Gladwell on Teaching

Disclaimer: I think it’s important to take Malcolm Gladwell’s writing with a grain of salt. At times, it seems like he uses small sample sizes or cherry-picks stories in order to support his thesis. It’s important to not take his writing as the absolute authority on his chosen subjects. That said, I like that his writing makes psychological/sociological ideas accessible and understandable.

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw, is a collection of his pieces from The New Yorker. In this volume, he writes about everything from condiments, to Ron Popeil, to the Enron scandal. Tucked neatly in these pages, in an article about former Missouri quarterbacks Chase Daniel and Chase Patton, are some interesting ideas about teaching that Gladwell relates to the trials of transitioning from college to pro football.

Now, I’ve written about The Tipping Point in this space before and how a professor of mine used that to make some important points about music education. That was a case of Gladwell’s ideas being brilliant when given a new context. Unfortunately, when he is writing explicitly about education, his ideas become more puzzling and create more questions than they answer.

This article, entitled Most Likely to Succeed, is certainly a puzzler. In it, Gladwell proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that even good people can have bad ideas. This seems to be a major problem in the field of education—people with good intentions but no prior educational experience are put in a position to make decisions, and often make poor ones. No Child Left Behind is a shining example.

In this article, Gladwell attempts to make a connection between drafting an NFL quarterback and hiring a teacher. As an educator and a sports fan, I was quite interested to see what connections he would make. His main point is that football scouts can not effectively evaluate college quarterbacks until they’ve been given the chance to perform in a pro-style offense, because there is such a big difference between college and professional playbooks. Then, Gladwell claims that it is equally difficult to evaluate teachers until after they’ve had the chance to work in the field for a couple of years because there is such a difference between college and “the pros”.

The whole premise of his article is based on this analogy, and I find a great deal of fault with it.

First of all, comparing the NFL draft to attempts to improve our education system trivializes teaching as a profession. Luckily for Joey Harrington and Ryan Leaf, change in society has never hinged on the play of a quarterback. Educators, on the other hand, can facilitate sweeping changes (albeit very gradually) by virtue of being good at their job.

That might be nitpicking on my part, but the issues don’t end there. At one point, Gladwell states:

Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander’s training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated.

I’m sure that Gladwell means well here. He would no doubt like to improve the US education system, but those few sentences show a lot of ignorance about the nuts and bolts of the profession. His plan to open up teaching to those without education degrees sounds eerily similar to John McCain’s “Troops to Teachers” plan.

For those of you unfamiliar with Troops to Teachers, here’s a brief summary taken from an LA Times transcript of a McCain speech:

MCCAIN: We need to encourage programs such as Teach for America and Troops to Teachers where people, after having served in the military, can go right to teaching and not have to take these examinations which — or have the certification that some are required in some states.

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and McCain’s plan would have certainly sent the US education system to hell in a handbasket. The certification tests that he dismisses so easily are all about content mastery. I don’t care how inspirational or heroic a teacher is, we can’t have teachers in the classroom if they don’t have a good grasp on what it is they are supposed to be teaching.

McCain and Gladwell also seem to casually dismiss the importance of teacher training programs in college. While you can achieve content mastery outside of a traditional teacher certification program, you don’t get the valuable classroom practice or observations that you do in a traditional program.

During my time in the Music Education program at Michigan State, I spent time in at least five different classrooms—observing the teacher and teaching small lessons—before I even began student teaching. Those experiences plus student teaching is where teachers learn how to interact with their students and deliver content. Under the Gladwell/McCain plans, we’d lose that part of the training.

What makes this even more puzzling is that earlier in the article, Gladwell cites a calculation done by Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford. Hanushek says that by replacing the bottom six to ten percent of teachers in the US pool with merely average teachers, the US education system could close the gap with higher-performing countries like Belgium and Canada. Why, then, would we want to take the risk of adding more bad teachers to the pool?

The last issue I’ll bring up here is perhaps the one that bothers me the most. While it’s refreshing to see somebody thinking outside of the box in an effort to help the education system, it’s upsetting to see that they don’t understand how it works. Gladwell calls for a rigorous apprenticeship system, apparently ignorant of student teaching, the rigorous apprenticeship system we already have in place. There are already constant observations, lesson planning, classroom management, administrative tasks, etc. as part of the student teaching internship. Aspiring teachers must already prove themselves over the course of six months or a year before they can be accepted into the profession.