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Educational Outliers – Applying Gladwell’s Theory Online

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In science, an outlier is on occurrence or data point that falls outside of normal expectations. Malcolm Gladwell’s appropriation of the concept in his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success has implications for nearly every aspect of human achievement, but particularly for education. Gladwell comes across as a strong proponent of the idea that every child can learn, regardless of their innate level of intelligence, and that gaps in achievement can be mitigated through research and understanding of differences in individual background and opportunity (Glazer, 2009).

Though Gladwell himself never addresses online education in his book, I believe that it presents a unique opportunity to actually create a large number of outliers by leveling the educational playing field for people who wouldn’t otherwise have the necessary circumstances to become outliers.

What is an Outlier?
Gladwell uses the scientific premise of a data outlier as the basis for defining the sociological concept he explores in the book. An example that he uses is weather. On a typical December day in New York the average air temperature might be 36 degrees Fahrenheit, with a normal range of zero to 60 degrees. If suddenly the temperature was 95 degrees in mid-December, it would represent an outlier from the norm. The key point here is not that a 95 degree temperature is different from the norm, but rather a consideration of why it is different. This is where this data ceases being simply information and becomes a legitimate mystery.

What Gladwell does is apply the scientific concept of the outlier to highly successful people by investigating the circumstances that contribute to their anomalous success. He explains the concept in more detail in this video from CNN:

Applying Gladwell’s concept of the outlier to online education represents a two-part exercise. First we must determine if online education is creating or has created outliers and then investigate if it is possible to harness the unique individualizing potential of online learning to actually cultivate outliers. There are three pieces to Gladwell’s theory of the outlier that apply to education and shed light on the ways in which online learning could promote “Outlierism”: anomalous circumstances, mitigating intellectual differences, and the 10,000 hour rule.

Anomalous Circumstances
In Galdwell’s theory, the primary driving force behind someone’s becoming an outlier from their peers is their exposure to conditions, resources, or other circumstances that their peers are not. He uses the example of professional hockey players who overwhelmingly have birthdays in January, February, or March. According to Gladwell’s research, there are very few players at the highest levels of hockey born later in the year. The reason for this is the age cut-off dates for junior hockey leagues which create an artificial advantage for those individuals born earlier in the year. The cutoff creates an artificial condition in which those born in the first three months of the year are generally more mature, larger, and faster than others at their level who were born later in the year (any player born up to December 31 of the previous year would mandatorily be grouped with the previous year’s players). These larger, stronger, faster players stand out from their peers, receive more coaching, more practice time, and ultimately play against superior competition, further refining their skills. This produces a self-replicating cycle where it becomes increasingly difficult for players born later in the year to compete on equal terms.

How does this concept apply to online education? Consider the high school student who is already advanced enough to take college-level courses online. They may be ready due to any number of anomalous circumstances, familial support, attending the best elementary schools, superior technology access in the home, a guidance counselor who pushes them, anything. What is important is that any student who is able to jump to online learning ahead of their peers may be gaining advantages in both their content learning and their technological abilities. These are advantages that will multiply as the student continues to advance in the world of online learning and college education.

The earlier that a student is able to begin taking courses online, the further this advantage can extend. The hidden benefits of virtual learning are also enhanced by this early adoption. Self-directed learning and innovative/individualistic thinking are the two most significant benefits that may be enhanced by participation in online education. These anomalous circumstances also serve to minimize the differences in intelligence of individual students.

Mitigating for Intelligence Differences
Another area in which Gladwell’s theory of outliers applies to education is in the idea that you just have to be “smart enough” for unique circumstances to be of significant benefit. In the book, he goes to great lengths to debunk the idea that higher IQ is a significant advantage. Rather, he puts forth the notion that you simply need to be “smart enough” to recognize and take advantage of the unique opportunities that present themselves to you.

For educators and eternal optimists alike (if there is actually a difference between the two), this idea provides a great deal of hope that, given the right set of circumstances, any student can learn and excel in their education. Online education provides a medium in which any student can find the circumstances that will allow them to excel.

The vastness of the virtual learning landscape provides opportunities to suit any type of learner interested in virtually any area of inquiry. From formal university-based classes, to self-directed study, digital badges, and other informal options, there is a type of learning available online to suit any learner. This freedom can help those who would not excel in a traditional classroom, because they don’t subscribe to the normative definition of "intelligence," to find a niche where they can thrive by pursuing their learning in alternative ways. More important than intelligence in Gladwell’s view is perseverance and the sheer amount of time you dedicate to your learning – Thus the 10,000 hour rule.

The 10,000 Hour Rule
In addition to being “smart enough” Gladwell also believes, based on data collected by expertise researchers, that there is a threshold of 10,000 hours of practice/participation in a field required to become an expert. This brief interview with Bill Gates, who features prominently in the book, helps to unpack the complexity of the 10,000 hour rule:

 

Gates’ point that you need a certain degree of "fanaticism" in order to become great at something is worth noting here. Traditionally, our formal education system has inspired very little fanatical pursuit of learning in those pushed through it. The contrast with virtual learning is that students are largely free to pursue what interests them, rather than some standardized curricularly prescribed, rote memorization which has limited real world relevance. Online learning can not only support the type of fanatical interests in a subject that Gates talks about – It can inspire it.

The opportunity to pursue any possible learning path and area of interest widens the possibility of creating outliers in ways in which traditional classroom learning never could. This is exactly why Gates dropped out of college. He could not pursue his fanatical obsession within the structure of a university, so he quit and created his own structure, narrowly focused on what he wanted to learn. Virtual education inherently supports the type of individual pursuits that previously caused the most successful individuals to opt out of the education system.

Online Learning and Outliers
Participation in virtual education, from an early age, has the potential to create a new generation of learners who all have the necessary elements to become outliers in their own right. While the very idea of everyone being an outlier seems paradoxical to the very concept, it really is not. If we think about the outlier not as someone who falls beyond the normal boundaries of the education system, but rather as someone whose education makes them fall beyond society’s expectations of what an educated individual looks like, everything falls into place.

Supporting outlierism through online education is a natural way of facilitating the type of innovative and creative thinking that is necessary to thrive in an information-based economy. In a world where the creation and dissemination of new information is the key to economic viability, you actually have to be an outlier to some extent in order to have anything meaningful to contribute. There is no fundamental contradiction between online learning and the cultivation of outliers. The very nature of the Internet and the vast and constantly changing educational opportunities available on it make these two concepts natural partners in building a world full of innovative thinkers – otherwise known as Outliers.