Saturday, February 17, 2007

Critical Mass, Tipping Points, and Other Social Science Theories

While thinking long and hard about our three to five readers of this blog and why others don’t visit this site (putting aside the pedestrian nature of the writing) or why so few respond to any of the posts, mine or others’, I kept recalling two terms I came across a few years ago in The New Humanities Reader, (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) in an article called “The Power of Context—Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime.” This article was in the text for freshman writing students at Rutgers University but was actually a chapter from a book by Malcolm Gladwell called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown, 2000). In epidemiology, “tipping point” is used to describe that instant when a virus reaches critical mass and becomes an epidemic. Gladwell wondered if the same principle could apply to ideas that could spread through a culture in the same way that a disease could. We might think of a critical mass in a classroom or a faculty or department as that number of people that it takes to allow a reasonable exchange of ideas.

Perhaps you were lucky once to have a small class but then one day, a number of students were absent and the rest of the students, as well as you, perhaps, wondered “whether we are going to do any real work today” and perhaps all of you acted differently because the class dynamics had changed. You no longer had that critical mass that was necessary to conduct business, at least in the eyes of many involved. This summer, I had only two students in an advanced business writing class that met partly on-line and partly in class. We discovered that with only two students and me, it was hard to keep the threaded discussions running that were built into the curriculum. We lacked a critical mass.

So I’d been wondering for weeks about whether we had a critical mass at this blog site and what it would take to reach a tipping point where many more people would flock to the site and a fair percentage would post a response. How could I create an epidemic? How could I bring about big change? I went back to the article and I reviewed some of the other principles that Gladwell used.

Gladwell’s chapter presented an incident on a NY City subway train in 1984 when Bernard Goetz shot four young black men who were being rowdy on his train and eventually harassed him for money. Goetz was easily acquitted of the charges the first time, even being called the “Subway Vigilante” for standing up to these kids who typified the perceived troubles that NYC residents faced both below ground and above. Some would argue that Goetz was emotionally and psychologically predisposed to this kind of violent action because of the way he was raised.

Gladwell points out how horrible the subways were in those days with their dim lights, lack of transit police, steaming hot trains or freezing cold cars in the winter, an inability to stop people from fare-beating, the presence of muggers and drug dealers, and many other declining conditions. The Transit Authority brought in David Gunn to right all of the wrongs and told him to fix the big problems. Gunn, however, was familiar with the “Broken Windows” theory that holds that if there are broken windows in a building, the longer they remain, they also become an invitation for others to break more windows. The theory is that such visible destruction is a clear sign of chaos and lack of law and order. Others often not inclined to break a law will do so more easily when there is nobody running the ship. Gunn used the broken windows theory and decided to begin with the graffiti which was an outward sign that chaos ruled the subways. The TA enacted a vigorous campaign to take out of commission all cars that had graffiti painted on them. Since the culprits were kids and it took them three evenings to first paint the outside or the car white, then draw the outline the next night and finally fill in their designs on the third night, the TA had crews that would paint over (or scrub off) this paint the next day, leading these kids to break down in tears when they kept getting thwarted. Soon, the graffiti stopped appearing both on the trains and on the subway walls.

The TA undertook a number of other very concerted efforts, including going after fare cheaters. The police had considered it a waste of the great amount of time that it took to arrest and book these offenders but when they got a bus converted to a police van-station house, they could round up a large number of fare cheaters, book them all at once, discover some as having other records, and, in general, put an immediate stop to this problem. The people who would ordinarily pay their way but would follow others when nobody stopped the cheating were the first to stop and the rest saw that such cheating didn’t pay.

Gladwell’s point is that once small things lapse and people perceive that things are declining or out of control, many people will begin to withdraw, show fewer signs of caring, and even contribute to the rapid decline. But Gladwell also showed that just as there is a tipping point for decline, so there is a tipping point for turning things around. He shows how this is environmental, that is, based on our surroundings and that these are little things.

In our schools, classrooms, departments, and faculties, people will respond favorably or unfavorably, based on the conditions. It may be in the perceived lack of personal concern for them, the way the physical room, office, or plant is run, kept up, maintained. It could be the coffee and refreshments with a nice table cloth at meetings or the care taken in written announcements or in other ways in which people are greeted and communicated with. How our students respond in the classroom may be based on how the room looks and the care given. I remember talking with a middle school teacher at the end of the day as we sat in the last period class room, the very one I started in during first period. The room was now filthy with papers and scraps all over the floor, so much that you would have to lift your feet to avoid stepping on some of the papers. The chalk board was a mess, partially erased, full of white smudges. When I commented on the paper, she said, shrugging her shoulders, that she saw it as “the sins of the day,” the natural build up of the “graffiti” of each class. Nothing had been done to eradicate the mess so others continued to contribute to it, creating a declining condition that I believe contributed to a general decline in other things. This could have been reduced any where along the day by a teacher, creating a tipping point by policing the room, with or without student help, making the room presentable for the next class and reducing exponentially the mess at the end of the day that may have resulted in a more difficult group of students to teach.

