During the course of my research into this Herculean undertaking, Malcolm Gladwell’s work, The Tipping Point was referenced repeatedly by authors on various aspects of educational practice and educational reform. Having just finished Outliers a few months ago (an amazing read by the way), I grabbed a copy and read it through the lens of education and my experiences as a teacher. There is so much great crossover from the application of Gladwell’s tenants to field of education, I thought it merited some ink here.
The Tipping Point is a study of what makes movements work. Gladwell investigates why some products catch on while others don’t, why some ideas spread while other fizzle out, and why epidemics are often wrongly understood and therefore wrongly addressed. Tipping point refers to the moment in time and the actions in that moment that cause a trajectory shift in success. Think about a boat capsizing. There is a moment, a point of no return, where the boat can be righted again if the crew does “X” and if the crew does not do “X” in that moment the craft cannot be saved and it will sink. Within that critical moment, the captain (or dad in the canoe) will either be listened to or not. The captain is a vehicle for a message and the potency of that vehicle makes or breaks that reception. In a less-dramatic example, in the text Gladwell chronicles the resurgence of Hush Puppies shoes. The brand was in serious decline. They were dated, kitschy, and all together unpopular, but then something happened in the mid-90s. The shoes started to fly off of the shelves in New York and the company had no idea why (calls into questions how in-control we think we are of outcomes). It turns out a few really cools kids in Soho and Greenwhich Village bought the shoes precisely because no one was wearing them. Those dozen kids had the social cache to start a new localized trend. Then advertising photographers for entirely different products, seeing what the kids were wearing, placed the shoes on models, expanding the trend to a national stage. Hundreds of millions of dollars were made and a national trend created all because a dozen anonymous hipster teenagers wore some shoes.
In his research, Gladwell identifies three major components in tipping points. The first is The Law of the Few, where three types of people are needed in some combination in order for “X” to go from obscurity to high profile or from isolation to epidemic. The first are the “Connectors.” These people know people, a lot of people and in many different circles. The second are the “Salesman,” those who, because of the right interpersonal skillset, can bring people to a product or an idea. The third are the “Mavens.” These people are “information brokers.” Mavens obsess about details and altruistically seek to give others the vital information. My dad is a maven when it comes to cars. He seemingly knows all there is to be known under the hood. He is not trying to sell me a car or tell me what to do per se, but when he says something about my ride, I listen.
So, what does this have to do with education? In an early chapter Gladwell analyzes why Paul Revere’s ride worked while William Dawes’ –the second rider that fateful night-- ride failed (ever heard of him…probably not, and therein lies the point). Revere’s ride worked because knew everyone along his route. This guy was more connected in different social circles than any founding father. He was beloved, known, and taken seriously. Nobody knew Dawes. He knocks on your door in the middle of the night, you pretend like you are still asleep. Here is the turn: reflecting on my standards-based grading task, I am prodded to ponder how change happens in the field of education. The inside joke is that it doesn’t.
Anytime a school district office wants to form a committee or a task force of some kind to tackle a problem, change a policy, or advance curriculum it seeks members. Often the fledgling committee accepts the wrong people: no salesman, connectors, or mavens. In some cases, I have been that wrong person. The teachers and administrators who typically volunteer for committee work are trying to substantiate a new position they just earned or position themselves for the promotion they want. They are climbers. The remainder of the committee is populated by truly altruistic staff also those who have a personally vested interest in the outcome of the group’s work, and administrators who have been “volun-tolled” to make sure the committee gets the job done. It is not a case of the right people for the job for the right reasons; it is typically more of a case of “we will work with who showed up.” This is not only a less-than-ideal make up, it is doomed to either failure or mediocrity because its construction was not made with an “epidemic” spread of favorability in mind. Think about how wrong the polling was for the presidential election. Of course it was wrong: who would actually want to have that pollster phone conversation with a stranger? And—and this is important—would you want to take political advice from the person who would have that conversation with a stranger?
In order for committees and task forces to work, selection needs to be made by “The Law of the Few.” If the work at hand it truly important then it will only gain the critical mass needed if it is heard, understood, and agreed to. It will be heard not through email or a staff meeting but through Connectors, people who know people. You want to spread breast cancer awareness information? You don’t do it at the library or church. You have beauty salon stylists spread that message to sectors of stakeholders you do not have access to. When it comes to selling standards-based grading to a staff, you are really selling it to an entire community. If parents roundly hate it, no matter how good it is, it will die. If the influential and well-liked teachers at a school hate it, it will be killed in small conversations that administrators never hear. Connectors give you access to people. They put you in touch with who you need to talk to. In our case, they could be PTSA leaders, parents with five kids in the system, the teacher of the year, the teacher who gets the biggest applause at assemblies, even the most jaded veteran teacher (who is just a disappointed idealist, really), and the most overlooked person in education, the site secretary. Her job is to know everyone; she does. The point is, selections should be made strategically with an end goal in mind. To be clear, we are talking about bringing something from obscurity into the public eye and for that viewing to be favorable and for that favorability to grow past the direct presentation.
The second type of member a committee needs is a Salesman. The Salesman wins the crowd that the Connector found. In education, we are inundated with new initiates, new visions, new acronyms. Salesmen break through that. They are the administrators who are happily followed and given the benefit of the doubt without asking. They are the teachers at the center of the action, center of attention, the ones who run a class that no student would dream of skipping. They are the coaches who can convince a fifteen-year-old boy to run three miles at six in the morning. We rarely think about what a nay-sayer needs to hear to come to our side. We just dismiss them without thinking through the reception of our message. The Salesman marches into that conversational battleground and builds an ally; she doesn’t dismiss an enemy.
The last integral member is the easiest to identify: the Maven. If the Maven is the expert, the font of knowledge, then in the education world, this is the best teacher you have on staff, the one winning local recognition and state awards, the one who presents at staff development to standing room only crowds. This person should be Teacher of the Year but does not always win. I can think of several teachers I have worked with who are amazing at their craft, but I never see them on committees (I am obviously not a Maven.), probably because they are busy being amazing back at school. They need to be deputized into committee service if the goal is lofty. Mavens don’t verbally sell a point, their actions do. Then we, as audience, see the Maven support an idea and it becomes transitive. If he thinks it is a good idea and he is an amazing English teacher, then I’ll give it a chance. Think about how we naturally defer to people about restaurants, travel, and technology. If my tech genius brother-in-law says this this is the best laptop in my budget, then that is the one I buy. He is not buying one. He doesn’t really care if I do, but he knows his stuff and I respect that attribute. The field of education is no different. If a master teacher says this is the way to do it, I’m in.
In education, we are constantly swamped with so much to do that we, as a system, resort to triage as a modus operandi and allow the loudest or first voices to be policy makers. Quite possibly, we have the problems we do because we have not examined how we solve problems because our attention is always on the problem itself. But the problems are temporary and when they pass, we are left with what is important, each other.