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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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