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David Hopelain


Your New Yorker article, "Most Likely to Succeed" (Dec. 15), was on the mark and brought back many memories. I was reminded of my high school algebra teacher, Dolphus Williams. Mr. Williams would send us to the blackboard to do problems. He visited each of us, as we worked. If we looked puzzled or were looking out the window, he would bark, "do something, you learn by doing." He, not only, taught us algebra, he taught us how to learn. To prove Mr. Williams and your point, one of the students at the blackboard became one of the NFL;s great quarterbacks and, eventually, one of its most successful coaches, Tom Flores.

Ba Luvmour

Yes, relationship is the key to good teaching and successful teachers must possess and express their interpersonal skills. However, acquiring a sufficient interpesonal skill set is neither mystical nor preordained, but is a natural capacity that can be nurtured and developed in childhood. The absurdly expensive and time consuming solution of sorting thousands of candidates misses the mark entirely. Sadly it is not unexpected in a society that takes little notice of the trajectory of interpersonal development and offers only impoverished instruction in it in teacher trainings (and parent education).

As a child developmentalist of 25 years who has helped many families, schools and social service agencies redesign their approach to the interpersonal needs of children I have seen the depth and consequences of this neglect. It is heartbreaking as the solution to the problem in this article and to many social problems is at hand, is cheap, and only requires a shift in understanding how to support children to actualize.

It is like the old teaching story where a man searches for the lost key under the streelight. A friend helps and they cannot find it. "Did you lose it here?" asks the friend. "No, up the dark alley." Then why do you search here?" Because here is where the streetlight is."

As a culture we have neglected interpersonal development and now we don't even know where to look when the pernicious effects of that neglect apprear. And so brilliant thinkers, such as the author of this article, can only come up with solutions that they know cannot work.

Retraining adults is expensive and fraught with many psychological challenges. Searching for the lucky few who did have their interpersonal capacities nurtured (usually via luck)is haphazard. Appreciating the devlopmental trajectory and supply the proper environment(s) for that capacity to mature is the only sane option.

David Hopelain

Your New Yorker article, "Most Likely to Succeed," (Dec. 15, 2008) was on the mark and brought back many memories. I recalled my high school algebra teacher, Dolphus Williams. Mr. Williams would send us all to the blackboard to do problems. He visited each us, as we worked. If we looked puzzled or were looking out the window, he would bark, "do something, you learn by doing!" He, not only, taught us algebra, he taught us how to learn. To prove Mr. William's and your point,one of the students at the blackboard became one of the NFL's most successful quarterbacks and, eventually, one of its most successful coaches, Tom Flores.


Just read outliers: Christmas gift...very thought provoking. Applying that thinking to selection of NFL quarterbacks, and it seems to span generations...look in the city of Pittsburgh. Johnny Unitas, George Blanda, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Jeff Hostetler, Marc Bulger, Bruce Gradkowski, Gus Frerrote..all of these men have similar backgrounds and upbringings. From Montana on, they also had the example/inspiration of Terry Bradshaw and four super bowl victories by the Pittsburgh Steelers... Akin to the great list of Jewish Lawyers born in NYC in the early thirties. Just finished another book about Bill Belichick. He may be the ultimate outlier. He began analyzing game film with his father when he was five years old. His system(s) are what allow for continued success. It's the organization he's built/created. You can put anyone into it with the minimal skill set needed and it will flourish. He's created a Roseto, Pennsylvania and provided you would like to live the way they live in Roseto, i.e. you can fit into his system, you will do quite well, Tom Brady Matt Cassell, whomever. Can the ten thousand hour rule be transferred? Tom Brady certainly didn't have 10K hours in as a professional when he won his first Superbowl, but he certainly had 10K hours in general, basic quarterbacking skills and he learned from Bill Belichicks possible 40K+ hours of experience as an NFL coach. I'd argue that Bill Belichick is possibly the best teacher on the planet, but he has the best students as well. He's selected them. His "students" are generally castaways and/or unknowns, but they are intelligent and unselfish and willing to learn. Everyone there WANTS to be there and they all WANT to be the best collectively as a team. In a typical classroom, at least a few of the students don't want to be there. The teachers can't select their "players" and the players have tremendous outside influence from parents. Give an inexperienced teacher a system without a great deal of control and/or interference from parents and unruly children and you get a dysfunctional classroom. Create a system where a successful administrator (Belichick) can hand pick and then place teachers (Brady) with the minimum skill set and then develop the students, it would be ideal and probably is necessary, if we could hand pick the students (remainder of the team) as well. Thanks again for your insights.


