This Issue's Interview
The author of Blink and Outliers on raising the performance of the middle.
By Alexander Russo | May 2009
We tend to think of genius as innate, but in his latest book, Malcolm Gladwell argues that “outliers”—what he terms exceptional individuals like Bill Gates—actually reach their potential as a result of external advantages. We spoke with Gladwell about what that means for schools.Q: Do you agree that schools pay more attention to outliers than they do to “averages”?
A: I very much agree. One reason I spend so much time talking about Asian math achievement is because an effort-based approach to mathematics—as opposed to the talent-based approach that we are saddled with—is an extraordinarily effective way of raising the performance of the middle. The very strategies that are so effective with the top are what hold us back with the middle—and it’s the performance of the middle that holds us back as a society.
Q: Who do you think are the outliers in education?
A: Do we know who the outliers are in a school? I think back on my school years and wonder: Are the teachers that I liked also the ones who taught me the most? I have no idea whether those two things (liking a teacher and benefiting from a teacher) are the same.
Q: American kids spend roughly 15,000 hours in school—way more than the 10,000 you say it takes to master a skill. So why don’t we produce more superstars?
A: The 10,000-hour rule refers to “deliberate practice”—systematic, intensive, feedback-rich, and focused application to a specific task. If every American child did math that way four hours a day, 180 days a year, for 12 straight years, we would be a nation of Einsteins. But, of course, school is necessarily general.
Q: What’s been the response to your proposal to get rid of summer break?
A: What I hear the most is how much it would make teachers’ lives easier. It would reduce the pressure they face to cover all of the curriculum bases in such a short time. Of course, it goes without saying that a longer school year would require adjustments in pay and scheduling.
Q: What do you think of teaching low-income kids noncognitive behavior, such as eye contact, head nodding, and speech moderation?
A: Disadvantaged kids simply aren’t being taught the kinds of skills necessary to compete on an equal footing with their middle-class counterparts. So for that population, I think teaching non-cognitive behavior is crucial.
Q: If you could do one thing to improve academic outcomes for kids, what would it be?
A: Make the money available for longer school years in disadvantaged neighborhoods. And give principals more discretion in hiring and firing teachers.
Q: Who was your favorite teacher, and what was your favorite subject in school?
A: My favorite teacher was my art teacher, George Caesar. Until I was taught by him, I never realized that the world was your oyster—that there was a place to do whatever you wanted to, if you put your mind to it.
Q: You criticized No Child Left Behind in The New Yorker. How do you feel now?
A: At the end of the day, students respond to the passion of their teachers and fellow students. If NCLB gets in the way of that—and I suspect it does—then its costs greatly outweigh its benefits.