Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Whys?

In our first orientation meeting with our Superintendent, Craig Johnson, we were asked a couple of questions:  Why did we choose to work at ASB? and Why did ASB choose us?  Interesting questions.  For me, the big attraction was that I wanted to be back in a school that was cutting edge, that was using technology to transform learning, that was making informed, data-driven decisions about how technology can support teaching and learning, that was empowering both teachers and students.  In part it was because I wanted to get away from a culture where members of the leadership team made comments such as "cloud computing will fail", "there is no evidence that technology supports learning" and "we are not interested in a 1:1 laptop programme because students already spend too much time looking at screens."  I wanted to work in a school that was thinking forward and where questioning the status quo was encouraged.  I wanted to work in a place that was always asking "Can we do this better" rather than saying "We're one of the best schools in the world, so we just need to keep on doing what we're doing."

But why did ASB choose us?  Well to answer that question Craig referred to a book called "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell.  This was a book that was recommended for our international schools' professional reading group last year (and I hope the group continues next year and that they read it and share it with teachers from other local international schools).  Before Craig answered that question, he talked to us about different places in Mumbai where you can get a haircut:  a swanky salon, a mid-range place or a seat by the side of the road.  What makes someone choose one place rather than another?  Cost, perhaps?  Quality?  ASB is already an "outlier".  It's in the "swanky salon" league as far as fees go.  In a city with almost 40 international schools within a 10 mile radius of ASB, why do parents choose to send their children to a school where the fees are more than twice as high as the competitor schools, probably the highest fees of any international school in the world?  The reason for that is the teachers.  We were chosen by ASB because we too are outliers.  The quality of education we can offer is second to none,

I wanted to find out more.  I wanted to know what makes someone an outlier.  Of course I downloaded the book within minutes!

In chapter 1 of the book, Gladwell writes about a pattern among those who are successfuil in sports.  Depending on the sport, be it hockey. basketball or football, the successful players are invariably born in the months immediately following the cut-off date for age,and these are the ones who are bigger and stronger than those born later in the year.  Way back at the start of their careers, the bigger and stronger children benefit from extra coaching, more play time and so on, which over time leads to then actually becoming better players.   Making a decision early one about which players are talented and which are not, gives a huge advantage to those born closest to the cut off date.

Interestingly enough, the same pattern seems to be shown in education:  a small initial advantage that a child born in the early part of the school year has over the child born at the end of the year persists - it shows itself in achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement.  Teachers, it seems are confusing maturity with ability and giving the oldest students the most attention.  Gladwell refers to this as the Matthew Effect - those who are successful are given the opportunities to become more successful.  Success, he writes, is an "accumulative advantage".

What are the implications of this for schools?  Well my new school is considering different sorts of groupings in the future.  Perhaps this is one of the things that may be considered when thinking about such groupings.

The next chapter of Outliers is equally interesting and also very applicable to education.  I've heard about the 10,000 hour rule before, but didn't know it came from Gladwell.  In Chapter 2, Gladwell writes:
Achievement is talent plus preparation.  The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role that preparation seems to play.
He quotes from a study done in the 1990s By Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music about how many hours the musicians had practiced.  Although all the musicians started playing their instrument around the age of 5, real differences started to emerge at the age of 8 when some students started to practice more than the others.  By the age of 20 these top performers had each totalled 10,000 hours of practice.  Ericsson's study did not find any "natural" musicians who became experts while practicing less, nor did he find anyone who worked harder than the rest but who didn't make it.  The only distinguishing factor was how hard the musician worked (how often they practiced).  Gladwell writes:
The people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else.  They work much, much harder ... Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good.  It's the thing you do that makes you good.
The 10,000 hour rule appears to apply not just to musicians, but also to sports players, writers, and so on.  Generally this is approximately 10 years of study.  For young people it's impossible to achieve 10,000 hours of study all by yourself - you have to have parents who encourage and support you.  Recently I watched a programme about young people in England who were training for the Olympics - clearly the entire family sacrificed to take these young athletes to practice.

Sometimes it's not just the family, it's being given an extraordinary opportunity and also being in the right place at the right time.  When I reflect on this myself, it was pure chance that took me to my first international school in Amsterdam (I met my husband, who is Dutch, by chance as I was travelling through Portugal one summer).  However in the years I was there I was definitely given extraordinary opportunities (certainly I was given 10,000 hours) to develop myself as an international teacher.  The opportunities I had there, and at the next school I moved to, NIST in Thailand, gave me the encouragement and the opportunities to become the teacher I am today.  I am eternally grateful.  I would never be here now without these amazing schools and the wonderful teachers and administrators who worked in them and encouraged me to be the best I could be.

This is what I'm looking forward to here.  Learning new things, becoming better.

Image Credit:  Idiot Question? by C.J. Sorg, 2006 AttributionShare Alike 

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