Sunday, May 2, 2010

Outliers: The Story Of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell’s message is a simple one: to be successful one has to have a certain level of skill or knowledge or intelligence, and one has to be presented with opportunities of which one can take advantage. The ability and the actionable opportunities are both required.

"What is the question we always ask about the successful? We want to know what they are like—what kind of personalities they have, or how intelligent they are, or what kind of lifestyles they have, or what special talents they might have been born with. And we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached the top....In Outliers I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing.....But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot."

He illustrates with examples how factors like intelligence, race, cultural background, home environment, education, age, historical timing, and access to social capital can provide or inhibit access to these opportunities. While this list might seem obvious to a prospective reader, Gladwell points out that these factors often operate in ways that are not always apparent. His examples are always interesting, and occasionally startling.

The author introduces a few concepts that are useful in interpreting how various factors enter into determining success. The first is the concept of being "just good enough." Any endeavor will require a certain level of an attribute such as intelligence, manual dexterity, musical ability or athletic prowess. Gladwell argues, and provides data to support the notion, that this concept of a threshold is real, but once you are beyond that threshold the ability to predict a person’s success becomes less a matter of an innate attribute and more a question who is the beneficiary of opportunities to take advantage of their capabilities.

"Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that 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."

This leads to another of Gladwell’s concepts which he refers to as the "ten thousand hour" rule.

"’The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything,’ writes the neurologist Daniel Leviton. ‘In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again’."

These two concepts are of course related in studying how people become successful. Note that ten thousand hours is about three hours a day for ten years. This is a very large amount of time for anyone, especially a young person, to devote to a single activity.

"It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you are a young adult. You have to have parents that encourage and support you. You can’t be poor, because if you have to hold down a part time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won’t be time left in the day to practice enough. In fact, most people can reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program—like a hockey all-star squad—or if they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in those hours."

The most interesting parts of this book are the examples of how individuals acquire the opportunity to devote this amount of time. The people examined range from Bill Gates to the Beatles. Occasionally, Gladwell’s application of the ten thousand hour rule appears to be a bit of a stretch, but the notion that people have to be provided an exceptional opportunity and have to be able to take advantage of it comes through loud and clear.

The common theme related to success is exceptional opportunity. Gladwell provides numerous examples that are interesting and informative. Rather than summarize them in some linear sense, it is perhaps more efficacious to discuss his conclusions in the context of what they tell us about how we educate our children; or, in other words, how we provide or fail to provide children with the opportunity to succeed.

One more concept must be introduced before the issue of education is addressed. This is the notion of "accumulative advantage."

"It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success. It’s the rich who get the biggest tax breaks. It’s the best students who get the best teaching and most attention."

The first topic Gladwell discusses in his book relates to the discovery of a birth-date-related bias found in examining the rosters of Canadian youth all-star hockey teams.

".....gathered statistics on every player in the Ontario Junior Hockey League. The story was the same. More players were born in January than in any other month, and by an overwhelming margin. The second most frequent birth month? February. The third? March. Barnsley found that there were nearly five and a half times as many Ontario Junior Hockey League players born in January as were born in November. He looked at all the all-star teams of eleven-year-olds and thirteen-year-olds—the young players selected for elite traveling squads. Same story. He looked at the composition of the National Hockey League. Same story. The more he looked, the more Barnsley came to believe that what he was seeing was not a chance occurrence but an iron law of Canadian hockey: 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."


What is being observed here is a perfect example of accumulated advantage. The threshold for birthdates in determining which age classification a youth will play in is January 1. That means someone born in January will be competing with others born in December, nearly a year later. A year is a long time in the life of a child. The January player will tend to be bigger, stronger, better coordinated and more mature intellectually and emotionally. In other words they will tend to perform better. In sports leagues the better players tend to be selected for advanced training with better coaches and in a more competitive environment. They will also get more playing time (remember the 10,000 hour rule). These advantages tend to propagate through their playing years rather than being damped out. This phenomenon has been noted in other sports where similar age cutoffs are applied.

It is not too hard to think of another area in which a similar birth-date bias might take place. How about our education system?

