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Outliers: Reflection on chapters 3-5

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Please post your reflections on chapters 3-5 here and aim to read and respond to at least two people's posts.

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(@sabina)
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Hello everybody, here is my reflection. 

In chapters three to five of the book, the author further develops his reflections about outliers, focusing on the notion of genius. He explores this concept in relation to IQ, and his reasoning is based on the example of Chris Langan, a talented man with a very high IQ who didn’t manage to build a promising career despite his incredible potential. To explain this gap between expectations and realisation, Gladwell highlights the existence of different types of intelligence: convergent and divergent. While the former deals mainly with theoretical principles and abstraction, the latter concerns creativity and practice. Divergent intelligence is procedural and encompasses a positive attitude towards life and the ability to manage relationships and to advocate for ourselves. The writer argues that practical intelligence is every bit as important as convergent intelligence in achieving success. 

 

Divergent intelligence originates from the family background. Once again, the environment in which people grow greatly influences their chances of success and very successful people always possess a combination of convergent and divergent intelligence.

 

What lessons can these reflections teach to me as an educator? I was particularly struck by what Gladwell defines as a “sense of entitlement, i.e. “the ability to actively manage interactions in institutional settings”. The author affirms that children who grow in disadvantaged environments don’t learn entitlement, “they learn constraint”. 

 

The role of a teacher, in my opinion, is to discover the real potential of students, beyond their personal situation, and teach them self-empowerment. An esteemed Italian educator, Don Lorenzo Milani, wrote that education must be tailored first and foremost to disadvantaged students, as excellent students don’t even need school: they’re going to succeed anyway. He said that not taking into account weaker students is akin to creating a hospital for healthy people. Therefore, our focus should mainly be on students who are in greater need. This is the essence of education: to create equal opportunities for everyone. Yet, the whole school system isn’t designed this way, and to create equal conditions for each individual, one should probably upend it, which is not likely to happen. Single teachers can simply do their utmost to encourage growth-mindset, emphasising the belief that intelligence and abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.

 

In the fifth chapter Gladwell challenges the reader by presenting a case that appears to contradict his previous statements. He examines the life and career of Joe Flom, a successful attorney from a humble background in what can be described as a rags-to-riches story. What captivates me about the author’s analysis, is his ability to expand his view from the single case to the entire historical period, carefully scrutinising the multiple elements that factor in a phenomenon. Concerning Joe Flom, Gladwell brings to the reader’s attention the power of demographic luck, and the value of being part of a cultural or ethnic group that experiences upward mobility. History can sometimes reverse situations, and disadvantages can turn into extraordinary opportunities for success. This lesson on the one hand conveys a sense of fortuitousness that leaves us disarmed and powerless. Nevertheless, on the other hand, it teaches us that we must live to the fullest and make the most of each opportunity we have been given.

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@Sabina, I find your comments on Don Lorenzo Milani particularly interesting. While I find the comparison to a hospital for healthy people thought-provoking, I have my reservations. I absolutely agree that some learners come to us with so much family and community support that their success in life is all but guaranteed. But are schools just success factories? Aren't we there to give all of our learners a fresh perspective on the world? 

This interests me because I'm now working in a private university where most students come from well-to-do families and I get the sense sometimes that it's taken for granted that wealthy students have been adequately equipped already and our influence is of negligible importance. But all human beings are in need, even if it's "merely" emotional/spiritual/creative/etc. need. 

I suppose I'm just reluctant to reduce schools and universities to social levellers. And maybe it's that I need to convince myself that even the most privileged students may be in desperate need of the ideas and perspectives we bring to our classes. 

Thanks for consistently showing initiative and getting the conversation started!

🤗

 

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(@ula)
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In chapters 3 and 4, the author argues that successful people have the opportunity of intelligence, though not necessarily that associated with success. He splits intelligence into two categories: analytical intelligence, which can be measured by IQ tests, and practical intelligence, which is acquired through learning rather than being inherent. While representatives of the former are often lauded as geniuses - arguably the ultimate outliers - Gladwell argues that IQ only determines success up to a certain point, which he calls a "threshold effect." In other words, he claims that after meeting a threshold of "smart enough," differences based on IQ tend to level out, and it is divergent thinking, namely the ability to consider multiple possibilities and think creatively, that ultimately plays a role in determining one's success.

