Malcolm Gladwell: Lessons from Fleetwood Mac

By Katie Ash — June 28, 2009 2 min read
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So what did Malcolm Gladwell talk about during his keynote speech at NECC? Fleetwood Mac. No, really. Looking closely at the evolution and success of the late 60s rock band can teach us three important points about creating meaningful learning environments, he said.

The first is that effort is more important than talent. “When we look at people who come to master something ... we have a tendency to telescope how long that learning took place—to think that the learning happened overnight,” Gladwell, a best-selling author of books about culture and society, told the audience of educators and ed-tech leaders. In fact, almost every successful individual or organization puts in at least 10,000 hours of practice first, which averages out to about four hours a day for ten years, he estimates.

That attitude, which emphasizes effort over talent, is crucial to creating a meaningful learning environment, Gladwell said. “Successful learning begins not with talent, but with an approach to the task, an approach that says, ‘I believe that my effort is crucial for getting somewhere,’ ” he said. And that attitude translates to the classroom. “The countries that are successful at teaching math are the ones who have successfully managed to communicate that attitude to their kids,” he said, comparing American students with their Chinese counterparts, who historically outperform American students in math.

The second lesson educators could learn from Fleetwood Mac’s success is the importance of a compensation strategy, rather than a capitalization strategy. In other words, instead of building on successes, the band became better and more successful because they put their energy into compensating for their weaknesses, he said.

Taking that strategy to the classroom means that “we need to have respect for difficulty,” he said. “Requiring someone, in the course of learning, to overcome obstacles is a crucial part of what it means to be an effective learning environment,” said Gladwell. That doesn’t mean educators should intentionally throw up obstacles at their students, Gladwell explained. Instead, schools should be creating “constructive disadvantages for kids,” he said.

And the last lesson educators can learn from Fleetwood Mac? The path to genius is often riddled with experiments involving many different methods and strategies over a long period of time, said Gladwell. Learning does not happen in one big burst of genius, he said. “Sometimes the struggle to learn something is where the actual learning lies.”

The “myth of talent” is something that has gotten a lot of attention lately, both in mainstream media and education. Books like Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin as well as Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck have also poked holes in the idea of innate talent in favor of a focus on effort and practice.

And although, as I pointed out in a previous post, Gladwell himself is not directly connected to the education field—although he has, as some readers pointed out, written about and studied education—I agree that what he talked about Sunday night has definite implications for the way we think about learning and our students.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.