"Parents with a child born at the end of the calendar year often think about holding their child back before the start of kindergarten: it is hard for a five-year-old to keep up with a child born many months earlier. But most parents, one suspects, think that whatever disadvantage a younger child faces in kindergarten eventually goes away. But it doesn’t. It’s just like hockey. The small initial advantage that the child born in the early part of the year has over the child born at the end of the year persists. It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years."

The size of this effect does not appear as large as in the sports leagues where physicality dominates, but it is clearly measurable. It does not take much of a difference in test score to effect placement in a program for the gifted. The author quotes data from fourth grade performance in math and science tests to support this case. He also quotes data that indicates that students born early in the year are more abundant in college enrollment lists than students born later in the year, clearly supporting the claim that this effect persists.

The mechanism for propagation is the same as in hockey: ability grouping in young children. There are a number of approaches to minimizing this effect. One could break students into groups with less age deviation, or we could eliminate ability grouping entirely until students are older and relative maturity differences are smaller. The author points out that Denmark delays ability grouping until the age of ten in order to avoid this issue. Unfortunately that makes it a European idea and we are forbidden to utilize those.

Gladwell makes an interesting excursion into the cultural backgrounds of our society and that of many Asian countries in order to finally say something about why Asian students do better on standardized math tests than US (and European) students.

"On international comparison tests, students from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan all score roughly the same in math, around the ninety-eighth percentile. The United States, France, England, Germany, and the other Western industrialized nations cluster at somewhere between the twenty-sixth and thirty-sixth percentile. That’s a big difference."

Even the most advanced and industrialized societies have an agrarian heritage that colors their cultural outlook. Consider the necessities of agriculture in the US and other Western countries. There is a relatively brief growing season with a lot of effort and activity required followed by long periods of inactivity. Farmers learned that fields produce more if they are not overworked and are allowed to "rest" every few years. Now consider the mindset of nineteenth century educators as described by historian Kenneth Gold. The reformers, Gold writes:

"...strove for ways to reduce time spent studying, because long periods of respite could save the mind from injury. Hence the elimination of Saturday classes, the shortening of the school day, and the lengthening of vacation—all of which occurred over the course of the nineteenth century. Teachers were cautioned that ‘when [students] are required to study, their bodies should not be exhausted by long confinement, nor their minds bewildered by prolonged application.’ Rest also presented opportunities for strengthening cognitive and analytic skills. As one contributor to the Massachusetts Teacher suggested, ‘it is when thus relieved from the state of tension belonging to actual study that boys and girls, as well as men and women, acquire the habits of thought and reflection, and of forming their own conclusions, independently of what they are taught and the authority of others’."

Gladwell contrasts these conclusions with those that arise from the rice farming agriculture common in Asia. The legacy of that agricultural tradition is that you work on your rice paddy every day of the year, and the harder you work the more the plot produces. There is no down time.

"Cultures that believe the route to success lies in rising before dawn 360 days a year are scarcely going to give their children three straight months off in the summer. The school year in the United States is, on average, 180 days long. The South Korean school year is 220 days long. The Japanese school year is 243 days long."

Keep in mind that Gladwell is at this point drawing conclusions about the length of the school year on the basis of math performance which may not be representative of overall "success." However, in that context, he drives the nail in deeper with this observation.

"One of the questions asked of test takers on a recent math test given to students around the world was how many of the algebra, calculus and geometry questions covered subject matter that they had previously learned in class. For Japanese twelfth graders the answer was 92 percent. That is the value of going to school 243 days a year. You have the time to learn everything that needs to be learned—and you have less time to unlearn it. For American twelfth graders the comparable figure was 54 percent. For its poorest students, America doesn’t have a school problem. It has a summer vacation problem......"

Gladwell discusses data which indicate that the key to good performance in math is not so much intelligence as the willingness to stick with problems until you eventually figure them out. Putting in the time seems to be critical in learning math. Yet another interesting, and seemingly, culturally-related phenomena is quoted related to perseverance.

"There is actually a significant scientific literature measuring Asian ‘persistence.’ In a typical study Priscilla Blinco gave large groups of Japanese and American first graders a very difficult puzzle and measured how long they worked at it before they gave up. The American children lasted, on average, 9.47 minutes. The Japanese children lasted 13.93 minutes, roughly 40 percent longer."