Furthermore, the author asserts that practical intelligence is largely cultivated through family, specifically, a family's wealth that has a substantial impact on a child's outcomes - not only because money affords them opportunities to attend good schools and, by extension, benefit from coaches or tutors, but also because the family's wealth correlates with parenting practices that instill the child with varying levels of practical intelligence. What is suggested, therefore, is that well-off parents almost always take an active role in their children's education and development, thereby teaching the young to self-advocate, adapt to the expectations of various people, situations, and experiences, and develop skills that would otherwise not be possible. By contrast, according to the author, working-class parents take a hands-off approach wherein children are left to develop naturally, without much intervention. As a result, they may lack certain abilities that children from higher socioeconomic levels possess.

While these chapters have piqued my interest more than the previous ones, I couldn't help but feel that the author's arguments are at times somewhat exaggerated, particularly the parallel he draws between wealth and the ultimate way of parenting. First off, the assertion that wealth always equals opportunity in terms of intelligence development seems rather arbitrary. Relying on one-off examples as evidence for a universal correlation is inadequate and fails to consider the multifaceted nature of human intellect. Personally, I tend to lean towards the idea that financial prosperity alone cannot be considered a guarantee of superior opportunities and intelligence for everyone.

Parenting practices, to my mind, are shaped by a multitude of factors that extend beyond one's financial status. A family's approach to raising a child is influenced by various elements, such as cultural values, parental personalities, and societal norms. Although wealth may grant access to certain resources and opportunities, it does not dictate the parenting style or the degree of involvement parents have in their child's growth and development.

Furthermore, children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds may still have a say in decision-making, sometimes much more so than their more affluent counterparts, who often have expectations imposed on them. As such, lower-class children may develop a strong sense of assertiveness and resilience as they navigate through challenging circumstances (alone). These attributes are not, therefore, exclusive to children from wealthy families.

Conversely, being born into a well-off family does not guarantee a flawless upbringing. While these families often prioritise education and may occasionally allow their children to advocate for themselves, there are potential downsides to be considered. A good case in point is helicopter parenting, where children are excessively protected and have decisions made for them, thus they are less likely to develop independence and a robust sense of self-efficacy. This lack of autonomy might ultimately hinder their ability to face and overcome life's complexities without relying on external support.

I know that I only scratched the surface of what I wanted to express. I find these chapters a catalyst for further discussion and can’t wait to do so with you guys (especially the interplay between divergent and convergent intelligence, their impact on language acquisition, as well as being a successful teacher/entrepreneur).

 

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@ula Interesting reflection Ula! There's actually a recent interview with Gladwell on YouTube in which he discusses whether his book didn't contribute to or exacerbate the phenomenon of helicopter parenting. As for your criticism of his take on the connection between wealth and parenting, I don't think he's saying anything other than wealth correlates with a sense that the world should take your needs into account. And as we know, entitlement is usually framed as something quite negative and arguably can have negative effects which he doesn't address.

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(@draganas)
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As much as I couldn’t agree with Gladwell’s overly simplistic arguments in the first two chapters of the book, there is some common ground in the next three parts. Here, Malcolm offers insight into those particular skills that give talented people the extra edge to become outliers. Too often, we assume that success is based purely on people’s intellect or physical talents. Genetics tends to play a vital role, but it is hardly the only determining factor.

To describe the differences between an exceptionally intelligent yet underachieving person and an exceptionally intelligent and successful one, Gladwell tells the heartbreaking story of Charles Langan, a genius at an early age, who, because of poor background and inadequate social skills that are a consequence of that, has ended up disheartened and disappointed. Gladwell contrasts him with the equally bright nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who reached the pinnacle of achievement because his family taught him the social skills necessary to work his way through numerous obstacles. Both of them are pure geniuses, but being intelligent is not enough. It matters up to a point, but past that point, other things start to matter more.

