Monday, October 5, 2009

Educating Outliers



These days I'm lucky if I get through one book a month, and that one is usually "read" in my car via my iPhone while shuffling kids and critters here and there. My latest is Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. The book is about the fact that extraordinarily successful people owe their success not only to hard work and talent, but also to accidents of birth and circumstance that put them in the right place at the right time.

The last chapter of the book talks how different societies educate their children, and the impact of those educational legacies. Setting aside the question of what "success" is, Gladwell cites research showing that children who perform best on standardized tests are those who spend the most time in school. Personally, I'm not a fan of increasing school hours (and I’m not sure that Gladwell is either, at least in the case of middle class American children). However, there is something that Gladwell said that I think is particularly interesting:


Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds. (page 246)

The reason, he says, for the correlation between hours in school and test scores is simple: the more time a child spends in school, the less rushed the teachers are, and the more time there is to actually explain and think about the material – in other words, there is time for students to learn persistence, doggedness, and the value of hard work.

In most American school settings, unfortunately, children are not taught these qualities. There isn't time. They have forty-five minutes for math each day, and the teacher needs to cover a proscribed amount of material in those forty-five minutes before the students move on to history or language arts or whatever. The day is so fragmented that young people can hardly settle in to think about anything before it's time to move on the next thing, and the next.

One of the things I love about Wellspring is that here, children's need to have their own pace is respected. They are given the freedom to be dogged and persistent, to work on a project until it is done.

My daughter has only been coming to Wellspring for a few short weeks, and already I've noticed a marked difference in her attention span. Before, my husband and I were concerned at her "inability" to sit still and concentrate on anything, to work hard and long to figure things out. She gave up and called for help or moved on to the next thing far too quickly for our comfort. But last weekend, she spent hours outside collecting sticks and acorns and pine cones to construct a (fairly complex and stable) fairy house under a tree in our back yard. She never would have done that two months ago.

In a society where things are moving faster and faster with each passing day and each technological advance, Gladwell’s words should be taken very seriously. During the formative years of our children’s youth, they need to learn the basic skills of success. By the time they are adults, the world around them will have changed in ways we cannot imagine. But the basic skills of success do not change – they need to be able to think, to solve problems, to be persistent and dogged, to work hard. This, they learn at Wellspring.


~KCD

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