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Malcolm Gladwell the Airmchair Quarterback

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Lead from the Start: Malcolm Gladwell the Airmchair Quarterback

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell the Airmchair Quarterback

Yesterday Eduwonkette responded to Malcolm Gladwell's article on hiring teachers in the New Yorker. In It Gladwell uses the first bad metaphor I have ever seen him write. I am a big fan of Gladwell's work but it seems like he hasn't talked to as many teachers as researchers before writing this article. In it he compares teaching to being a professional football player. I am sure that all of the women I work with will appreciate being compared to a 6 foot 2" football player but the part that is really bad is in portraying the circumstances. Gladwell compares watching players in college to watching teachers in student teaching. He then compares playing pro ball to becoming a real teacher. One way the metaphor breaks down is that even though many players can't transition to the big leagues is that the game changes. It becomes more complex and harder in the pros.

Teaching isn't hierarchical in its demands and schools are not organized so that the same type of practice is needed to be successful in each. The truth of the situation is that in some schools you can teach like a high school quarterback and be fine and in others you have to teach like professional quarterback to be successful. The real difference is that you get paid better in professional football if you are successful whereas in teaching the high school quarterbacks and the professional quarterbacks all get paid the same.

Over on Wonkette's site there is a hearty discussion about what makes good teachers. In it there is discussion about the art and science of teaching. John Thompson suggests that the profession is most like a craft. I tend to agree. Nancy Flanagan has written an excellent response to Wonkette's article as well.

Nancy and I have discussed art and science numerous times in the past. I want to point out that when Nancy says "science" and wonks and researchers say "science" they are not talking about the same thing. When wonks say science they are often proposing a word problem something like this: Teaching Practice A yields student success 88% of the time. Teaching Practice B yields student success 64% of the time. Which practice should you choose?

Nancy is talking about approaching teaching with a scientific mindset. She might choose Teaching Practice A but she might also choose Teaching Practice B at another time just to reach that 12% of kids Practice A doesn't work for.
I keep coming back to the story in Teacher Man where a kid throws a sandwich across the room. In that moment, how does McCourt react? There is no science in that moment but there is something else. There are goals, increasing student engagement and building relationships. Two goals that support and lead to student success although there is no academic element to the situation. What does McCourt do? He eats the sandwich. This is where creativity comes in, in how we react and promote learning "around" the academic content.

One point not mentioned in the discussion so far is the role of Bob Pianta's work in Gladwell's article. I have been a fan of Pianta's work for years. I know that he would not say that teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse but he would agree that the traits of successful teachers can be found in anyone. In the article Pianta highlights what the preschool teacher does that is good teaching, allowing students to show engagement through movement, he also points out what she could have done that would have supported more learning. This is where the profession can be taught, how to maximize learning situations. The teacher does maximize the learning by responding "creatively" to the situation as in she creates more learning using what is out of her control instead of shutting it down.

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At 7:01 AM, Anonymous Nancy Flanagan said...

Hi John.

Be it craft, art or science--it matters little what we label it--the general public still thinks teaching is simply delivering content to kids.

Here's the argument for "science:" a scientific approach to teaching would involve testing teaching strategies and applying the most useful and efficacious for individual children (your example is a good one). A scientific teacher is able to articulate what their learning goals are, and how they know students have reached those goals. A scientific teacher sees teaching as a process of discovery and replication.

In Gladwell's article, he actually describes some of that discover/analyze/repeat cycle--the novice teachers at University of Virginia whose ability to provide useful feedback is being observed. But then, he suggests that some people just "get" how to do that, naturally. The truth is, those processes can be studied, practiced and improved, with good coaching and preparation.

Most of the ed wonks who are looking for higher levels of success are economists, seeking the most "efficient" teaching. Did you see Eric Hanushek's quote in the Gladwell piece about how we could rapidly leverage learning by getting rid of the bottom 6% or so of the teaching force? Hanushek, of course, is a staunch proponent of single-measure evaluation of teaching, and Gladwell doesn't seem to understand that "value added" is more than a statistical tool, correlated with test scores. Or should be...

I think you're right about the faulty analogy. But when I talk to people like Gladwell (smart, but missing some key ideas in evaluating teaching)--or Hanushek (desperately seeking "efficiency") I prefer to discuss the most scientific aspects of quality teaching.

In one of the recent spate of articles praising Michelle Rhee, she snarls something about teachers who say they want to nurture creativity and individual self-worth. She calls this sentiment "crap." It's the teaching artists, even craftspersons, who suffer when self-aggrandizing hardnoses like Rhee want to talk numbers. Teachers must be ready to scientifically (qualitatively and quantitatively) defend their own practice.

Thanks for the good dialogue, John.


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