Gladwell highlights psychologist Robert Sternberg’s concept of “practical intelligence,” which includes ‘knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect.’ Chris Langan has almost no ability to communicate, or persuade others, and has to do everything alone without the help of others. He doesn’t have parents who will foster and assess his undeniable talent; they don’t teach him how to cope in different settings, nor how to speak up for himself.  He ends up not knowing how to get his way, or how to customize. On the other hand, Oppenheimer learned that it was his duty and right to assert himself. He was seen as special within his family and worthy of interest, almost entitled to privileges.

We are not self-made. I do believe it’s a myth. What truly lies behind success is an individual making the most of hidden advantages, amazing opportunities, and cultural legacies. Many of these things are out of our control. We are made partly by ourselves, but also by the times and society we live in; they provide the conditions for success, rather than individuals alone. And, since society cannot take care of every individual, who is there to resort to? Of course, parents.

Being a parent myself, and an elementary teacher who is in constant touch with parents, I cannot stress enough the importance of parental interest and support, or the lack thereof, on children’s success or failure in life. Those influences impact all aspects of education such as test scores, attitudes toward education, and involvement in extracurricular activities, to name but a few.

To illustrate, from an early age, my kids have shown a flair for mathematics. They could calculate at five without anyone teaching them that. It was just something they were born with. Then they started playing chess and shortly afterward became very good at it. Soon we realized they possess analytical intelligence, the kind of savvy that is a good starting point. But, far from being enough. What my husband and I decided to do was not to let that talent be squandered. They started attending private lessons and joined a chess club. They started playing a musical instrument and handball. Too much you might say. But let me tell you - once you become a parent, it becomes your full-time responsibility to look for those tiny signals that can show you your kids’ interests and start cultivating them. Being a parent is not just fulfilling basic needs;  it’s recognizing your child’s strengths and abilities, fostering them, teaching new skills, nudging, prodding, and encouraging; it’s creating a home environment that encourages learning and staying involved in their education as long as necessary.  

Is it easy? Not at all. You are already juggling so many responsibilities. Now you must find the time and money to invest in your kids’ education, monitor their progress, and shuttle them from one activity to the next. It can be taxing and daunting. But, it’s worthwhile, especially when your kids start to reap the benefits of their hard work.

Don’t get me wrong. We do not want our kids to become math whizzes, and we are pushing them past their limits. We believe that success is not a random act and it rarely happens overnight; we believe that putting the focus on the things they are already good at, and like doing, will importantly alleviate already difficult future pathways and prepare them properly for the world. We are there to invest in them, challenge them, instill in them the importance of education from an early age, and hopefully turn them into confident, productive individuals.

Lexical and grammatical chunks:

Chapter Three:

in the wake of

at stake

wrap one’s head around

off the charts

do justice to so/sth

a battery of questions

amply proved (strong collocation)

have a flair for

in abundance

at the pinnacle of

by no stretch of the imagination

 

Chapter Four:

protracted negotiation (strong collocation)

knock so out cold

get a word in edgewise

in large part

insatiable appetite(strong collocation)

stop cold

have sth backwards

by all accounts

call so on the carpet

a long shot

at long last

talk one’s way out of

zero in on

at a stretch

assert yourself

be better off

have yet to

 

Chapter Five:

by leaps and bounds

rags-to-riches   

put to use

to be endowed with

run afoul  of

the ins and outs

at the turn of the century

better still

 

 

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(@draganas)
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...neither we are pushing them past their limits 😉 .

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(@manentelucas)
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Parts 3 - 5

 

Following up on chapters 3-5 of "Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell continues to challenge long-held assumptions regarding success. These chapters shed light on the relevance of being considered a genius, the influence of family background and the importance of timing. After all, do they pave the way for success? How can I relate this information with my daily practices as DoS and teacher?

 

In chapter 3, Gladwell introduces “Termites” - a group of selected individuals who scored exceptionally high on IQ tests. Through this experiment, he sets out to find out if geniuses will invariably achieve greatness despite their backgrounds and whether exceptional intelligence has a direct influence on someone’s success. I was surprised to learn that the answer is that not all geniuses “exit on top” as some would have us believe. According to the author, the relationship between success and IQ has a threshold and, beyond a certain level of intelligence, additional IQ points won’t necessarily translate real-world advantages. This was certainly thought-provoking as it had me question my own belief system in which I push my learners - and myself for that matter - for exceptional greatness. I have always thought that quantity equals quality. The more homework, the better the results. The more listening, the more skilled we become at decoding sounds. The more overall practice, the closer to the coveted C2 level. But when is enough, enough? Could it be possible that simply showing my students that achieving greatness at language learning does not necessarily mean aiming to be exceptional at an unattainable level?

