EDUCATION AND THE TIPPING POINT

TIPPING POINT REVISITED- AND ITS RELEVANCE TO EDUCATION

Good Holiday reading with important insights too.

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 The Tipping Point by British born journalist Malcolm Gladwell is not exactly a new book (2000) but when it came out it caused quite a stir and is worth re-visiting .

The essential thesis of the book is that to make a significant, broadly effective change in how people behave, what they value or in the dissemination of ideas, there is a “tipping point” where a small, precisely targeted approach causes this to happen. The author explores why epidemics reach a tipping point — a moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point — and finds that changes in the messengers, the message, or the context of the message, often very small ones, have occurred.

Gladwell’s Law of the Few involves people and the personality traits of special individuals (connectors, mavens, and salesmen) who become the fulcrum of rapid change. The Stickiness Factor concerns the message or product itself, and how contagious and memorable and impactful it is.

The Power of Context relates to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which the epidemics occur. But many of the reviewers missed its important messages on education .

It’s a book about change. In particular, it’s a book that presents a new way of understanding why change so often happens as quickly and as unexpectedly as it does. Quite often small actions have a huge impact, turning or tipping something small into a lasting phenomenon. What makes TV shows like Sesame Street so good at teaching children how to read? Ideas and behaviour and messages and products sometimes behave just like outbreaks of infectious disease. They are social epidemics.

So The Tipping Point is an examination of the social epidemics that surround us. But epidemics can behave in a very unusual and counterintuitive way. As human beings, we always expect everyday change to happen slowly and steadily, and for there to be some relationship between cause and effect. But it is rarely so simple.

 The author uses the example of children’s television shows like Sesame Street and the Nickelodeon programme called Blues Clues to deconstruct how something that has ‘stickiness’ transforms itself into something much bigger. Both these are examples of shows that started learning epidemics in preschoolers, and turned children onto reading and “infected” them with literacy. We sometimes think of Sesame Street as purely the result of the creative genius of people like Jim Henson and Frank Oz whose puppets had a huge impact (remember the Muppet show ) . But the truth is that it was carefully and painstaking engineered, down to the smallest details. Sesame street episodes were tested on children before broadcast and their responses minutely examined. If a scene was not having the desired impact it was dropped or re-shot By making small changes in presentation, such as repeating episodes and skits, or making the anchor pause just long enough to make the children want to participate, some shows have been able to reach tipping points. The most important aspect of this condition, which most people forget is that it is often the simplest presentation that makes an idea stick in a child’s memory bank Blue Clues was created by a “green team” of producers, Todd Kessler, Angela Santomero, and Traci Paige Johnson, who used concepts learned from child development and early-childhood education research to create a television show that would capture preschool children’s attention and help them learn. They used the narrative format in their presentation of material, as opposed to the more traditional magazine format (Sesame Street), and structured every episode the same way. Whereas Sesame street aimed at encouraging adults to watch with children including in-jokes which could only be understood by adults, Blue Circles didn’t. The Blue’s Clues, has been called “one of the most successful, critically acclaimed, and ground-breaking preschool television series of all time”. Malcolm Gladwell called the show “perhaps the ‘stickiest’—meaning the most irresistible and involving—television show ever” Its innovative use of research, technology, and interactive content has influenced its genre since its debut, including the “gold standard of preschool TV programs” that inspired it, Sesame Street The show’s creators encouraged participation with their use of repetition. At first, Nickelodeon aired the same episode daily for five days before showing the next one. In field tests, the attention and comprehension of young viewers increased with each repeated viewing. Repetition was built into the structure of each episode; for example, “in an episode called ‘Blue’s Predictions,’ the show’s human host, Joe, says some variation of the word ‘predict’ around 15 times.. The programme was repeated five times a week, and children liked this predictability, and learned more it seems from the repetition. Ironically the repetition element which proved so effective with children because of the anticipation was mainly a result of shortage of funds. So this decision acted as a tipping point. The show’s extensive use of research in its development and production process inspired several research projects that have provided evidence for its efficacy as a learning tool. In 2000, four studies, funded by Nickelodeon and the University of Alabama researched the impact of Blue’s Clues on its young viewers. When repeated viewings of the same episode were tested, children showed increased material comprehension, especially in their use of problem-solving strategies. The show improved children’s flexible thinking—solving riddles creative thinking, and non-verbal and verbal skills. Perhaps Gladwells most interesting point though which has the most relevance for education is the Power of Context in Groups. Groups play a critical role in social epidemics. In a group – we’re all more susceptible to peer pressure and social norms (p171). (peer pressure on children is much more influential than parental pressure) The skilful use of group power can spread a new idea. Groups are an environment where new beliefs can be practiced, expressed, and nourished (p173). Small-close knit groups are the most powerful in this regard (p174). Crucially, Gladwell focuses on the Rule of 150.150 people is about the maximum number for a group to maintain its cohesion, so that everyone knows other members of the group, their strengths and weaknesses .

 Beyond 150 our brain finds it hard to cope, which is why the company Gore (as in Goretex) operates its businesses in separate groups of 150 staff ,all called associates. Groups grow too large andthen there is  loose cohesion at 150 (p179). The advantage of adhering to the rule of 150 is that you can exploit the bonds of memory and peer pressure to their maximum (p191). To coordinate one contagious movement you often have to create many small movements first (p192). The 150 rule could have relevance for schools and education more generally .Perhaps schools should limit a year group to 150 for instance. Food forthought.

 The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (ISBN 0-316-31696-2) is a book by Malcolm Gladwell, first published by Little Brown in 2000.

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