dale fattig

i noticed with the hockey players that there were more l's than r's



Your 95% retention rate does not impress. When teachers get tenure after three years, why wouldn't they stick around for at least 5? I don't know about the school systems you work with, but I don't know of many that do any serious evaluation of teachers in their first three years. The standard to me seems to be that if you don't suck, you get tenure. Not exactly a high bar to jump.


'I believe that almost any teacher can become a master teacher with the right kind of support and practice and that most of that has to take place once they become teachers' - Robyn Jackson (above)

I agree. Why should teachers be different from the students they teach? It can be seen that a 'good' teacher achieves statistically better results independently of other factors - social class, location etc... This would lend weight to the nurture arguement.

While a degree course teaches the hard skills, it is hard to qualify (pardon the pun) the soft skills. The best teachers have the skill of recognising what it is that blocks understanding on the part of the student and how to get past it.

I heard of a student in maths class that couldn't understand why one angle was bigger than another, no matter how many times the teacher explained it, until he explained the angles as being crocodiles mouths and asked the question which crocodile is hungrier?

Jeanne Allen

I have been working around education (wholesale, not retail) all my adult life and I confess I never knew there was actually a term to describe what I have known to be the key ingredient for successful teaching, without having a name for it. "Withitness" is it, and it is what you feel when you walk in a great classroom or a great school. It's actually something good parents do instinctively, too. The dad I listened to on a plane last night scolding his children for wiggling and noise had failed to demonstrate any "withitness". Because his behavior was rigid, he had completely lost control from the start. He interpreted his kids' excitement on their way home from a long trip as needing to be squashed, rather than engaged and funneled. "Stop it", he must have said a dozen times and just like in the classroom, it got worse, not better. We all do it at some point, but the trick is knowing it and fixing it. You cannot fix it, however, among your own or someone else's kids if you don't have any sense of how your behavior makes them react. Teachers should also follow your supposition in Blink; that there is just knowledge or skills acquired over the years that are right. Great teachers follow their senses and own knowledge, rather than relying on pedagogical training that imposes rigid processes without regard for myriad personalities and situations. Perhaps your best recommendation in the New Yorker piece is that "Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree — and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before." The best and the brightest for that profession would emerge if we indeed completely overhauled how teachers are hired, retained, and paid. We know from existing reform efforts, like the highest impact charters, how to do this. We know from other countries how to do this. All we would need is one district to adopt dramatic changes in our approach to teaching to demonstrate why it's the right way to go. We're closer than we've ever been. It's just a matter of pushing, and putting new ideas in people's head -- which you have done beautifully.


Matt Cassel's coach at USC was Norm Chow. He's a big reason Cassel is in the NFL and able to produce. Chow has a long history of developing/coaching NFL QB's, including Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Ty Detmer, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Matt Cassel.

Cassel's rise has more to do with Chow than anyone at the Patriots.

High Standard Deviations not better than Low

For someone who wrote a book named 'Outliers', it's certainly ironic that you continue to misuse, and presumably misunderstand, comparisons of SD scores.

In your Quarterbacks article in the New Yorker, you write "If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium."

Would you prefer that the U.S. scored a HIGHER SD, so that it wouldn't be "below" other countries in terms of its SD score?

What is it that you think SD measures?

John O.

