Notes from the NCTM: Malcolm Gladwell Speech

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose14 Comments

Mi gente,

I’m here in Salt Lake City, UT, in a nice hotel with some beautiful mountains in the backdrop. Despite what others may believe, I’m not remotely bothered by the lack of racial diversity in this town. It’s been great. Customer service has been good, the conference in general is good, and the hotel’s awesome. Yes, it’s also because it’s a break from the kids, but the more I go through the conference, the more I find myself thinking about my children in the classroom, the things I do well, and my weaknesses as I hope to finish up the school year strong.

I knew I was in good shape when my group went to the New Teachers’ workshop, and left a good 15 minutes later because we were already prepared. I scoured the program book for workshop and targeted a nice, solid set of topics I wanted to focus on to improve or enhance my teaching. We set ourselves up to watch Malcolm Gladwell (the author of The Tipping Point and Blink, the first of which I read). At first, we were very excited to go because 2 of us had already read his work, but what he had to say blew us away.

This little man with glasses, a fro, and a soft but firm tone to his voice, Malcolm Gladwell really had everyone captivated for a good hour. I’m not sure if the articles that came out got the main idea of his speech, but what I got from him was that, our society really needs to rethink the way we educate our children, especially when it comes to math. He used the example of Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne, two of the greatest artists of the last couple of centuries. While they both have very valuable contributions to the art community, they couldn’t be any more different.

Picasso is the “conceptual innovator,” a man who had a great idea, executed it almost perfectly, and then faded after a while. On the other hand, Cezanne, the “experimental innovator,” worked hard at his craft, and got better with age. To wit, Picasso’s most valuable work was done in his mid-20’s, and he never reached that level of success again. Cezanne’s most valuable work comes in his much later years, to the point that his later work is 15 times more valuable than his earliest work.

It takes hard work and persistence, then, be successful. He continued on into other examples include the Eagles (conceptual innovators) versus Fleetwood Mac (experimental innovators) and Herman Melville (conceptual) versus Mark Twain (experimental). Of course, he brought up some excellent points and stories to coincide with the examples, and had me enthralled all in all.

What gave me pause, however, was when he spoke of KIPP schools, and he brought that up because he discussed the Asian dominance in math (they make up the top 5 countries in math for any country). In particular, he demonstrated how study after study shows that, when it comes down to it, it’s because they don’t have this rush to get these objectives done, the teaching is slower, the students’ mastery dictates the pace, and the attitudes that the students come in with as they enter the school is much more deliberate and highly focused on academic success, which due to a multitude of factors, can’t be said for here. (In one of the studies, there was a 0.9 correlation between the countries’ populations who did well in math and the same participants’ persistence and dedication to filling out a really long survey), so “how well that country does well in math doesn’t have to be measured with math questions.”

He then continued to say that these KIPP schools somewhat take the same approach, extending school time to about 3 more weeks, encouraging kids to think more carefully about their school work. He did retract a little from discussing the KIPP schools because he understood the audience and how this model procures teacher burnout. My only thought and maybe disagreement with encouraging the KIPP school model is the following: how do we expect teachers to become the Cezannes of education if we extend the school hours, take away the unions, and only give teachers a break in August?

He actually continued to talk about how our society embraces the Picasso models, with more one-hit wonders than ever before in the music business (which is why it’s not thriving the way it has before), and the auto industry. I’m interested to see this and other topics discussed more thoroughly in his new book coming out in November, but overall, he completely wowed me with his insight.

I also got a chance to meet him and take a picture with him, which was cool, and it just kicked off a rather enjoyable stay over here overall. In the coming blogs, I’ll delve more deeply into his speech and the workshops I attended. In the meantime, riddle me this, my people:

Are you a Picasso or a Cezanne? Do you see yourself as someone who has a great idea, implement it, and flatten out for a bit, or do you keep plugging away until you get it as close to perfect as possible?

Malcolm answered this with a “Maybe I’m a Picasso, but I sincerely hope, as I get older, that I’m really a Cezanne.” That drew some laughter.

jose, who has never seen mountains like this …

editor’s note: I hope I didn’t misquote Gladwell; I was typing like a madman. Also, this is the condensed version of my rather copious notes.

Comments 14

  1. “only give teachers a break in August..”

    I do not sympathize with you there, most jobs, including those that require a ton of effort and people managing and interaction, (like teaching), don’t give you a break…

    Although I can see why anyone use to getting a summer break out would be a tad pissed. Personally I prefer school year round and would implement it as such. Less freaking pressure for kids to recall crap over such a long break. I ono. But I am not a teacher…

    You gotta send me the picture Jose. I love Mr. Gladwell as well.

    So did you read Freakonomics?

