Malcolm Gladwell is a good writer with a flair for shining lights on smudged but well-worked subjects. In the Dec. 15 New Yorker he takes on a question at the rotten root of our education system: How can we know which teachers are “Most Likely to Succeed”?
In pursuit of this question, Mr. Gladwell makes several important collateral points almost always ignored by educators, policy wonks and lawmakers. For instance, he declares that “[Y]our child is actually better off in a ‘bad’ school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher.” Mr. Gladwell, however, fails to assert the obvious implication: when it comes to the needs of individual students evaluating schools is totally irrelevant. Thus, rating schools as required by Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation is a waste of time and dollars. Furthermore, it doesn’t take a genius to see that good teachers often teach poor students and poor teachers may sometimes teach good students.
Mr. Gladwell introduces the word “withitness” to mean the array of skills invariably mastered by good teachers—to be a good teacher you have to be with-it. Creating a new word, one that is actually only a synonym for intuition, enables Mr. Gladwell, a masterful writer, to focus special attention on the ultimate answer to the initial question: Since there is no consensus as to what constitutes being with-it, it is not possible to distinguish good teachers from inferior teachers in advance of their performance on the job.
After reading the essay I came away with the impression that Malcolm Gladwell most likely has never taught five classes a day, five days a week for an extended period. I admire and enjoy his writing nevertheless, and although I am sure he knows that students learn a great deal without teachers, I feel compelled to remind him of the defining purpose of all teaching: learning, which of course takes place out of sight or sound in the mind.
I think Mr. Gladwell will agree that teaching is not a pitch-catch, cause-effect, activity (See Note below). Good teachers inspire, direct and guide; they do not push. More importantly, good teachers know that their efforts are futile if their students are not receptive. Great teachers recognizing this accommodate their lessons to foster first a desire to learn. For students who really want to learn, the quality of teaching is unimportant.
I recommend Mr. Gladwell’s New Yorker essay to anyone interested in our school system; it contains fascinating excursions into the elaborate and costly process of predicting success playing in the National Football League, and into a bare bones process one company uses for selecting personnel in the financial advisor field.
In the end, however, his conclusion amounts to little more than the cop-out best expressed, inadvertently I presume, by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a concurring opinion in Jacobello v. Ohio (1964), a case seeking to prohibit hardcore pornography. Telescoping, emphasizing suitably and replacing “pornography” with “good teaching,” it reads, “I shall not… attempt…to define [good teaching]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”
Note: Without contradicting myself, I can assert categorically that teaching does cause learning, not necessarily in the student, but unfailingly in the teacher. I got good grades in math but never knew how little I’d learned until I started teaching it. The third time teaching the curriculum for Algebra II I knew enough to improvise… like, you know, jazz it up.
Marvin Chacher is a San Pablo resident.