Mr. Gladwell, this blog, particularly your second point, helps me assimilate the article better. In particular, the learning culture into which a new teacher finds himself or herself greatly impacts his/her experience as a teacher. One person I know found herself as a first year teacher in a school district where the superintendent famously used to introduce himself by saying, "Look to your left and look to your right. One of those next to you will not be here next year." She had no mentors, but rather a department head who tended to focus on lambasting failure rather than building success, and a principal who would berate teachers in front of their classes if she saw them doing something "wrong". This environment was set up to ensure failure-to weed out all but a "hardy" few-rather than help new teachers become successful.

By contrast, another person I know started teaching in an environment that has set up mentors for new teachers, groups of teacher to collaborate on lesson plans, and detailed instruction regarding lesson plans. Of these two, whom do you think had the most rewarding first year in teaching and who will be best prepared for the job?

I do not think the issue is lowering entrance requirements for teaching, but ensuring that the training essential for effective classroom performance become better before the teacher enters his or her first full year of teaching, and that training is provided after the teacher starts teaching full-time. Personally, I would find it rather unsettling to just "try out" (my term) teachers who had little if any training in the art of teaching. Rather, I would think it's more appropriate to ensure that teachers are prepared, supported, and assisted in becoming successful at what they do.

Tom Drummond

When you use the teacher certification process as a mismatch example, you offer test performance of children as evidence of on-the-job success. I may be wrong but it seems you have not yet made a distinction between learning as a product and learning as transformation. I wish we would avoid talking as if learning were an industrial product produced by "good" teaching and talk about learning as transformation. As the same as it is in football or as teachers, success is a real life recognition. We all recognize, at least most of us recognize, in our real lives, that when we have really learned something, our lives are changed forever. The indicators of what the best teachers do are in the transformed lives of learners, of any age, not strange, disconnected, academic testing.

You note that the real emphasis in creating great teaching relies upon attentiveness to talent development. That is what I do as a teacher educator. I create experiences in self-development that enable people to enhance their own authenticity and present-ness in relationships with children, which in fact DOES help people become more effective educators (and parents) and more effective leaders of democratic learning communities.

Anyone can ask those who have been through my courses about the transformation of their ways of being. Anyone can watch them with children and see the joy they have with children and the joy the children have with everyone in their learning community. However, ALL of my courses directed at that end do NOT transfer to teacher education programs at a four-year universities. Too practical, I think, and not academic.

Tom Drummond
North Seattle Community College
For those who are curious, I offer an example: http://connectingtochildren.com
---where you can see fully assessed competence because we, together as a community, examine performance in real life.
No mismatch happens because those who demonstrate these competencies have directly demonstrated the competences needed for success as an educator.


Whether 'talent' is 'very' important, or 'not very' important, it's probably normally distributed. Thus, when hiring a new teacher, sure we'd love to find some with > 90th %ile raw talent. But, that's unlikely.

Our experience is that it's far more sound to invest time, money, and energy into developing teachers than searching for Mr. Falker.

Len Lubinsky

1. In a profession dominated by women, I found, as a school superintendent for 25 years, that sports analogies were dangerous.
2. Your clarity about standards for finding outstanding NFL QBs and outstanding teachers is welcome. Reducing standards is not eliminating them. Certain standards (running speed, height, perfect spirals; high academic grades, scores on tests) may be important, but are not exclusive when other, essential skills are probably only made visible in action (seeing the whole field in an extremely fast environment; seeing the whole classroom and using every minute productively in an extremely fast and not particularly resource rich environment).
3. Because the NFL can't draft everyone and because selecting first year teachers has consequences, finding clues or hints about the likelihood that people have these essential skills is a very important task.
4. Also welcome is your emphasis and of the comments is the emphasis on good training and support AND OPPORTUNITY for QBs and teachers who are surprising successes (Tom Brady or Matt Cassell). Good teaching for QBs and teachers (Currently, I share in the direction of a teacher preparation program) is the catalyst for success.
5. I'm sorry I won't be able to see you at the 92nd Street Y, but you are sold out.