  2. Post

    Well, all the thorough research shows that the there is definitely a relationship between how long the school year is and how effective a teacher is, and unfortunately, there’s a point in which the teacher isn’t as effective. Much of that has to do with how much of yourself you have to give to become a teacher. the reason we have shorter hours is because any good teacher actually spends the extra hours off working on grading papers, preparing lessons, and with whatever time is left, taking care of their personal life. Unlike most other jobs I’ve encountered, you can’t just disband yourself from your duties as a teacher, and that’s why those summers off are critical. Also, just from my experience in summer school, even the most well-behaved and intelligent kids lose effectiveness during that period.

    I wish I could go on, but the one critical question I usually have in response is, “If teaching is just like every other job, then why do we have such low retention? Why do too many people burn out after only 2-3 years?” Even with that long break, schools are having a harder time convincing teachers that this isn’t just a job, but a career.

    And yes, I’ll post the picture soon. I haven’t read Freakonomics, but soon enough, soon enough …

  3. I’m afraid Bam is wrong (but I don’t blame her, because she’s not a teacher :-) Just like a mother needs to nurture herself and have some private quality time to reload her batteries, the teacher also needs to recharge over the summer months in order to be able to give to his/her students the rest of the year.

    Interesting post, thanks for sharing. I am afraid I am more of a Picasso (not that there’s anything wrong with that ;-). I believe I have a creative mind, but I sometimes miss the perseverance to work on perfectioning the ideas and their implementation. On the other hand, I am pretty serious about the things I take on, and invest time and effort where I need to, so that gives me some Cezanne potential.

    What is the central theme of the convention you’re attending?

  4. How’d you use the artist metaphor later in the same day that I wrote about it? Ah, well…

    Bam: If teaching really were like other occupations, where you weren’t on stage 300 minutes a day, plus responsible for the lives of 20-40 minors at a time, plus the weight of social expectations, then maybe a yearlong obligation would make sense. In some other countries, teachers have significant planning time in the day. But not in the U.S. I disagree with Jose on the teacher attrition statistics, but it is true that the 20-24 year old range has the highest exit rate as well as the highest entrance rate…

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    Frum, for your sake, I’m hoping you’re a Cezanne. I’m not knocking Picasso either, but as far as teaching is concerned, maybe if we want to make this into a career instead of a job, we’ll consider the former. Also, this is a math conference, and the title of “Becoming Certain about the Uncertain.”

    Sherman, maybe you’re right about the attrition rates for teachers, but I still feel with the way things are going, that attrition rate will drop. Nonetheless, good points on the stats. I didn’t choose the speech Malcolm was going to say; I simply wrote the notes I heard.

  6. Hmm. Did I touch some nerves?

    I never said anything about you (teachers) remaining effective in a year long class setting. A tad presumptuous are we? Any job with long hours will have an adverse effect on effectiveness. That is not specific to teaching. Do you think that I remained an effective supervisor working 70 hour weeks, and holidays all year long? And no, I didnt get OT. Although supervising and teaching are different, they call on the same fundamental leadership skills. And yes Sherman, I was on stage, (you have heard of HR, complaints, corporate dress code, write up’s, performance appraisals, leading meetings, coaching and developing staff -its a stage dear, and I was a fabulous actress :)).

    Although dealing with people who are considered adults, I encountered a number of interactions and conflicts that were very much like those of children. Learning curves are different; adults, like children, have different skill sets and I had to develop those. Just like a teacher develops students. Imagine teaching an Old Dog new tricks. These are adult learners, and I have to lead them. Very challenging. Especially managing attendance and time sheets, monitoring calls, revieiwing quality scores, having one on one and team meetings. This is not considering the volumes of personal lives you interact with and touch. When you are a leader, of children or adults, it takes a lot out of you, even without the administrative portion.

    Please believe, I understand burn-out, which is why I changed jobs. Kinda like the young and burned out teachers…

    Lastly, Teachers are fortunate because they have summers off. If they had to work full year round, it’d just make it more like “any other job.” Since I work an “every other job,” I can’t say I would sympathize with the teachers only getting 4 weeks of vacation like I do. Agree or not, it’s the truth. Maybe you all don’t know because you don’t have (and perhaps have never had??) “every other job?” If I had the summer to “re-charge” I probably would have remained a supervisor. It can be very fulfilling…

    Much like teaching seems very fulfilling.

    Teaching being a career or a job has nothing to do with what my point was in my previous comment. That aspect relates far more to the quality of the teacher, their need to develop themselves in their craft. However, please consider, for some teaching is a job, for others supervising a team of 17 to 20 needy ass adults is a career.

    Thankfully I know neither of which are my calling.