 

In chapter 4, a different type of intelligence is introduced and here is where the book shines for me. I found this chapter useful in terms of practical application in my work context. Here, Gladwell puts forward the idea of practical intelligence. Put simply, practical intelligence is the kind of savviness that allows you to navigate relationships in order to “get what you want from the world”. It is a type of intelligence that challenges the analytical measurement of IQ tests seen on the previous chapter. What is more, the author asserts that practical knowledge comes from our families and our upbringing. He claims that empirical evidence has shown that well-to-do families pass on a sense of entitlement to their children while fostering their talents and skills. Consequently, children are well-equipped to cope with adversities and succeed in the modern world. Working-class families, however, are intimidated by authority figures and tend to fade into the background. They don’t teach entitlement to their children. They teach constraint, instead.

Looking back on my upbringing made me understand that the way my parents raised me helped me navigate a world full of hierarchical relationships and to question absolute truths. This in turn has enabled me to present my best face to the stakeholders, teachers and upper-management to this day. Practical intelligence has been valuable in my career, allowing me to build relationships, negotiate effectively, and question long-held beliefs in ELT.

 

Chapter 5 takes a step further and underscores the sense of possibility certain people seem to possess. Gladwell introduces Flom, a man born into a poor Jewish family in New York City in 1927 - a time when being Jewish was a significant disadvantage in the legal profession. Despite these obstacles, Flom was able to succeed because he had three things going for him: being born at the right time; having the right cultural background, and, of course, he was lucky. The main idea was to convince readers that success doesn’t just come from an innate ability, but rather it is mostly a perfect combination between family background and timing.

Overall, chapter 5 is informative, albeit repetitive. It purports to provide a new perspective on the factors that contribute to individual success whereas I feel it is something many people have already acknowledged. Furthermore, the chapter fails to acknowledge the fact that success is also about how we choose to respond to the opportunities that we are given. It minimizes the role of individual agency.

 

So far, reading this book has shown me that we’re all products of our environments. Yet, to become an outlier, luck and help play an important, and as it turns out, the Outliers mentioned in the book have always had both along the way.

 

—------------

Words:

Pinnacle

the most successful, powerful, exciting etc part of something

She’s reachers the pinnacle of her career.

 

Floundered

to have a lot of problems and be likely to fail completely

More and more firms are floundering because of the recession.

 

Sprawling

spreading over a wide area in an untidy or unattractive way

There was a big dance floor and several sprawling tiers of tables and bars.

 

Wistful

thinking sadly about something you would like to have but cannot have, especially something that you used to have in the past

On occasions he seems wistful and quiet but he’s only think about their time in ‘60s.

 

Plight

a very bad situation that someone is in

the plight of homeless children

 

Despondent

Unhappy; hopeless

After this scene, all optimism vanished, leaving the members thoroughly despondent.

smitten

subdued

gregarious

 

hold forth

to talk about a particular subject for a long time, often in a way that other people find boring:

She held forth all afternoon about/on government incompetence.

subsumed

 

Ungainly

moving in a way that does not look graceful

a tall ungainly teenager

purported

 

Undercut

to sell goods or a service at a lower price than another company

Our competitors have been undercutting our prices.

 

Chunks/Collocations:

disadvantaged backgrounds

relax entry requirements

painstakingly selected

estranged from her family

something was amiss

scuffed shoes

by leaps and bounds

rags to riches



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@manentelucas Lucas, it's interesting that you found chapter 4 particularly enlightening (to use another light metaphor!). What I found interesting about entitlement is that this word usually has a very negative connotation and suggests someone who's a spoiled brat. So to see it framed this way was quite interesting for me. 

By the sounds of it you feel like you learned positive entitlement growing up. An interesting discussion topic for us might be how we can model this among our students or if we actually see the need to.

Thanks for your contribution! 😀 

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