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EduJello Wrestling, Round 1! Gladwell vs. Gladwell

By Eduwonkette — December 12, 2008 1 min read

A thought experiment: If Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, was to jello wrestle his alter ego on central matters of public education, who would come out on top?

In his article in the New Yorker this week, Gladwell’s argument is that it’s hard to predict who will become a great pro quarterback or teacher before job candidates start playing or teaching. Like most engaged in the teacher quality debate, Gladwell assumes that there are “good” and “bad” teachers, and this quantity exists a priori. But it’s just impossible to observe it before a teacher steps into the classroom. It’s not about training. And it’s not about some schools providing more supportive environments for teaching than others. For Gladwell, it’s about individual “withitness,” and we can’t see it until after the teacher has walked through her classroom door.

It was surprising to see Gladwell focus so heavily on the potential of the individual player or teacher, given that he just penned a book about the importance of social contexts and chance in producing human greatness. As he put it, “The tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured.”

So where’s the “forest” for a quarterback or teacher? It’s a team. Or a school. Even the most gifted quarterbacks end up with pretty crappy pass completion stats if their teammates consistently miss the ball. And a great quarterback doesn’t look so great if he’s a poor fit for the team he’s playing with. The same goes for teachers. So my fingers are crossed that the Gladwell who recognizes the importance of the environments - not just individuals - wins this match.

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