Harvard Educational Review
  1. Outliers

    The Story of Success

    Malcolm Gladwell

    New York: Little, Brown, 2008. 309 pp. $19.99

    Well-known for his number-one bestsellers, The Tipping Point and Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, is a thoughtprovoking read for educators. In the book, Gladwell troubles commonly held notions about the nature of achievement and success in the United States. He concludes that society would be better served if we acknowledged that “hard work” alone is often not the locus of success. He urges readers to consider how seemingly innocuous factors such as birth dates can disproportionately advantage an individual’s success, including school performance, while indering that of others.

    Gladwell divides the book into two parts, “Opportunity” and “Legacy.” In the first part, Gladwell illustrates the role of opportunity, often by chance, with examples that demonstrate how some individuals have an unearned advantage on their path to success and achievement. He highlights factors, such as opportunities for practice—citing neurologist Daniel Levitin’s claim that one requires at minimum 10,000 hours of practice time to develop expertise—and family background, that can bring knowledge of particular social mores and other advantages. The second part explores how one’s sociocultural background can affect achievement. For example, Gladwell argues that students from Asian countries score consistently high on international comparative math tests, such as the TIMMS, because of the legacy of rice cultivation and because of their numbering system. The tediousness of rice cultivation, he argues, inculcates an ethic of hard work, while the numbering system aids students in learning to count and do math more efficiently because the numbers are shorter words, easier to pronounce, and more logical—in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, for example, “eleven” translates to “ten-one,” and “twelve” to “ten-two.”

    Throughout Outliers, Gladwell makes his case with educational and noneducational examples. In discussing the importance of birth dates, for instance, he borrows from the work of Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley to show the impact of “relative age.” He uses examples from sports, including the birth dates of soccer players in a recent junior world championship tournament. He writes that August 1 was the cutoff birth date for participation and goes on to explain how the vast majority of players, 135, were born in the three months immediately after August 1, while only 22 were born in May, June, and July. He asserts that players whose birth dates were right after the cutoff had more time than younger players in their cohort to physically mature and develop their skills.

    Gladwell goes on to argue that relative age is just as important in schooling, noting that in countries like the United States, where ability grouping begins in early childhood, students who are among the oldest in their grade will begin the school year more advanced than students who are among the youngest. He claims these older students are then placed in higher-level ability groups, thus beginning a cycle of cumulative advantage and more opportunities for achievement and success. He provides Denmark as a counterexample, where, based on national policy, ability grouping does not begin until age ten, noting that the impact of relative age on success and achievement in school is nearly unheard of there.

    While the book presents a fascinating investigation into the origins of success, an obvious limitation is that Gladwell, a journalist by trade, approaches the book in a way that calls into question how his  findings might hold up to the scrutiny of social scientists. For example, he never approaches issues of validity or methodology. Furthermore, the reader who is familiar with Lareau’s work will doubtlessly question Gladwell’s interpretation of her seminal book, Unequal Childhoods. Gladwell extrapolates from Lareau’s research, which posits that child-rearing practices differ based on parents’ social class background, to claim that the child-rearing practices of wealthier parents are more valuable than those from less wealthy backgrounds based on student outcomes, such as increases in math and reading scores. Thus, Gladwell, while arguing for the importance of reconsidering success and achievement to provide more opportunities to students from disenfranchised backgrounds, implicitly asserts his own narrow view of the meaning of “success.”

    Despite its limitations, Outliers is an interesting and entertaining read, and Gladwell might just be onto something. The patterns noted in Outliers are arguably of real consequence for children in our schools. If, by using these concepts as springboards, educators are able to rethink and refigure how opportunity accrues by chance for certain students but not for others, perhaps we will be able to propose new means by which to provide greater opportunity to more students from varied backgrounds to place them on paths to success.

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