Gladwell is attempting to re-think some theory on “success” by pointing to these outliers.  However, that would mean that there is some theory of success that’s radically different than “hard work + opportunity = success.”  I don’t think so.

  • Explaining his story of success by using Fleetwood Mac (as he did at NECC) as an example is ridiculous.  Yes, there was a band named Fleetwood Mac that cranked out a whole bunch of albums and played a whole bunch of gigs before gaining (commercial) success.  But, when Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined the band, everything changed.  To suggest that the entity called Fleetwood Mac pre Nicks/Buckingham is the same as the entity called Fleetwood Mac post Nicks/Buckingham is absurd.

  • Finally, on education…Gladwell joins the growing list of folks pointing to the KIPP schools as evidence of what works in schooling. Have you seen the empirical evidence supporting KIPP’s effectiveness? Probably not, because so little of it exists. Here, Jeffrey Henig synthesizes the research on KIPP schools. A whopping seven whole studies show a small positive achievement effect for KIPP students, but there’s lots of student attrition and huge demands on KIPP educators. Do you think Gladwell has ever been in a KIPP school? Do you think he would send his kids to a KIPP school?
  • Finally, Let me make clear that I’m not anti-Gladwell. I think he’s a fine storyteller…in short form. He’s also an engaging speaker. When he ventures into book-length work, I think he really struggles.

    That’s it; I’m glad I finally got that done. On to more important things…

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    12 Responses to “Bummer Boy takes on Gladwell, Part 2”

    1. So how do you reconcile the fact that people seem to find this type of anecdotal evidence more compelling than valid research? Is it that humans are more wired for stories than statistics?

    2. Anne V (whynot88) says:

      Isn’t it in Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” that he says that “we” love to hear our information in story form? Gladwell is simply following his directive…

    3. A. Mercer says:

      @sylvia, I think we like to learn by metaphor and that’s based on teaching language learners and the little brain theory I’ve picked up from that. It’s how we contextualize. That means that stories work better raw numbers. Also, what would raw numbers about teacher “effectiveness” tell us? What numbers would they be? What would they mean?

    4. I guess most people would agree that (for whatever reason) stories, metaphors and anecdotes make our reptilian brains happy.

      So here we are at this place where research is viewed as boring and not really useful in the “real world”. In the meantime, anybody with a ripping yarn gets attention and acolytes.

      Gladwell’s book is to education as cherry KoolAid is to cherries. But people love the KoolAid…

    5. Jon Becker says:

      Sylvia, a while ago, you were bashing Twinkies. Now cherry KoolAid. Sheesh.

      I’m not sure this is an anecdote vs. research/statistics issue. I think it’s more about logic, empiricism and expertise.

      I’m going to come off as a complete snob here, but…my experience working with lots of adult learners is that there is a general inability in the population to understand basics of logical reasoning. So, when people read a book like Outliers, they read each chapter as an interesting story (which, even I believe, they are). But, they are not necessarily able to see the forest from the trees; i.e. they’ve lost focus on the larger thesis/argument. They don’t bother to examine the logic and how the chapters relate to each other.

      Empiricism (…I’m not entirely in love with Don Tapscott’s books, but at least he’s arguing from data (actually, a huge dataset). Also, I think the best books are based on ethnographic methods; authors who immerse themselves in the culture and ideas about which they write. Gladwell probably never met Chris Langan, let alone spent enough time with him to be able to draw conclusions from his life story. And, do you think he’s ever been to a KIPP school?

      Finally, expertise…whatever happened to “consider the source?” Gladwell tells lovely short stories. That’s his expertise. I’ve said enough about this in the post; he lives as a contradiction to his own (flimsy) thesis.

      Thanks for weighing in, all.

    6. Daniel Rezac says:

      I was at NECC and personally, it’s becoming popular to bash the keynoter at any of these things. The first thing I do before I jump into something like this is take a step back before the hounds jump in.

      There was a lot to take away from Gladwell’s book Outliers, and personally, the biggest thing as an educator that jumped out at me was cutoff dates. The definition of success? I think it’s pretty clear that a dollar amount goes with that, though I think there’s nothing wrong with questioning if that’s right or not. I just don’t think it gets you very far in America to question folks’ capitalistic tendencies especially when most of us tech educators work in the richest districts.

      But I thought that it was very fascinating to see that older 4th graders score higher in math than younger 4th graders and that this can be traced all the way back to when they enter kindergarten. Take into mind the fact that many districts in America are now not allowing any early entry into kindergarten, and this says a whole bunch about who we are giving “special services” too or who we are calling gifted.

