The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference

by Malcolm Gladwell

This best seller focuses on non-linear social changes -- the times when an "epidemic" breaks out.  Such epidemics can be a fashion fad (the revival of Hush Puppies) or an important cultural change (the sudden reduction in crime in New York in the early 1990's).  Drawing heavily on social and behavioral psychology research, but in a very readable fashion, Mr. Gladwell suggests Three Rules of Epidemics:

1. The Law of the Few:  A very few individuals make a difference in the initiation and spread of a cultural epidemic.  Three categories of such individuals are "Connectors" (the masters of weak personal ties to a great many folks), "Mavens" (knowledge accumulators and analyzers with an almost compulsive need to share), and "Salesmen"  (extraordinarily capable influencers).  

2.  The Stickiness Factor:  some ideas and trends are just "stickier".  This part of the book includes a fascinating discussion of the stickiness of  "Sesame Street" and how "Blue's Clues" has taken that "stickiness" for pre-schoolers to a new level.

3.  The Power of Context:  This includes the "broken window" theory of crime prevention, the Fundamental Attribution Error, and Channel Capacity (7 + or - 2), Sympathy Groups (12) and Group Size (150).  

The Fundamental Attribution error stems from the fact that we "instinctively want to explain the world around us in terms of people's essential attributes."  In other words, athletes who hit their shots are better basketball players than those who don't, even if one group is shooting in a dimly-lighted gym and the other in a well-lighted gym.  And, kids who cheat are cheaters, despite research that demonstrates that whether a child cheats and how much varies consistently with contextual factors.

The Group Size points are very interesting for education.  British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has shown that the size of the neocortex (the part of the brain that deals with complex thought and reasoning) in primates seems to be most closely correlated with one thing:  the average size of the group in which the primates live.  Humans have the largest neocortex and can handle the largest group size:  about 150.  Dunbar found that, for 21 different hunter-gatherer societies for which we have solid historical evidence, the average number of people in their villages was 148.4.  The number pops up in many places, including modern business where, for example, Gore Associates, the company that manufactures Gore-Tex fabric, keeps all its operating units to 150, and has a flatter, more responsive organization than its competitors.

The implications for this in schooling are fascinating.  For example, in complete harmony with the research on small schools, Mr. Gladwell says, "If we want to, say, develop schools in disadvantaged communities that can successfully counteract the poisonous atmosphere of their surrounding neighborhoods, this tells us we're probably better off building lots of little schools than one or two big ones."  P. 182.

What kind of epidemics would we want to start in education?  An epidemic of instructional improvement among teachers?  An epidemic of academic effort among students?  Who would be the Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen for such epidemics?  How could a system best organize to provide a supportive context for such epidemics?  What would make those changes "stickier"?  General commentary on this book has pointed out that it doesn't provide many answers for such questions.  But, asking the right questions may be a good start.


Copyright 1998, 199, 2000, 2001  by David N. Shearon