    I admire teachers. In many cases they have the minds of our youth even when their parents do not. Lord knows I love Jose to death for what he does, (he’d have to tell you about the little boy on the bus in Chicago and how that touched me), that does not negate the fact that I am not remotely bothered by the idea of them having to work over the summer. Nor does it mean that I haven’t noticed a decline in recollection of learning material in students, (ie my younger sister) over the long summer. I’d even support spreading out the breaks. Take a month 3 times a year, rather than all at once. Being out in the summers does not prepare children for the reality that the summers are most likely not going to be theirs when they grow up either.

    Just my opinion.


  7. Post

    I think you bring up a lot of good points, Bam, but I would say that there’s a loaded history with regards to the teaching profession. All the things we worked for as part of our union like having the summer vacations, like the health benefits, come from a history of understanding that this country (and really any country) goes exactly where the education goes. Unfortunately, too many of the politics prevented teachers from becoming the most effective teachers they could possibly be.

    Summer vacations are important not just for us but for all professions, and I think there isn’t a good teacher out there that would want it any other way. I’ve worked in other professions before, corporate, small office, menial jobs, and never did I feel any personal attachment to those jobs the way I’ve had to with teaching. Never did I have to take work home like I do with teaching. Never have I had to think about my public image more than with teaching. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen with other professions, but it takes a lot out of your person as well as your life if you don’t get enough time. (Again, going back to Cezanne).

    Furthermore, I think we need to start thinking about why it is that others who aren’t in the teaching profession don’t get the 2 months (not 3, 2) vacation. Is it because they really really really want them in the office all the time? Yes and no. They will work individuals to the bone, and once they’re dried the person out, the person moves, they don’t have to give the person a raise, and they can get the next person in at the same base salary they were charging to the last person. It can’t be just because people have so many talents that people switch careers 4-5 times in their lifetime after college.

    Also, many people who talk about summer vacations with teachers are usually (not speaking of you) have a hard time criticizing the major corporations and billionaires who, if we even tax them 1%, we’d all have free healthcare any ol’ way. This is why teachers are sensitive about their own summer vacays. In other words, let’s start looking at all the exportation of jobs, and the dirt free labor, the skyrocketing profit margins, and the cutting of vacation time. I know people whose contracts stipulate that, if they give up vacation time, they’ll get basically chump change in return. If they work for 2 years straight, they’ll get an extra day. Wow!

    Just something to think about as this discussion progresses. This explanation’s much clearer, I must say.

  8. Hi Jose,

    Sounds like you’re having a cool time and gaining much good stuff which you can pass on to your kids… kudos for the obvious dilligence with which you’re approaching the whole conference experience!

    I am a tiny bit ambivalent about Gladwell… having read both “The Tipping Point” and “Blink” – both those pieces struck me as momentarily seductive but left no lasting resonance. I am in no way denigrating his obvious education and achievement, am just expressing my own personal experience if his work. I can imagine that he is an awesome and highly inspirational speaker however, with much knowledge to impart.

    Keep up the good work and look forward to hearing more about your time in the gorgeous mountains!

  9. Sorry I am so lat posting on this. I think the important thing about what Gladwell said is that teachers are expected to be brilliant. (or should be) Making a difference in kids lives is not a work a day piece meal type profession. You got to reflect, refract, and reflect again. I am not a Picasso or a Cezanne. I am me…

  10. Hey Jose, I’m chiming in late here. Personally, I love teaching. I love the energy and the rhythm of 30+ kids banging away at a difficult problem, and I already do it all year, teaching summer school sometimes and other forms of teaching other years. I don’t see it as being on stage because I see much of my job as facilitating the capacity of my students to own the stage. But that’s just me; I love teaching and I could do it 365 days a year (grading, on the other hand…).

    From my experience with KIPP teachers, those schools are getting the folks who love to teach, day in and day out, and want the bureaucracy out of their way. I can empathize, and though I chose to stay in the public schools, I’m not going to knock those who are willing and able to get at it for a few more weeks a year than most other teachers.

    I don’t know what KIPP’s turnover is, but if the schools continue to do a good job of educating their kids, I’m not too concerned about it. The schools are, after all, for the kids, and if turnover is high but the kids are learning, then so be it. What relatively little I do know of KIPP suggests that their teachers are not burning out, but I can’t say that for certain.

    Why don’t you go check one of them out? When I called them and asked if I could visit, they were more than willing to accommodate.

  11. Post

    Thanks Socrates. I just might. I have to ask what the turnover rate is for KIPP schools. By all informal accounts, there’s a huge turnover rate because of the tons of time spent working, and working some more. I personally believe that we need to have more experienced teachers in the classroom, and having extended time (and the vast amount of teacher burnout) contributes negatively to that cause.

    Nonetheless, I definitely want to drop by a KIPP school and do some research myself.

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