Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, is great. He's done it again, putting together a string of great stories that make fairly profound points. I heard him say in an interview that this book is a reaction to the last 8 years of emphasis on individual success. He focuses instead on the ecology of success. I recommend the book.
But one chapter of his really irked me. Gladwell basically accepts that education needs to be more demanding. The example he uses is of Marita, who wakes up each morning at 5:45 and goes to bed at 11 PM. This is not a graduate student. Marita is only twelve.
Gladwell writes that this kind of rigor and time spent will give Marita opportunities that she would never have otherwise. He assures us that this is reasonable. I remain unconvinced.
I’m sure that the data supports Gladwell’s contention that Marita will have more academic success at this rate. I am not so sure that the data supports the notion that Marita will have more life success with this approach.
To digress for one moment, I once heard a claim that even engineers apply less than 20% of what they learn. We spend a great deal of energy getting students prepared but very little time getting feedback on what did or did not work. What, of all that they learned, they really needed. We seem to spend even less time trying to prepare students to become creative, entrepreneurial people who know how to translate raw knowledge into value.
If education is the speed of the engine and life is the speed of the car, we have educational engines revving loudly and, given slips in transmission, drive shaft, and universal joints, wheels on the cars crawling along. Or perhaps a simpler analogy is that we keep pushing harder on the accelerator but don’t ever shift out of first gear. Learning a great deal that we don't know how to - or don't bother to - translate into changes in quality of life seems beside the point.
To focus more on education to the point of putting the kids through a rigorous program that essentially leads to sleep deprivation before puberty is, I guess, one approach. But this seems to me an approach akin to putting more horse power into the engine when the car is still in first gear rather than simply shifting. What if we got better at learning how to apply what we know rather than just learning more?
Regular readers know that I do believe education ought to be transformed – along with the corporation. If we made organizations more entrepreneurial – finding ways to provoke and translate the ingenuity of employees into new products and markets – we’d probably find communities demanding a different kind of education and preparation for life. It is not obvious, though, that the communities would simply demand greater quantities of the education they are already getting.
It might be time to stop finding new ways to push the engine to higher RPMs and instead find someway to shift gears. If today's gains can come only from working kids from 5:45 to 11, where will tomorrow's gains come from? It must just be time to realize that we're reaching the limits of an educational system that was largely defined in the late 19th century.