The author hammers again on the summer vacation issue with some telling data on reading performance. Gladwell describes the tendencies for poorer parents to leave their children to their own devices during summer vacation. On the other hand, the more well-off families provide a nurturing summer environment where children are encouraged to pursue organized cultural activities, to read books on their own, and are given a sense of greater personal worth. Data is presented which indicates that both categories of students learn at essentially the same rate over the course of the school year, but during the summer the poorer kids lose some of their skills while the richer kids continue to learn.

"Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school....Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.

Several times Gladwell returns to one point that is central to his study of success and critical to his solution for improving a child’s chance for success: the importance of family support. One way or another, successful parents tend to produce successful children. He describes a famous study by Lewis Terman a psychology professor at Stanford who identified several hundred very high IQ children and followed them through to adulthood anticipating that these elite individuals would become important people doing important things as they grew older. Terman was disappointed because his geniuses were not that different from the population as a whole in terms of accomplishments (cue in the "just good enough" concept). Some were very successful, while others were very disappointing in terms of accomplishments. Terman concluded that the major factor in differentiating between the most successful and least successful was family background. In Gladwell’s words:

"What did the [low achievers] lack? Not something expensive or hard to find; not something encoded in DNA or hardwired into the circuits of their brains. They lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world. The [low achievers] were squandered talent. But they didn’t need to be."

Gladwell is an optimist and believes that the data, research, and interpretation provided in his book indicate that we should and can do more to equalize opportunity.

"To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success—the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history—with a society that provides opportunities for all."

The author ends the body of the book with a long section describing a KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) school in the Bronx. There are now a number of KIPP schools spreading across the nation. He provides this particular school as an example of what our education system can accomplish if it is properly focused. It requires both educators and students to commit to spending much more time and effort on schooling. In fact, the time commitment becomes so great that the school environment actually becomes the community environment that the author says is so greatly needed by under-privileged children.

"KIPP is a middle school. Classes are large: the fifth grade has two sections of thirty-five students each. There are no entrance exams or admission requirements. Students are chosen by lottery, with any fourth grader living in the Bronx eligible to apply. Roughly half of the students are African-American, the rest are Hispanic. Three-quarters of the children come from single-parent homes. Ninety percent qualify for ‘free or reduced lunch,’ which is to say that their families earn so little that the federal government chips in so the children can eat properly at lunchtime."

Quoting David Levin, one of the founders of the KIPP school:

"The day goes from seven twenty-five until five p.m. After five, there are homework clubs, detention, sports teams. There are kids here from seven twenty-five until seven p.m. If you take an average day, and you take out lunch and recess, our kids are spending fifty to sixty percent more time learning than the traditional public school student....Saturdays they come in nine to one. In the summer its eight to two."

Gladwell recognizes that this schedule is not for everyone. Most parents would probably think it excessive and perhaps counterproductive. On the other hand, it is similar to the work day in the rice paddies, and probably not too different from what the Japanese see with their 243 day school year. The point Gladwell makes is that this approach does not have to be right for everyone because it is intended to give those who are willing to make the "bargain" with the KIPP system a chance at success that they would not have had any other way.

"Is this a lot to ask of a child? It is. But think of things from [the child’s] perspective. She has made a bargain with her school. She will get up at five forty-five in the morning, go in on Saturdays, and do homework until eleven at night. In return, KIPP promises to take kids....who are stuck in poverty and give them a chance to get out. It will get 84 percent of them up to or above their grade level in mathematics. On the strength of that performance, 90 percent of KIPP students get scholarships to private or parochial high schools instead of having to attend their own desultory high schools in the Bronx. And on the strength of that high school experience, more than 80 percent of KIPP graduates go on to college......How could that be a bad bargain? Everything we have learned in Outliers is that success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed....Nor is it simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them."

1 comment:

  1. What bothered me about this is that it does not take into consideration the cultural context of the students, and whether this success comes at too great a cost. I would have liked to see the "you can be successful if you put in 10,000 hours" tempered by also raising the question of whether the "success" is really worth it and what such success means in terms of one's identity, value system, or other lost opportunities.


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