Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Outliers...a must-read book for teachers & parents!

On a forum I saw a recommendation for a book called Outliers: The Story of Success. Since reading about success isn't high on my interest list,  I was very surprised to find this book so readable, enjoyable, and most of all, fascinating.

In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell explains how we need to look at what surrounds people if we really want to understand what makes them successful. Success hinges on things like a person's family, birthplace, and birth time/date...not just on innate ability.

He illustrates this with fascinating stories that will alternately encourage or frustrate a lot of parents and teachers. Take the case of a winning Canadian hockey team... Upon close examination of birthdates of the hockey players, one realizes that ability is much less a factor than the month in which you were born. Why?

The age cutoff for eligibility in hockey is Jan. 1. So a player born on Jan. 2 could be playing alongside a player born a year later at the end of December. As a young child, the January player has a much better chance of making a more advanced level team because he is physically more mature. On that advanced team, he gets more playing time, better coaches, and better teammates. Over the years, he is groomed to be a top player while a child born in the last several months of that year is simply given less opportunities, even though his natural talent may be the same or better. When data was collected, the birth month issue proved to be true as in "any elite group of hockey players--the very best of the best--40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September, and 10 percent between October and December." The author shows how this is also true of the cutoff date in American baseball and European soccer. The author writes that this "tells us that our notion that it is the best and the brightest who effortlessly rise to the top is much too simplistic. Yes, the hockey players who make it to the professional level are more talented than you or me. But they also got a big head start, an opportunity that they neither deserved nor earned. And that opportunity played a critical role in their success."

The author goes on to tell stories of why one genius succeeds and another fails. Why a certain airline had a horrific safety problem and the steps they took to turn tragedy to success by looking at cultural traditions and the role that they played in communication. (Who would have thought that the way people talked to each other could have such a direct link to airline crashes??) The perfect storm of circumstances leading to Bill Gates' success. And why 10,000 hours is the magic number when it comes to developing professional-level skills..."the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play."

So what do these fascinating stories mean for the average person? Especially if you're a parent or a teacher? A child does not have to be a genius or hugely talented to succeed. But he needs to be given opportunities. In this day and age, I would guess that the stakes are probably very high when it comes to an individual child's learning environment. Is it well suited to learning? Can she get individual attention when she needs it? Does she have an enthusiastic, curious educator nearby? Is someone giving him opportunities to practice, practice, practice the things in which he wants to succeed? And what's important...preparing for the test, or giving children opportunities to make mistakes as they explore the learning process?

You'll love this book. Put it on your summer reading list. ;)

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