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Malcolm Gladwell: Lessons from Fleetwood Mac

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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.

6 Comments

Thanks Katie. Interesting. Yes, while Gladwell is not an educator, he has studied the “myth of talent” for quite some time (e.g. see his Talent Myth 2002 post, though it was not in an education context) and he also seems to have a strong interest in education as he has studied and written about it for quite some time.

Thanks also for mentioning the two books by Geoff Colvin and Carol Dweck. I enjoyed both of them. Note that Malcolm Gladwell also wrote a book on this subject, called Outliers: The Story of Success. Also of interest may be an online program developed by the same Carol Dweck you quote and Lisa Blackwell (disclosure: a program which I help operate) called the Brainology® program. It focuses on Gladwell’s first point at the keynote: getting kids to understand that effort is a whole lot more important than innate talent, and giving them the study skills tools to act upon that belief. In our and Carol Dweck’s language, what we do is help them cultivate a growth mindset. We do that by teaching them the science of and malleability of the brain. Check out the website, which includes a demo, at http://www.brainology.us.

I look forward to continuing to follow your updates from NECC, thank you.

The fact that Gladwell is not connected to education makes his information even more important. As an educator, I want to hear from those studying the culture to help me relate and teach more effectively.

Thank you Mr. Gladwell! The Fleetwood Mac analogy was on target. I can use what you said last night in many ways. As an educator, parent and community member I see many who need to use on their compensation skills to survive.

He is a wonderful speaker to watch. He usually has something to offer. And I don't disagree with what he has said as reported here. I just don't think it is anything new or enlightening. The quoted lines in particular could have been and probably were stated by folks like Dewey and every thinking person interested in education since.

I didn't see the actual talk though so there may have been something that doesn't translate well in a summary. I would hate to think that Gladwell is like most every other speaker, creator, software, architect (etc anything to do with education from outside of the field) and giving a substandard effort.

Although Gladwell's three main points are not original, they are valid and an excellent reminder of critical principles of learning. For example, Gladwell asserted that we need to re-examine the word "failure." Often meaninging learning is taking place even though the outcome may not be high on the conventional assessment scale.

Consequently, I think K-12 schools need to develop longitudinal studies of each individual student's education. Currently the emphasis is on aggregate student performances. I have some experience of raising moderately impaired students from, ages 16-18, from 3rd grade math level to 7th grade level in one school year. Yet these students were not praised by the school or the school district, because the students remain below the norm. However, if we recognized individual students' academic growth, it would demonstrate and encourage meaningful learning at the individual level rather than saying the students are failing. Advanced learners would also be motivated to continue their learning rather than slacking off and lowering their output to what remains high on the "normal" scale.

I'm reading Gladwell's Outliers now.

I'd like to like the Fleetwood Mac analogy, but the band's drama--personnel changes, divorces, drug (ab)use (!)--clouds the competency of the members' decisions and goals. They didn't have 10K sober hours, I'll bet. And, when the band broke up, would that be analogous to a teacher's leaving the profession after a wild success?

Fleetwood Mac started as a blues band and, with the addition of two new members, changed direction to pop/rock with its eponymous album, followed by 1977's Rumours. Were the band's experiments towards success on purpose or just luck? Would, say, a teacher change from math to science be more successful, even as an arbitrary risk? (Think about how Garth Brooks tried a stint as rocker Chris Gaines.) Is fluency in teaching a course like playing in a genre--or is all teaching generic, like "making music"?

I don't mean to belittle Gladwell's "10K hours" position. It's valuable and it works, but not when it comes to the past success of Fleetwood Mac. He used the Beatles in his book, and that's a perfect example indeed of surviving turning into thriving. One personnel change, no intra-divorces, no time for drug (ab)use: now that's hours and hours of on-task focus. Yeah, yeah, yeah!

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