The Power of Context

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 don’t, pretty soon the first person won’t care much either. If a person doesn’t care much but is surrounded by people who do, they may begin to care more. Suppose there’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 won’t change that substantially. If the power of context is true, though, shouldn’t we try then to create enclaves of people in education who care.

I’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?

This entry was posted in Blogging as a Teaching and Research Tool, Teaching and Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Power of Context

  1. Isaac says:

    I’m in. 🙂

    To substantively comment though:
    When I was into Marxism, the debate swirled around the opposition of revolution and reform. My “comrades” and I were certain that reform would not get at the heart of the matter.

    Now I’m not so sure that change just doesn’t come at a snail’s pace. Some reforms are “good” and others “bad” and others entirely ineffective (all depending on your perspective). But in general, progress is good, slow to come, and is the result of disaffected people making changes within the given system in one way or the other. So if an amalgam of interested students and educators get together in the blogosphere or elsewhere to create a more immersive educational experience (hopefully for both sides), it will be a good change, even if only a small minority benefits. It would, in my humble opinion, be another step towards a more ideal society free of any discrimination, the vision/hope of which may have first inspired our mutual distaste for honors programs. Then maybe “all students [will] want to participate in the life of the mind,” and the corollary “all people who want to participate in the life of the mind will be students.” Steady as she goes.

  2. Shannon says:

    Yes, yes, yes!! I’ve always disliked Honors Programs for the same reasons (plus I never had grades good enough to get in too). Although I was in TIB in middle school, doesn’t really count though haha ; )
    I’ve been searching for online places for students who have a vested interest in learning but, my google searches have turned up nothing (although I could be googling the wrong key words).
    I’ve also thought about sending out surveys in general to MW students (and others). I want to know what the general perception is of school and what exactly we need to do to help change students minds. I’m just so excited about the caravan I don’t want anyone to miss out!
    I really enjoyed this post, maybe because it addresses some of the things that have been on my mind. Need to blog.

  3. Mary-Kathryn says:

    Do not forget to hold the invitation out to us older students :o)

  4. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » What does it mean to make a course "sticky"?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *