Outliers (Part 2): Why the rich get richer

Monday, May 14, 2012

           Gladwell’s Outliers is a thought-provoking enjoyable read.  Though I don’t necessarily agree with all of his conclusions (see previous post), one in particular hit a homerun with me.  One of his major points is that successful people come from families and cultures that indoctrinate successful behaviors, like how to challenge authority and beat the system within the system. To illustrate his point, Gladwell describes a mother from a well-to-do family encouraging her child to discuss his health concerns with his doctor.  Gladwell compares this to other cultures in which children are taught to submit to authorities (like teachers and doctors), rather than question, challenge, and engage them.  Gladwell believes that parents from middle and upper classes teach their children what he calls “practical intelligence,” or interpersonal skills. 
Since at-risk populations might benefit from similar instruction, Gladwell highlights a program called SSLANT at Kipp Academy as model school. Kipp Academy students are taught to
       ·         smile
       ·         sit-up
       ·         listen
       ·         ask questions
       ·         nod when being spoken to
       ·         track with your eyes

 SSLANT incorporates active listening, active thinking, and strong interpersonal connections.   This blows me away in its simplicity and power. As a teacher, my favorite students, my best students did this.  Someone (probably their parents) taught them to do it.  But the kids who sat in the corner with their heads down, mumbling in response to questions simply weren’t taught these simple skills.  And the sad part is, it NEVER occurred to me to teach them, to expect, no, to demand this behavior.
Another advantage of successful people according to Gladwell is that they come from homes full of books.  Most studies agree that early literacy is a huge advantage and that the availability of books in the home is a high indicator of academic achievement.  School and public libraries can rectify this inequity, but they can only get the books in the kids’ hands, the home situation has to support reading.  Is there a place to read?  Is there time to read?  Do other people at home value reading?  Is there someone at home to discuss books with?  To get help from?  Will someone take them to the library?  As long as reading is a chore, as long as it’s something only required at school, it doesn’t matter how many books we can get in their hands because they won’t read them. 
The problem isn’t access to the books, it’s that some cultures don’t value reading.  That’s harder to change.  So how do we fix this?  Schools need to educate parents on how they can best help their child be successful, and they need to bend over backward to incent parents to come to regular training sessions (offer child care in another room, a meal, whatever it takes).  Education needs to be a partnership between parents and teachers.
Books and practical intelligence—yes, but on this next bit I’m back to questioning Mr. Gladwell who believes that the children from higher socio-economic homes are advantaged by their sense of entitlement and by their parents tendencies to over-schedule their children.  What?  What?  
Not everyone agrees that enrichment activities are beneficial.  The backlash from over-scheduling “enrichment” activities is that structured free time doesn’t allow for imaginative play and that adult supervised activities thwart children learning to solve problems and resolve conflicts independently. In fact some claim that over-scheduling leads to the break down of the family unit as kids are shuttled from one activity to the next in place of quality time together.  Gladwell doesn’t address these issues, but does seem to believe that enrichment activities are, in fact, enriching. I’m not sure. What do you think?
And entitlement?  Isn’t that a bad word?  Not so, Gladwell claims.  It is that very attitude of entitlement that leads to success.  You believe you deserve it.  You demand it.  And in some cases (if you work hard and are really lucky) you get it.  
I suppose it depends on whether or not your measure of success is completely materialistic.  Gladwell’s weighs heavily in favor of riches.  Many Americans share his viewpoint.  I don’t.  In some cases entitlement might lead to success, but in my experience it is more likely to engender snotty, lazy, little twerps.  And so, on this note I hold firm.  We don’t deserve anything.  We earn it.  That’s the message I hope to send my kids, and I’ll hold my breath that they turn out “successful” in spite of it.


Kathryn said...

Really interesting post, Mary. I might try and incorporate some of the "SSLANT" techniques next year--I've struggled with one student this year who has the RUDEST body language and complete lack of manners, and it has dragged me down. If I make a point to teach this stuff then maybe I won't face the same struggles next year.

Your comment about entitlement is interesting. I deal with kids who have a sense of entitlement but it's extremely different than the one you're describing. My school has created a culture where students are "entitled" to turn all work in regardless of deadlines (so deadlines really don't exist), retake as many tests as they want, redo as many assignments as they want, etc. It's intended to grade on true understanding but what it's created is a culture of entitlement for our students where they think they can goof off as much as they want and still pick up the slack right at the end. It's amazing how many times these kids will demand extra copies of assignments because they've lost theirs and they know I HAVE to give them more. In their minds, they're entitled to as many second chances as they want--and it's my job to facilitate it. I wish they felt entitled to success but I truly believe they just feel entitled to comfort. There's no push to better themselves--but they've become so accustomed to other people taking care of them, it's not surprising.

Thanks for always producing thought-provoking entries!

Roderick said...

Entitlement might not be negative if you feel you deserve something after you've payed your dues.

My children felt entitled to having positions on the chess team after having spent countless of hours on the elementary and middle school teams and training sessions. They were willing to play against anyone to prove it. They felt the coach would be making a bad decision if they were not on the team.

They can be outwardly humble but still feel entitled. Many kids are like this.

Maybe this is just inner-confidence and I have it all mixed up? Ha.

Mary Sheriff said...

Kathryn, I've had similar struggles. One year I was encouraged by a terrific administer to allow students to retake tests until they succeeded. This experiment failed. Students admitted to me that they didn't bother to study for tests and quizzes the first time because they knew if they failed it they could retake it, and maybe they could pass without studying at all the first time. Unfortunately, when students then failed the tests and quizzes, they compound the problem by forgetting to schedule retakes.

Mary Sheriff said...

Roderick, You bring up an interesting point. If, let's say, your children had worked hard and had been on both chess teams, but were still truly terrible at chess--and they felt that they were still entitled to a place on the high school chess team, then I'd say that's the kind of entitlement that I question. However, if, as you say, your children can prove their worth by winning chess matches, to me that's an inner confidence, not entitlement. Perhaps, though the bigger point here is that Gladwell and I define "entitlement" differently. Thanks for pushing me to clarify.

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