The Reflective Educator

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Day: January 27, 2010

My thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers – The Story of Success

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.  It was very cool, I knew a lot of the information provided in it but some of the things had a fresh perspective and were collected in one place.

He starts off with an observation, which I’ve known for a long, long time (from even when I was in school) that kids whose birthdays fall immediately after a cut-off deadline in our society are way more successful than the kids who are near the other end of the spectrum in that area.  Suppose a child is born in January, and the age limit for a sport is 10 years old with a cut-off of January 1st.  The kid born in January will be nearly 10% older than a child born in December if the season starts in December.  At that age, there is a huge advantage to being slightly older, some of the 10 year old kids will even be starting puberty and could be much larger than their peers.

Of course if you look at school themselves, the same problem exists.  Each school has a date they choose, usually somewhat arbitrarily, which determines whether or not they accept students into the school.  In this case a student who is deemed too young has to wait a year, and the students who are just before the cut-off end up starting school almost a year younger than their peers.  Can you imagine how much of a difference this makes?  This results in a 20% age difference between the students on one side of the date to students on the other side.

The solution Malcolm suggests, which makes sense to me, is to create multiple dates during the year for these cut-offs and run simultaneous systems along side each other.  Instead of everyone starting school in September for example, students would start in one of 3 or 4 streams during the year.  You wouldn’t need very much more money to support this system since the number of students wouldn’t change, but it might make a much more equitable system.

There are a lot of areas which Malcolm decides are problems.  He points out that cultural differences and differences in how people of different socioeconomic status react to setbacks and communication are even larger barriers to success.  His argument is pretty complex, but I can see his point.  One example of this is in measurement of reading scores.  If you measure reading scores during the course of a year, kids tend to make about the same amount of progress during the year.  It’s the summer vacations during which the poor kids tend to fall behind the richer kids.  Apparently their school experiences are pretty similar, but what happens outside of school can be quite different.  Over time, these differences tend to amplify.

The solution here is to make the summer vacations shorter.  I know it’s not a popular move for teachers, we really like our 2 month vacations.  We can get course work done, finish building our house, all sorts of projects.  Take this away and you will definitely decrease the quality of life for teachers.  That being said, the improvement on the quality of life and equitability of our system would be dramatically improved.

For the rest of his argument, I strongly suggest reading his book.

My first semester as a teacher – part 8

…continued from here

As the Christmas break loomed in front of me, I began to finally feel more confident in my teaching.  I had more classes which seem to run smoother, not many more, but a few.  A lot of these things though, in reflection, I really don’t think had to do with me.

First, in November our school’s cap on suspending students was lifted as we’d had our annual Title one attendance taken.  Students who were extremely disruptive, even dangerous in the school were now out of school on long holidays.  This meant that my classes were smaller, and that the most disruptive students were generally gone.  It’s not fair for those students, but it made it a lot easier to manage the other 90%.

The second thing that happened is that my 10th grade students decided to declare a truce and finally admit defeat.  They were neither going to make me quit, nor make me cry in class.  I found out from one of them that they had successfully made 3 teachers quit the year before I started and were going for a 4th.  This revelation actually made me feel better, I realized that some of their misbehaviour was deliberate and intended to destroy my self-confidence.  Why did I feel better? Mostly just because it wasn’t entirely due to my bad teaching.

And my teaching was bad.  I mean, you probably remember your first year, it was horrible.  You did everything wrong!  We all did.  We lacked the experience necessary to do our jobs right.  In some schools, the students are forgiving and will even make an effort to help you out.  In others, such as the one I was in, the wolf pack instinct kicks in and the students go for your hamstring.

The third thing that happened during the semester, which always makes me sad when I think about it, is that kids started dropping out of school.  My M$AA class (see an earlier post for the reference) started with 17 students by the beginning of the year.  There was another similar class with 17 students as well.  The second semester they combined these two classes, and by the end of the year I had 6 students who were still attending school.  6 students out of 34!  The only advantage to this was the students who were still attending actually had SOME interest in learning and were more willing to participate.  One of these students passed the state exam with a reasonably strong score for our school (he ended up in the honors stream the next year) and 3 others barely passed.

Finally, I think my teaching improved a bit.  I started to experiment with a larger variety of activities.  I used the time I had with my 10th grade students in the computer lab more wisely.  My classroom management was better, etc… I finally had enough experience with my students that I was angry less often when they were disruptive.

Of all of the things which I do miss from my time in NYC, I am certainly glad I’m not angry all the time anymore.  I used to spend at least an hour each school day angry at someone or just the system in general.  I shouted at students in frustration, and even at coworkers.  I was often very unpleasant to be around.  Since I’ve matured and the teaching I do is in a much more student friendly environment, I am almost never angry not even when students are deliberately trying to antagonize me.

Life was starting to become bearable.  That was until I sold my soul to save my job.

final part