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Malcolm Gladwell’s Article on Teachers


Malcolm Gladwell has an intriguing article on what makes a good teacher in this week’s issue of The New Yorker Magazine. It’s called Most Likely to Succeed: How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?

I’d be interested in hearing people’s reactions.  I’m still thinking about it myself…

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I read it through last night. I like Gladwell and thought the article followed his traditional arc: focus on something unrelated (football) and then connect with the topic (quality of teachers) as a metaphor of sorts, veering off time to time (business).

    The points were well-taken — there really is no way to know if someone has what it takes to be a successful teacher and he turns to the model of business (invest in training a pool and hope that at least a small percentage turn out to be excellent and let the rest go) as one possibility. He makes the point that if we are willing to invest in business, why not our kids?

    There were some interesting observations of teachers in the act of teaching — and how some seem naturally attuned to the dynamics of the classroom and others, not. Those in tune engage students. Those who are not, don’t.

    Gladwell makes the point that some researchers believe that an effective teacher can get through 1 1/2 years worth of curriculum while an ineffective teacher barely makes it through 1/2 year. So, he says, it is better to have your child with a great teacher in a bad school than with a bad teacher in a good school, since everything important is about the teacher and not the facility.

    I’d be interested to know what others think.


  2. Interesting but flawed article from Gladwell.
    As a teacher of middle schoolers I read Gladwell’s article with extreme interest since the issue of teacher merit pay is such a hot political topic right now. Like it or not, the powers that be are looking for a way to improve the quality of instruction by pinning it to teacher competency, and the two factors that have been used to measure this, experience and level of education, are being jettisoned for other research-based solutions.
    I took issue, not so much with the results of research Gladwell cites in his article, as the choice of research. There seems to be an almost romantic obsession with Harvard-based economists right now and while the work of Thomas J. Kane and Douglas Staiger has merit it left me with nothing more than a “yeah, duh” reaction. Of course good teachers exhibit a “withitness” as Gladwell claims. But nowhere in the piece was experience mentioned as a factor that leads to this. Much worse, the article seems to suggest that this quality that good teachers have is somehow inherent, a quality that can’t be measured by certificates, licenses, or University degrees. Once again, ant teacher worth their salt would respond with, “well, duh.”

    “Withitness” CAN be inherent, but more often than not it is learned. Every professional knows that experience is the best teacher. Other examples of obviousness observed by Gladwell and the researchers; feedback to students so they know where they stand and making connection to student’s lives through the lesson.

    These are the bread and butter practices of good teachers – and they can be learned by bad ones as well. But Gladwell leaves his readers with “same old story” conclusion culled from the annals of the business world (why do people continue to look to the business world for educational?). Good teachers should be hired from a pool of talent after they have demonstrated proficiency at the profession, but to follow this course would require (gasp!) a dedication of funds that would test the public’s will to pay higher taxes.

    Than Gladwell makes the obvious point, “What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?”

    Well, schools and teachers don’t automatically lead to profits and returns! BIG DUH!

    Clearly I was disappointed with Gladwell’s article not because it tried to make a connection between teachers and other professions, but because it makes it sound like teachers are somehow born good – or that there are these “intangibles” that can’t be qualified in the hiring process. And perhaps most glaringly – not one teacher was interviewed or quoted in the piece. And he seemed like such a smart guy. I guess there’s just no way of KNOWING with writers.

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