I don’t want to dwell on papers on the floor but to consider our environment and the little things when we want to institute change or redirect a group. How much we can change things may depend less on whether we are born leaders with great charisma, giving evidence to the term the “Law of the Few.” Many of us may not be one of those special few people who can lead by means of our charisma but we may be able to change the environment. We may be able to create tipping points for positive action.

Recently, a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer read, “Harvard Looks to a Woman” and on another page, “Harvard poised to name its first female leader.” Drew Gilpin Faust will be named shortly as the president of Harvard. Not only does she have roots in the Philadelphia area, having taught at U. Penn for thirty years, but she represents the fourth women to be appointed to the top position in the eight Ivy League schools. The current president of Penn, Amy Guttman, in anticipating Faust’s appointment, said that this would be “an important tipping point” in higher education.” For the longest time, women were not permitted to be part of the environment that led universities. That seems to be changing now.

For seventeen years, I’ve operated my workshop classroom based on the three principles that Nancie Atwell first established in In the Middle—time ownership, and response, but I realized some years ago that for me, there was a fourth. I read that Donald Graves talked about invitation and he said that all the great teachers, no matter what their approach, operated by inviting students into the classroom and the work of the class by working side by side with the teacher. So I include invitation as my fourth principle and I find that it begins with a genuine invitation to do the things that show writing and reading to be powerful tools, inviting others to participate in the literate feast. I’ve also learned that the invitation includes a setting that is warm, respectful, and encouraging. I don’t always accomplish this but that is my goal.

I wonder how to create these conditions with this blog when blogging is so new and/or alien to most educators and, with all of the other demands on them, most feel they don’t have time for such activities. Can a blog site be an oasis for refreshment and reflection rather than a huge mountain to climb? I wonder how that could happen.


Dave Arbogast said...

I would weep if I were so hard-hearted as to allow your posting to go unheeded, Jim.

Without commenting on the Critical Mass theory, I can say that I have suffered from a similar ignor-ance in my school district. I'm a central office perosn, and I try to support teachers by running various online Blackboard courses for groups of teachers. I post everything they could possibly need there (curriculum guides, lesson plans, useful web sites, staff development opportunities--even an invitation for me to come in and teach a lesson!), but nobody visits the sites and so all of that information goes unused.

I'm not that many months out of the classroom to remember what the problem is: It's one more @#*!%#@ to do. I don't blame them. I'm trying to overcome my own inertia by responding to you.

Marby said...

I came across the various NCTE blogs more or less by chance...following threads from journal to blog entry, then becoming curious about who might be posting to the blogs and what about. Like dave a, I feel as though I ought to respond, and that as much as I would love to blog on, there just aren't sufficient hours in a day. I only have a little "leisure" today because the students have the week off and I am working on planning. Good luck. I will try to return to the blog with more substantive contributions in the future. I do agree with the tipping point theory, Jim-- it also goes with rules- it's not a good idea to have a lot, but the ones you do have you need to be persistent about...

Michele said...

We have become so accustomed to closing our door and blocking out all else that is there. Community is essential. Yes, the blogging arena may be new and it is one more thing to do; however, it is also a useful venue to share our thoughts.

Perhaps we can begin our own tipping point -- one which encourages others to join in our conversations. Spread the word to your colleagues and let's listen to one another.

Anonymous said...

About a year ago, I was eating lunch with some of my colleagues and overheard a conversation. One English teacher was complaining about a professor of a class she was taking for professional development points. She was really making fun of this professor, simply because this academic had a favorite Jefferson quote which she used to start a class discussion among teachers. This colleague of mine, sitting with her tupperware and an old copy of "US Weekly" had no other comment to make, just to point out this oddity. I said nothing, but I feel now that I should have. I am not in English Leadership, in the sense that I have no leadership title, yet I am the one bringing ideas to department and grade level meetings, and I receive many questions about grammar, writing, literature, and research. Chances are, if anyone is going to use the phrase "and the research indicates..." in my building, it will be me. I don't say this to puff myself up (mostly) but to add my experience to the list of "tipping points" that are so active in educational and other organizations. As a middle school teacher, I am not nearly so isolated as other teachers (i.e. high school, college) but with that increased connection, I can see a real lack of engagement in my colleagues. But mostly, my response to this blog is to work more diligently in those areas where I could create positive tipping points (attitude, classroom environment, teacher-teacher & teacher-student interaction). Thank you for this posting.