Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Putting Gladwell's Compensatory Model into Practice or NECC 09 Keynote Part 2!

I've just returned from an energizing visit to Washington DC where I attended NECC, the National Educational Computing Conference. Not surprisingly, my best learning took place in between sessions, at Edubloggercon, in the Bloggers Cafe, and in the evenings. 

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, was the Keynote speaker for the conference on Sunday night. I recorded his talk: click here to listen in new window. For the most part, if you have read the book, you have heard the talk (and vice versa). He has a great message, but I want to know how to put it into practice in the classroom. I put out a call on Twitter to find people interested in talking more about Gladwell's ideas. I was thrilled to have the company of Donna DesRoches, Jen Orr, Laura Deisley and Richard Scullin for this discussion. 

Gladwell spoke about a "compensatory" model of education, where we encourage students to learn how to compensate for their weaknesses, rather than capitalize on their strengths. In our discussion we talked about what this would look like in the classroom. This is what we came up with.

A compensatory classroom would focus, not on where the student is, but instead on how far a child has traveled in his or her learning.  Assessments would be self-referenced, rather than norm referenced. It doesn't matter how students compare to each other, but rather how they compare to where they were before. 

Teachers would encourage students to look at how they are learning, not just at what they are learning. It would be important to assess learning styles and encourage students to work outside of their preferred style.  Students would reflect and share the strategies that worked best for them, taking a metacognitive approach to their own learning. Teachers would differentiate instruction, asking students to try less comfortable learning places and suggesting strategies to help them succeed in those places. 

Students would have more control over what they learn – they would be constantly asking themselves to think about what they are learning and to be looking for their own weaknesses and looking to strengthen them. Mixing kids up would make sense – kids can help each other to compensate

Finally, and most controversially, failure would be valued as much as, or more than success.  If you aren't failing, if you aren't taking risks, then you aren't learning.  Assessments would look for weaknesses, rather than strengths, to encourage students to build on their deficiencies. The things we praise and the ways we praise them would need to change.This is a major cultural shift and would require us to learn to find joy in failure. 

What do you think? What would a "Compensatory Classroom" look like to you? Please share your ideas.

Image Source: Sarah Sutter's photostream on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/sutterview/3670101897/


Simon said...

Wow, a lot of really BIG ideas there Liz. Sounds like a good discussion. As I was reading through your post I was reminded of the struggle it can be sometimes for teachers to develop a socially positive environment in the classroom (or is it just me?). Often when kids in my class fail at a task, one of two things happen; the student is hassled by other students in the classroom (something I do not tolerate) or the student reaffirms their own thoughts that they are stupid and gives up trying.

During this year I have tried actively and purposefully applauding and rewarding effort and even failure as a learning experience. At the moment it has had a small effect on their attitude. Also it needs to be constant and consistent to start to bring around substantial change. That said, I have seen a few shy smiles from students when their effort is applauded regardless of the outcome, which makes it worth it.

Liz B Davis said...

Simon - I think "actively and purposefully applauding and rewarding effort and even failure as a learning experience" is exactly what we all need to be doing. It is the grassroots way to make change. Yes, while I would love to see my headmaster and local superintendent take this on from the top, realistically, we can only do what we can do and it sounds like you are making great steps towards these goals. Thanks for sharing them here.

You also make an excellent point - the way kids respond to failure is not only based on how we as teachers behave, but as much or more based on how peers and parents respond. How can we change that?

Cathy Wolinsky said...

Liz, I didn't make it to your conversation at NECC, but I appreciate your continuation of the ideas Gladwell shared. Recently I was at MIT for Henry Jenkins New Media Literacies day and they have included the idea of the need to "fail & fail often" as part of their learning modules (http://projectnml.ning.com). The effective teachers I work with at the elementary level get this and help students take risks and even more importantly develop an understanding of themselves as learners. It's harder to maintain this atmosphere when I go to the high school, but potentially even more important. Let's keep talking. Cathy

gail said...

Great stuff Liz. Thanks for sharing and I would like to stay connected to this thread.
In a K classroom it involves conversations about what is your best effort, what you notice about your work, self analysis of product so student has ownership of any necessary change for personal goal setting.
I need to do more of this over the course of the day and I need to feel less pressured to get through the content. This review and sometimes public debriefing allows everyone to see where they are coming from and where they need to go. It can also build a stronger community of learners as we stop competing and do more helping/ encouraging. We all feel safer in a community where people are willing to speak openly and honestly about their own imperfections and goals.
Keep it comin' Liz!

mroth said...

Thanks Liz for the link to Gladwell's comments.
Effort, compensation strategies and experimentation with timely and targeted feedback -- what would it look like in the classroom?

Teacher's providing choices of meaningful projects (I call them products). The projects could be brainstormed through Google Docs or other Web 2.0 tools to help with timely feedback. This is really describing differentiation in the classroom.

I'm a U.S. History teacher at the freshmen level and I also add themes for each product (project). Themes like change, diversity, power etc. -- very broad. It's amazing how two products over a similar topic can be tied to two very different themes.

Students enjoy the choices (from 35 products and 7 themes)and the feedback from other students in preparing an authentic product. Here's a link to product page:


This kind of classroom can exist and most students and parents love it.

Thanks again for the post and link. Hope we here other ideas on any of Gladwell's three major points.

Manaiakalani said...

Thanks for providing all the interesting detail from your discussions post Keynote. I am wondering if what you are talking about then is Gardner's Multiple Intelligence approach to a classroom?

Annk said...

Liz, Gladwell and the discussion is what I needed tonight. How can the compensatory model be used in PD? As a beginning teacher librarian graduate student, full-time teacher, and member of the school leadership team how does a school develop an positive PD environment where teachers don't feel hassled because they aren't as quick to learn and then never change their teaching ways. In my graduate studies, the emphasis is an active librarian collaborating with teachers to use the internet to its potential. Also Iowa schools are implementing the Iowa Core Curriculum which includes technical literacy, and informational literacy. As I start the librarian aspect of my job, I want to help rather burdened teachers. I'm a beginner in knowing what WEb 2 tools are.

Anthony Morrison said...

Thanks for the great stuff, i cannot attend to the conference, but thanks for leaving here a lot of info. As a teacher we need it.

techeduk8r said...


Thanks for this post! As a junior high tech teacher I focus on using tech as a tool for content projects rather than how to use a particular tool. I encourage my students to try things and see what happens.

Too often I give projects that are focused on the content and students are afraid to push the technology, asking, "Is this right?" "Is this what I'm supposed to do?" They have been taught to do only as the teacher says and never to stretch the limits, question, or, sadly, be creative.

As a tech trainer I encourage teachers to try a technology, make mistakes and learn from them. Without the playing and testing they won't know what works, how it works or how it will work in their classroom.

I've always thought we have a greater learning potential from the mistakes we make and risks we take, but how do we convince our colleagues, students, administrator, even lawmakers, that how much someone learns is more important than everyone learning the same thing the same way.

I believe continued discussion of a compensatory model for education along with a grassroots effort are the only ways to push this forward. Let's keep this discussion moving!