Monday, June 29, 2009

In order to fix education - study Fleetwood Mac

I am attending the National Educational Computing Conference here in DC and went to the keynote address by Malcolm Gladwell last night. I was a fan of his after the Tipping Point. I have become a little less so in recent years – especially after reading Freakonomics and seeing a great second reason given for the reduction in NYC crime. It suddenly dawned on me that maybe anecdotal causal evidence should be suspect.

So there I was armed with a healthy dose of cynicism when Mr. Gladwell launches into a comparison of educating our children and Fleetwood Mac. Since many in the audience were from my generation, it was a good hook. The basic premise is that (he managed a quick plug of his book Outliers) we all think of Fleetwood Mac as a kind of overnight success but it took 10 years, 16 albums, many different musicians to get to that big. Note that the core group of musicians who produced the self titled album and Rumors were an overnight success. So it is a bit of a stretch from the beginning – but it was not too much of a leap.

So Mr. Gladwell states that “studies have shown” that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything and that it is almost pointless to rush that time like the 10 years for Fleetwood Mac. He then points out that on the TIMSS test (the math test where US students are horrible) there is a 120 question psychology survey at the beginning. Heinously long for any survey and most kids don’t like to finish it. Turns out that the kids that answer the most questions on the psych test are also the same kids that perform the best on the math test. His dramatic conclusion is that math isn’t about math aptitude but the patience and ability to slog through lengthy, time consuming work – 10 years just like Fleetwood Mac.

Now – his data can be questioned a bunch of different ways – but I do agree with his premise. Here in the US we have come to the “belief system” that you are either good at math or bad at math. And either way, more practice will not help. We choose to ignore the 10,000 hour rule while other countries that have gone way beyond us choose to give everyone a lot of math practice to master the concepts.

Then I got distracted for a little while because I was outside the hall in a viewing lounge and 15 different people were twittering on his talk – pretty funny to see all those computers up on twitter – half of this little audience were in full tweet.

The second lesson of Fleetwood Mac is that they didn’t really build on their initial success – they built on their failures. A capitalization strategy builds on success and a compensation strategy builds on failures. His theory is that people/groups (like Fleetwood Mac) who build on compensation strategies are much more successful. Thus we should let students fail and they will compensate by being better students. He then made it sound like only people who are dyslexic can make great CEO’s because of their compensation strategies.

Again – I kind of agree with the premise and believe that part of our problem over the last 15 years is raising the most pampered generation in history where no one can fail – everyone gets a trophy for participating and we socially promote kids that can’t read.

The final lesson from Fleetwood Mac is that they tried many different music genres before deciding on the California sound (huge leap here – they decided on that because Stevie Nicks joined the band and that is what she was good at). His conclusion is that student learning is likely a zig zag pattern and not a linear progression but all schools are set up on a linear focus.

Again – the data link is weak but the conclusion is sound. We need more individualized instruction and learning that is not structured on an archaic system but is based on the student’s ability to learn.

So I can agree with Malcolm. In order to fix student learning we need to fully analyze Fleetwood Mac - - but the leap it took to get to that conclusion was pretty lame.

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