It’s 1999. I am 16 and I going to a restaurant for a job interview. I arrive a few minutes early and wait at one of the restaurant’s golden tables in the corner while I wait for the owner to come out and speak with me. While I wait, I pull out Malcolm Gladwell’s book that everyone is talking about and read a few pages to pass the time. Mark, the owner, comes out to meet me, the first thing he notices is my book. He wants to know why I chose it, what I think of it, and so on. Turns out, it was his favorite book. I’m in. Mark is impressed that I have a similar taste in literature and was also interested in social epidemics. And he seems to think that we share a connection.
Now it’s 2019. Today I’m 35 years old and I just finished How to Fix the Future. I went to my bookshelf and was in search of something a little bit less… dense. There was The Tipping Point like old friend who got me that job back when I was 16. I remembered that it was about change and sudden and unexplained popularity of things like Hush Puppies; my recall of the book was really surface-level thinking. It was as if the book had a plot or a series of amusing anecdotes. I mean, I did read it 19 years ago. Over the last few days I’ve read the first 100 pages of the book and what has hit me is the amount of concepts in the book and the amazing ideas that I had either forgotten or never understood in the first place. But wait, I am a native English speaker. I do understand the words on the page of this easy-read.
Why wouldn’t I have understood it? What is understanding?
Gladwell talks about this idea of connectors as one of the essential groups of people that makes a social epidemic occur. One of the things that connectors do that is so essential is have numerous relationships with various types of people in various industries. Connectors are people who can build a weak-link relationship and maintain them willingly and effortlessly. Meeting someone for a few minutes at a party and hearing that person’s birthday is cause enough for a connector to jot down that person’s details and send a greeting card the following year to someone they barely even know. But what connectors do is actually put people together. Because connectors have a wide range of relationships, they are able to refer people to the right expert. They quite literally connect people; they see connections between people and refer them to others that they should meet.
There is an educational theory about connectivism [LINK 1] [LINK 2] which is interestingly quite similar to Gladwell’s idea of a connector. The main difference, if you can really even call it that, is that in connectivism, learners are able to see connections between ideas. Is that really such a huge difference though? In the case of a Gladwellian connector, they see people as ideas: what they do for a living, where they’re from, their hobbies, etc.
Connectivism is a way of learning that relegates the learner’s memory into technology; the learner’s job is to know where to find information and see the weak-links between that which they encounter. Connectivist learners are people who are able to collectively generate meaning through diverse opinions in his/her network. They are also about to change quickly with the rapid changes in that which is known (Moore’s law).
So a Gladwellian connector is someone who knows a lot of people and sees relationships between their massive rolodexes while a connectivist learner is someone who sees a lot of information and is able to synthesize connections between various disciplines, experiences, and interests.
Seeing this similarity between the educational theory and The Tipping Point, they seem to be two sides of the same coin and in many ways, the book has helped me understand the theory even better and in a sense, isn’t that what mental connections are all about? Did I just connect to otherwise random occurrences in my life? Did I just draw a line in the chaos? Did I just use connectivism while talking about connectivism?
Or maybe a better way of putting it is that when I read the first 100 pages of The Tipping Point in 2019, I felt like I was reading the book for the first time, not the second or maybe even third. The experience of reading the book this time was so completely different because with each example, I was able to visualize a person I had met or scenario I had been in that served as an analogy to Gladwell’s stories. As a 16 year old, I hadn’t met any of those people yet and the level at which I was reading the book was completely on a different level of appreciation. This time, I felt like Gladwell’s stories and examples were so clear, meaningful, and applicable.
As teachers, are we helping students find or have meaningful experiences that they can use to make connections? Or are we giving them disembodied, free-floating information? Are we helping students to make meaningful connections? Or do we really know our students in ways that could help them draw those connections? Are we up on student interests and youth-culture? Are we modeling the importance of interpersonal-connections? Do we allow students across all fields to make creative connections to themselves and their own experiences, their school/community, and to the world?
Steve Jobs had a lot to say about this idea of connections and creativity. Back in 1996 he had an interview with Wired and dropped a few truth bombs. “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had vey diverse experiences. They don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions, without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better designs we will have.”
The human mind cannot help but make connections. If you don’t believe me, try watching anything that David Lynch has directed. It’s like an abstract painting that has come to life with unrelated things juxtaposed next to one another and the viewer becomes an active participant in meaning-making. When we see images, ideas, sounds, basically anything that our senses can perceive as raw data, our minds try to connect what we encounter with what we know to be true (our concepts).
In fact, you dear reader just did it. Each paragraph in this blog entry skips from idea to idea, sometimes with little to no connection or segue. I went from Gladwell to connectivism to education to Steve Jobs to David Lynch. My mind sees connections between all of these things and my writing is an attempt to align all these things in my own mind and perhaps in yours as well.
We make meaning, we adjust our conceptual understanding, we respond, we negotiate meaning. But what it all boils down to is our experiences: what we’ve read, where we’ve traveled, the conversations we’ve had, etc. These things are the glue that organizes the raw input from our senses and make meaning. As Jobs said above, the wider and more eclectic our experiences, the more apt we are to make creative connections between things that might have a weak-link to the rest of us.
I’d like to conclude with one last quotation from Living with New Media from the MacArthur Foundation [LINK] that can help teachers make sense of all the random chaos of this article. “…Rather than assuming that education is primarily about preparing for jobs and careers, what would it mean to think of education as a process of guiding kids’ participation in public life more generally, a public life that includes social, recreational, and civic engagement? And finally, what would it mean to enlist help in this endeavor from an engaged and diverse set of publics that are broader than what we traditionally think of as educational and civic institutions? In addition to publics that are dominated by adult interests, these publics should include those that are relevant and accessible to kids now, where they can find role models, recognition, friends, and collaborators who are co-participants in the journey of growing up in a digital age.”
Indeed, it be wonderful if school’s purpose was to help students understand and engage the world and understand their lives today by connecting with one another and meaningful experiences.
Cover image from Hugh McLeod’s twitter account [LINK]
Steve Jobs bust image remixed and edited by me from OpenClipart-Vectors on Pixabay [LINK]