      What Gladwell may very well have done is spark the fire for more research, which is only a good thing. If he’s got us asking questions, then there you have it. What I would have liked to see is the story of a successful father or mother, and how many hours they actively put into their raising their kids. No dollar amount equivalent.


    7. Jon Becker says:

      Dan, Dan, Dan…

      The 4th grade achievement point is one of Gladwell’s worst. It is exactly where Gladwell is guilty of selection bias by citing one study and using it to make a point. Gladwell uses Bedard and Dhuey’s work to assert that kids who enter school at an older age than their grade-level counterparts have an achievement advantage in 4th grade. OK, but what about the greater body of research on this issue. The following paragraph comes directly from an article by Lincove & Painter (CITATION: Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 28, No. 2, 153-179 (2006))

      “There are many studies that test the early effects of age at school entry on student achievement in a single school or school district. The results, which are not generalizable to the population as whole, are ambiguous. Generally, studies find that younger kindergarteners have an academic disadvantage (Carter 1956; Miller 1957; Green & Simmons 1962; Dickinson &
      Larson 1963; Hall 1963; Davis, Trimble & Vincent 1980; Langer, Kalk & Searls 1984; Shepard & Smith 1987; Sweetland & De Simone 1987; Cameron & Wilson 1990; Jones & Mandeville 1990; Bickel, Zigmond & Strayhorn 1991; Crosser 1991; McClelland, Morrison & Holmes 2000; Stipek & Byler 2001; Datar 2003). However, longer range studies show this gap shrinking in upper elementary school years (Miller 1957; Davis, Trimble et al. 1980; Langer, Kalk et al. 1984; Jones & Mandeville 1990; Bickel, Zigmond et al. 1991; Crosser 1991). A recent review of studies of age at school entry concludes that any achievement gap closes by the third grade (Stipek 2002).”

      Studies rarely, if ever, exist in isolation. One of the hallmarks of social science is that research builds upon prior research, sometimes through replication and sometimes as branches of previous work. In other words, one study is typically part of a larger body of research. Gladwell fails to mention the other studies, probably because they don’t advance his point.

      Now, you’re assertion that “most of us tech educators work in the richest districts…” is worth exploring. I’ve long wondered how representative the ed. technorati are of the population of the U.S. as a whole. I suspect you are right, but I’d love an opportunity to collect some data. Unlike Gladwell, I like to have multiple sources of evidence as warrants for my knowledge claims.

    8. Daniel Rezac says:

      I never disagreed that studies don’t exist in isolation, but I think Gladwell’s smart enough to know what he did as a prod for more research on the topic.

      Besides we’re just talking academic achievement here. I think Gladwell also suggests that the shear size (which may correlate with age) of older kids in the classroom has advantages that maybe haven’t been measured yet. Surely sports is one of those advantages, but being chosen for other opportunities is definitely an area that I would suggest does offer advantages.

      I’d love to see representative data on tech educators. I think it would make me sad, but I’d love to see it.


    9. “I’m not sure this is an anecdote vs. research/statistics issue. I think it’s more about logic, empiricism and expertise.”

      Perhaps. But it also nicely illustrates the bind we are in. Gladwell is a good storyteller. He publishes books that sell lots of copies. He therefore is an attractive keynote to conferences. A “name” brings in crowds. No conference organizer in their right mind wants to have a keynote who is accurate, logical, backed by research but won’t pull in the crowds.

      People who hear the keynote believe that the good story represents valid thinking in the area. If it’s entertaining, they may also think about hiring him for their next event. The cycle continues, reinforcing the keynote’s expertise in the subject, when actually, his expertise is in good storytelling.

      Rational voices of dissent get blamed for “bashing” the keynote, or hear that even if their objections are valid, at least it gets us talking. Do we really need such an excuse to get us talking? Do we really need to listen to nicely delivered bad data to start to think about good data?

    10. Daniel Rezac says:


      Some folks go to church every Sunday to listen to what they know is nicely delivered bad data, in hopes that they can achieve good data. I’m not one of those folks, but I understand the mindset. I think many folks do need to listen to that nicely delivered bad data, unfortunately.

      Can a sponge think?

      I don’t know if I’d use the term dissenter. Since so many folks I talked with found joy in bashing Gladwell at NECC, it seemed like the dissenters were those that agreed with him.


    11. [...] can also find a valid critical point on Gladwell’s lack of research into the KIPP schools at Bummer Boy’s Educational Insanity, if one were willing to wade through the otherwise convoluted article. Even so, Outliers is pretty [...]

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