New Yorker: Malcolm Gladwell Punts on Finding Good Teachers

Here is our review of the New Yorker essay, Annals of Education. Most Likely to Succeed. How do we hire when we can't tell who's right for the job? By Malcolm Gladwell.

Picking a great football quarterback. Picking a great financial adviser. Picking a great teacher. Malcolm Gladwell argues in his New Yorker essay that these decision-making processes of selecting the right candidates for a job are related.

I'm gonna hafta dissent. Sometimes saying that apples, oranges and bananas are fruits just isn't enough to qualify as a starting point for an analysis of merit. And saying that scrambled eggs, fillet steak and a tossed green salad are all foods, well yes, but.

In the essay, to be sure, Gladwell does seem to say that selecting the right talent for these jobs are difficult decisions that defy formulaic solutions. Yet he wants us to accept that they share a common problem-solution space. He wants us to allow him to tell us what that is and to accept that there are universal ways to make it more likely that the gate keepers of the respective professions make the right selections.

That is a philosophical leap from the specific to the generalizable that I just don't swallow in this agglomeration of anecdotes. This is why.

Scouts who need to recommend professional quarterbacks observe their performance during real college games. Gladwell tells us that this is not a good gauge of future performance in the NFL. College football is not NFL football.

Managers who hire financial adviser trainees spend loads of time and money ferreting out the best prospects and then spend years grooming and assessing the performance of the lucky few who make it through the vetting processes.

And those who select teachers ought to more seriously evaluate the talent of the candidates for handling classroom interactions, Gladwell argues, so that schools will find the most talented teachers.

Finding the best talent is the universal question. And since there is a high-level question there must be high-level principles that point us to the solutions to the question.

We like Gladwell and his books because he strives in this manner to make the complex sound simple. He does this by seeking out broad and authoritative sounding principles. He does this by making provocative analogies between tangentially related spheres of activity.

But I am a teacher. And I agree that Gladwell is perceptive in isolating some of the outstanding characteristics of great classroom teachers. He has done his homework.

But in this case I am at sea. It appears the Malcolm has no answer, no high level "blink" or "tipping point" principle to offer up to help us see the way to identify or train great or even good teachers.

Gladwell says that it is hard to identify a potentially great professional quarterback based on his performance in college. But scouts do their best anyway.

He says that it is costly to find and groom a great financial advisor. And yet wealth management companies make the investment of time, money and energy to identify and cultivate such an animal.

In this essay when it comes time to answer how to find better teachers for our nation's schools, Gladwell runs some creative razzle-dazzle plays and then he punts.

When I reached the end of the article it felt to me like before he had a chance to write his answer, the teacher announced to the writer that time was up and that he had to put his pencil down, or that the closing bell rang on the Gladwell securities exchange or that time ran out on the Malcolm game clock.

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