Last week, I finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, a fascinating argument for how institutional change comes about (or not). Gladwell identifies three rules for effective change: The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Power of Context. I found myself wondering how Gladwell’s argument applies to teaching and learning.
The Power of Context suggests that if you surround a person who cares about their learning with people who donâ€™t, pretty soon the first person wonâ€™t care much either. If a person doesnâ€™t care much but is surrounded by people who do, they may begin to care more. Suppose thereâ€™s a spectrum of caring. Probably there are people who care so much in the first instance (or care so little in the second) that their context wonâ€™t change that substantially. If the power of context is true, though, shouldnâ€™t we try then to create enclaves of people in education who care.
Iâ€™ve always opposed “honors programs,” which may be seen as such an enclave. Part of the reason was probably because my grades were never good enough to get into such a program, or at least so I thought. Part of it was the view that not all serious students get good grades, and not all those with good grades are serious students; that some students probably participate in honors programs for the credential, not because they offer a better education. Part of it was the liberal notion that we shouldn’t discriminate, that if a program was better for honor students, it should be better for all. Maybe I’m getting conservative in old age, or pessimistic about the education system and human nature, but increasingly it seems to me that not all students want to participate in the life of the mind. (There’s a “duh” moment for you.)
What I’m seeking is a collaboration among students (to include those of us who get paid for teaching and learning) who genuinely want to learn. I hesitate to call this a “program” for fear that some will try to game it. The blogosphere seems to provide one avenue for developing such a collaboration, but at present that collaboration is pretty loose and the connections between faculty and students pretty weak and artificial (excepting of course the readers of this blog). I think we should attempt a more structured educational collaboration by inviting participation among our colleagues (to include those who pay us for learning). Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if we could develop participation in this blog-driven caravan of learning by students from multiple universities in the same way that participation currently exists among faculty/staff?