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New Study Says Ten Percent Of Committed Believers Is The “Tipping Point” — I’m Not Convinced


Minority Rules: Scientists Discover Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas is today’s headline at Science Daily. It’s about a new study where researchers claim they’ve discovered that once ten percent of a population develop a strong belief in something, a majority agreement will follow.

I’m not convinced that these computational models work so well in the real world.

What they’re missing, I think, is that it’s not the initial number that’s most important. What’s key is the “who” and if they are willing to do anything about it.

Saul Alinksy, the father of modern-day community organizing and the person who founded the organization I worked with for nineteen years, believed that two percent would do the trick. Here’s what Nicholas von Hoffman, a longtime colleague, wrote:

“Alinsky sometimes explained to new organizers that if you organized two percent of the population – that energetic minority – you would have enough power to overthrow the government. Not that he had that in mind. But with that two percent a successful and powerful community organization could be established.”

And Alinsky strongly believed that that two percent needed to include many leaders — people with a following, people whose judgment others respected.

In some ways, this focus on the “who” along with their actions might be similar to what Malcolm Gladwell writes about in The Tipping Point.

In the classroom, for example, if I think I need some help in changing a classroom culture or attitude, I focus on winning over a handful of leaders, not just any two or three people. And I talk with them about being active in their help.

Having an arbitrary percentage of people believing something but not willing to do anything about it, or being able to have influence with anyone else, is unlikely to result in any change.

Coincidentally, I was reading a piece by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach today (which I learned about via John Norton) who touches on some related points.  It’s  titled Thinking Hard While Running On Empty. She discusses Personal Learning Networks, and wonders if they sometimes can result in people just feeling good without leading to action.

Some of the “school reformers,” like Teach For America, seem to have a pretty good grasp on the importance of developing what Alinsky would consider a committed two percent. The Save Our Schools March this weekend and follow-up actions might have the potential of doing the same for effectively promoting a far different, a more fair and more inclusive vision for our schools.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

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


  1. Very good Larry.

    Sometimes data portray a false sense of the truth. I fully believe in the WHO is a part of the movement. Which has led me to two questions (for now).

    1) Are the authors of the 10% study trying to overcome the WHO factor, which may require only 2% if you get the right WHOs. (I sound like Dr. Seuss at Christmas)?

    2) I think it is odd how the WHOs get the power to become the change agents. Apply this to Michele Rhee. The PR machine and backing of big dollars has made her who she is. It’s not because of her experience in the classroom (3 years and debatable success) or even as an administrator (again 3 years). Yet, her influence has become great. With no disrespect to her as I make this comment, I still can not comprehend why people listen to her as an “expert” on teaching or education (especially if you use the 10,000 hour minimum of Gladwellspeak).

    • Ric,

      Excellent points (whether you sound like Dr. Seuss or not). At this point, I would not consider Rhee a “leader.” I know she’s flying around talking to various politicos, but my suspicion is that she’s only validating what they wanted to do anyway. I’m not convinced she really has that much influence anymore in terms of making things happen.


  2. Larry,

    A nice, concise piece on the focus for intervention strategically. I’ve been spending a lot of time meditating and contemplating Saul Alinsky’s ‘2 per cent’ suggestion. As an educator, I wish it were a much larger number, but as I think of all the students I’ve engaged and how many have actually gone to practice fully what they espoused and dreamt of and how many kept in their mind, but never did much else, I find myself challenged to argue otherwise. That’s not to say that the 2 per cent rule means excluding others (because who falls in there isn’t always obvious at the time), but it does provide a bit of discouragement. Or, perhaps, inspiration to be clever about how one addresses the other 98% more productively. In any respect, I liked your commentary and was glad I found this in my search for Saul Alinsky’s “truth”.

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