Malcolm Gladwell is a provocative storyteller.
The author of five New York Times bestsellers examines mundane social-science topics, using research, case studies and individual stories to uncover truths about humanity. His first book, “The Tipping Point,” explored the spread of ideas, while “Outliers” dug to the roots of success.
His newest book, “David and Goliath,” is a series of stories about underdogs and giants. These tales follow individuals facing adversity and the ways they work to overcome and defeat the mighty in their lives.
During research for his 2008 book, “Outliers,” Gladwell visited a Knowledge is Power Program(KIPP) school, an innovative college-preparatory public charter school dedicated to preparing students in underserved communities for success. Gladwell grew enamored of KIPP’s approach to education, marrying encouragement and reward with rigorous pursuit. He has since become a vocal proponent of KIPP schools, and he spoke with Make It Better about KIPP’s operating principles, educational success and leveling the playing field for all students.
Make It Better: When did your relationship with KIPP begin?
Malcolm Gladwell: I got interested in charter schools and innovative educational ideals in “Outliers.” I went to spend a day in the middle school KIPP has in the South Bronx, and I was just so incredibly impressed with what they were doing. I’ve kept in touch with them ever since.
What does KIPP do differently from other schools?
It’s a scalable, reproducible system for educating kids. One of the issues I’ve often had with charter schools or alternative schools is that they can be really brilliant and work incredibly well, but they’re not reproducible. They’re dependent on a small number of extraordinary people—teachers, intellectual leaders—and once that leader leaves or loses interest, the whole process peters out. That’s a wonderful thing for the kids who are there when it’s working, but it’s not a solution.
What I like about KIPP is that it is a solution. It’s a system; it’s trained as a philosophy; it’s reproducible, and that makes me feel like it’s something that can have profound systemic effect on the quality of education in this country.
How do you define success in terms of education?
I think success, for an organization like KIPP, is reintroducing legitimacy into educational systems. The problem now is that a child in a disadvantaged neighborhood can rationally look at their educational opportunities and conclude that they don’t have a chance. And when you have a system where people can’t see a way where their own dedication and hard work can pay off, then you have a society that has no legitimacy.
What KIPP is doing is reintroducing legitimacy to that section of the population. Look at this institution that says, “If you are willing to work hard and be nice, we’ll see to it that that hard work and behavior amounts to something.” It’s not a guarantee—nothing in life is a guarantee—but it is a way of saying, “We’re going to reestablish a connection between your own effort and the results that you get.” That connection is in place for upper middle-class kids in this country, but it’s not in place for kids at the other end of the spectrum.
What has your research taught you about the relationship between serendipity and success?
Any path to success is a mixture of things you have control over and things you have no control over. In “Outliers,” I talked, for example, about how the year you were born in or any number of other factors can have this underappreciated effect on your ability to end up on top. There’s not much you can do about them.
One of the moral functions of things like schools is to try to level the playing field as much as possible. One of the single most serendipitous factors in terms of success are who your parents are, and we should try to do everything in our power to minimize the impact of that. It’s not fair to have background play such an extraordinary role in how life turns out for an individual.
How does accumulative advantage contribute to success?
Very small differences in advantage grow larger and larger over time. The classic example would be reading. If you look at a group of first graders, the difference between the 20th and 80th percentile reader in a class is probably quite small. But if you follow those kids over five years, those differences will grow larger and larger and larger. The kid who finds reading just a little bit easier is going to read more, and because they read more, they’re going to get better at it, and because they get better at it; they get more pleasure out of it, and because they get more pleasure out of it, they read more. The kid who is just a little bit behind and thinks of reading as harder responds maybe by not reading as much, so they’re not in that self-reinforcing cycle and they slip further behind.
We see that in any number of dimensions of people’s lives, that over time, small initial differences in quality of someone’s advantages tend to grow, unless someone steps in and does something about it. That is an argument for restructuring advantage as early as possible in the life cycle of people’s lives. There are certain things you can’t do to intervene as adults. The best opportunity for leveling the playing field is to start at the beginning.
How would you instruct parents to help their children reach their best potential?
I always go back to this: One of my favorite parts of KIPP is the slogan, “Work Hard. Be Nice.” If those two criteria are satisfied, if a student is being appropriately socialized in their environment, if they feel wanted and rewarded, and they have friends, and they are working hard, I think you should be happy. What’s interesting is that once they leave school and enter the workforce, those two criteria really are the only ones that matter. Employers could care less about your scores on a reading comprehension test. They really care about whether you work hard and be nice.
The goal of education is to create well-adjusted, motivated people, people who can find happiness and fulfillment in the world. That’s really what we should have our minds set on.
For more information on KIPP schools, read Susan B. Noyes’s profile here.