THOMPSON: Say it Ain’t So
I am still hoping that Outliers will be an outlier. I am hoping that my favorite popular science writer hasn’t "jumped the shark." I laughed off the implication that my city’s schools were failing because Okie "good ol boys" were the descendants of sharecroppers, not Asian wet rice farmers. While not knowing enough to disagree with Gladwell on the merits of KIPP, I wondered whether he knew enough about educational systems to conclude that KIPP is the "most promising charter school movement" in terms of being replicable. I was enjoying Gladwell’s account of the full court press, and I was assuming he would then explain why it wasn’t as effective with the long NBA season. But, Gladwell then wrote that the "David," underdog strategy, was rejected by the "basketball establishment" because the effort required to run a full court press is "too daunting. They would rather lose."
In other words when faced with additional nuance, Gladwell took the easy path and issued a blanket indictment of the "status quo." Rather than ask how to sustain "David" strategies, like the full court press or KIPP, Gladwell played the "drama" card, instigating conflict and disparaging the other views. Checking hyperlinks, I learned that the sports blogosphere is not forgiving of newcomers who do not bother to learn enough about their field before issuing blanket statements. Supposedly Gladwell asked for an hour interview with Rick Pitino, the Kentucky coach who used the press to win a championship, and was told, "Son, you’ll be lucky to get five minutes."
Had Gladwell obtained another 55 minutes with the coach, would it have made a difference? If it takes 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" to learn for mastery, could Gladwell have educated himself enough to write definitively on basketball, KIPP, Lawrence of Arabia, the effects of speech patterns on airline safety, tenant farmers in both hemispheres, and so on? Gladwell’s parables are brilliant tools for simplifying enough to advance a public discussion. It is regrettable that Gladwell’s theories seem to be becoming more precious, quirkier, and more divisive. (And what's up with Gladwell's recent use of racial stereotypes such as blonde basketball players, gritty Irish defensive players, Dutch coaches, and Jewish immigrants [or Asians] who succeed in the inimitable Jewish [or Asian] way but only in the right environments?)
Even so, I’ll stoop to playing the Gladwell card. Kentucky was a bad of an example of David defeating Goliath as the Harlem Children’s Zone is a bad example of the instructional claims of the EEP. That year Kentucky had nine players who turned pro, just as the HCZ has all of the social supports that the Broader Bolder folks could dream of. A lot of coaches have won with the full court press in college and a lot of twenty-somethings have done great work for a few years in inner city charter schools. We still have no reason to believe that "effort-based" learning or pure hustle can meet the Big League challenge of replicating and sustaining educational reforms throughout the nation. Certainly, Gladwell can’t prove that the intensity of young teachers can replace the wisdom of gray haired teachers or coaches.
I watched closely as my nephew won a 3rd, a 2nd, and two national collegiate wrestling championships, which is one of the most "Whatever It Takes"- type of sports. When it came to the long season, it was the young wrestlers who listened to the wisdom of the veteran coaches and slowed it down who peaked for the championship. I have another illustrative metaphor/joke, about the wise old bull, the young bull, and the cows on top of the hill. But I probably should save that punch line for the raunchier arena of the online sports world. - John Thompson