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Leadership Cohort Ohio Update

I decided to read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell as it was recommended to me by several people. That in turn let me to read his first book Tipping Point. This may seem a little unrelated to CS but bear with me.

Tipping Point addresses how epidemics get started from certain fashions to widely accepted thoughts. The idea is that there are these critical people that help "tip" things. They are people who are good salesmen or who are connected in many different circles of influence. Here is where I started thinking about the leadership cohort and what we are trying to do.

Someone referred to the leadership cohort as a grass roots movement in CS Education. I think this is a reasonable description and I started thinking about how to get to our tipping point. When does CS Education become a trend or a popular catch phrase in education?

Those of us in the leadership cohort were all trained in advocacy for different stakeholders, but everyone concerned about computer science education deals with some set of stakeholders every day. If I may stretch this a little further when we are presenting to stakeholders or deciding who to approach perhaps we need to also consider what type of person they are. Taking cues from the book we need connectors, mavens, and salesmen on our side. I think it might be as important to look at the type of person we are approaching as well as what type of stakeholder they are.

If we can find those people that can sell or influence what we are trying to promote and educate people on, we can have our tipping point. We need to find stakeholders who can get excited about computer science and then pass it on for us. I have found in my own experiences this past year that while I am working with different stakeholders it has been much more successful with people that have a passion like mine and who have some type of influence. It really has been more about the particular person than what level of stakeholder they are.

I think we are all headed in the same direction for that "one voice" for CS Education and I am just looking at ways to keep progressing. Sometimes outside sources such as the book Tipping Point can influence the way we go about things. I am not promoting that we all have to read the book but just that we need to think about different ways to approach our stakeholders and evaluate what they can do for us.

Hopefully we all find the right people to help us as we move forward!

Stephanie Hoeppner
CSTA Leadership Cohort Member (OH)


I just finished listening to Malcolm Gladwell's "Tipping Point" audiobook, and had previously read "Outliers". Both books have very important things to say to people like us who are trying to bring change to education. I'm debating how strongly I should recommend "Tipping Point" to my Algorithmic Geometry project team.

Our goal in this project is to introduce math-accelerated high school students to the problem-solving power that awaits them once they can sketch out a geometry problem and its solution on paper, then immediately write an algorithm solving it numerically. I've taught a mini-pilot, and guided students through development of their own 2D and 3D vector geometry libraries in Java. Along the way, students solved 21st century challenges like GPS positioning, 3D CAD wireframe graphics, and robot arm motor coordination.

The challenge is getting the 9-12 education system to back away from the suffocating clutch of (20th century) math standards long enough to see that graphics software programming has become the new medium-of-choice for geometry problem-solving. The point of departure is that software people prefer representations optimized for writing algorithms over the "standard" representations handed down over centuries (which students have to know for SAT). This representational agility may come as a shock to "standards-based" principals and education experts, for whom the core math "canon" is assumed to be beyond tinkering. The idea that math representations need to be revamped to work with numerical programming, and that high school students will find this approach more relevant in the 21st century, has not yet "infected" the k-12 establishment.

This gets back to tipping points. According to Gladwell, there is the problem of "immunity" to change messages and their messengers. This natural resistance to change has to be overcome with an especially catchy or "sticky" message, given by someone who can influence the other to think differently (a connector, maven, or salesperson). Stickiness posits a major obstacle to change agents who cannot see past their first attempt at shaping the message.

In dissecting the way the original Sesami Street pilot shows seriously bombed with preschoolers during "distractor" testing, the book offers especially valuable insights into the unpredictable nature of designing educational experiences. In the end, the producers had to reject the advice of "experts", and experiment somewhat blindly to achieve sufficient stickiness with 3 year olds. Clearly, the educational theories of the experts were dwarfed by many less obvious considerations.

I think these complications in bringing about change can be particularly exasperating for computer science people -- after all, we are used to expressing our will to machines, and receiving back highly predicable responses.

It is the counter-intuitive themes surrounding the change process that make Tipping Point and Outliers so highly informative.

Pierre Bierre, Algorithmic Geometry project (AlgoGeom.org)

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