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Notes from the NCTM: Malcolm Gladwell Speech

by Jose Vilson on April 10, 2008

in Jose

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.

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