Gadwell’s Tipping Point

This week I facilitated a compelling discussion among my undergraduate pre-service teachers about the public purposes of education and schooling in the United States. I framed the discussion using the ideas from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point as they relate to education and technology. I love Gladwell’s work because he takes theories and ideas from the social sciences and shows how they can have real relevance to our lives— which is exactly how I want my pre-service teachers to approach theory and practice (praxis). He’s also a brilliant and thoughtful writer. Drawing from the fields of psychology, sociology and epidemiology, Gladwell uses examples from the worlds of business and education and fashion and media to show that little changes ultimately make a big difference. I asked students to consider tipping points within the history of education (and in the United States. I asked pre-service teachers to view the 2008 feature documentary by David Hoffman titled, Sputnik Mania (55 minutes) that tells the story of what happened to American education during that period in the 1950s. The film powerfully pieces together old footage to illustrate how the U.S. changed our educational system so radically in science, engineering, and math. It’s compelling and technically very well done (Hoffman even begins by thanking all those who captured footage between 1956 and 1958). I add my knuckle bump: 



What makes Sputnik Mania a brilliant teaching tool is how it emotively conveys the “blessing and a curse” complexity about the U.S. governmental push for increased educational rigor and standardized testing in the United States. Coupled with the economic prosperity of the baby boomer generation, it conveys a vulnerability and a tension between the pursuit of individual prosperity (consumerism) and the collective responsibility of a nation (citizenship) while also confounding the notion of “defense.” (From who or what are we actually defending our nation?). 



We discussed such questions as: What does the “good life” and the “American Dream” mean in a post-Cold War era? What should our 2011 high school graduates know and be able to do? Why does it mean to privilege standardized test scores (a la No Child Left Behind) and test performance above all else? We tied these questions back to Gladwell’s ideas in The Tipping Point. Given the current climate of economic insecurity; global warfare; excessive emphasis on standardized testing and consequent shrinking of school curriculum; the demonization of teachers and the marginalization of teaching as a profession; high rates of childhood obesity and increased sedentary lifestyles associated with digital lifestyles. . . have we reached another tipping point in the history of education in the United States? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this discussion (as well as the works of Gladwell and Hoffman) below.

An Education/Technology Tipping Point
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