J.M. Holland

Thank you for writing about teaching. It is a crucial problem of our times. In your essay you compared watching players in college to watching teachers in student teaching. You then compared playing pro ball to becoming a real teacher. The metaphor breaks down because one reason many players can't transition to the big leagues is that the game changes. It becomes more complex and harder in the pros. Teaching isn't hierarchical in its demands, like college to professional football, and schools are not organized so that the same types of practices are needed to be successful in each school.

The truth is that in some schools, you can teach like a high school quarterback and be fine, and in others you have to teach like professional quarterback to be successful. The real difference is that you get paid better in professional football if you are successful whereas in teaching, the high school quarterbacks and the professional quarterbacks all get paid the same.

Your use of Pianta's work was excellent. It is really important though to remind readers that the types of "good practices" that Pianta's tool supports end in preschool. He is applying the tool to higher grades but it is only in Pre-K where learning is more important testing. At least for now. It would be great if we could move assessment of teachers from end of course assessment to process oriented assessment.

I have been a fan of Pianta's work for years. I know that he would not say that teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse but he would agree that the traits of successful teachers can be found in anyone. In the article, Pianta highlights what a preschool teacher does that is good teaching--allowing students to show engagement through movement. He also points out what she could have done that would have supported more learning. This is where the profession can be taught how to maximize learning situations. The teacher does maximize the learning by responding "creatively" to the situation, as in she creates more learning using what is out of her control instead of shutting it down. The section of the article about Pianta's CLASS system is some of the best description of the demands and practice of teaching preschool I have ever read.

Unju Han

I've been a big fan of your books. From your recently published book, "Outliers," I’ve found two misspelled Korean and would like to give you one more tip about the Korean pilots.
In line 16 of page 215, you put "chanmul to wi alay ka issta...," it should have been put "chanmul to wi arae ka itta..." Also, in line 3 page 217 inside parentheses you put (kwacang), but you should have put (kwajang). One more tip about why Korean Air Line pilots acted like that even when their flight was in trouble: the majority of them used to be pilots in the air force, so there naturally exists military culture, in which lower rank officers should obey whatever they are ordered to do by their superior officers. I hope this helps.


Great site.

Felicia and Scott Davis

My husband and I have immensely enjoyed your books. You probably get people offering up new topics all the time, but we just thought this too important to let slide. Would you consider exploring the issue of mixed race individuals and whether biology or environment provides certain advantages? Consider Tiger Woods, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keyes, Barack Obama, Halle Berry, Jason Kidd, Colin Powell and of course yourself! All of these folks have been incredibly successful and we are interested in knowing what common threads lead to their triumphs. Thank you for your consideration!
Felicia and Scott Davis
Las Vegas, NV

Nadia Rawls

I loved that your article challenges us to think about teacher recruitment differently--to acknowledge an intangible excellence and narrow the teaching field only after teachers have been given the opportunity to prove their ability.
However, I feel that one very important point is missing. Star football players have been playing football since they first learned to run. They've had coaches, mentors, and teammates to learn from since the very beginning. By the time they get to the NFL, they know all the rules of the game, they have years of coaching and training to draw from, and the only thing they have left to prove is their "withitness".
In contrast, a teacher has received minimal training when he/she enters the classroom. The majority of that training has been theoretical and very little, if any, has involved actually teaching. When that teacher first stands up in the classroom, he/she is not only being tested for "withitness", but is learning the rules of the game--what to teach, methods of discipline, student behaviors and needs--often with no mentor, no guidance, and no materials. I completely agree that some teachers have an intangible gift that others don't. However, until a teacher learns the rules of the game and has all the necessary tools to teach well, the opportunity to prove "withitness" cannot present itself.

Brent Busboom

While I enjoyed your article, I actually don't think selecting teachers is as difficult as selecting NFL quarterbacks. Especially when you consider all the information a scout has compared to a principal hiring a teacher.

Broadly speaking, a successful teacher needs 3 main qualities: 1. they need to be smart; 2. they need to be willing to work hard; 3. they need to have charisma. The problem comes, of course, in evaluating and determining an applicant's strengths in all three categories. However, if a principal looking to hire had the data an NFL scout had, this decision would be much easier and much more successful.

For example, I teach AP English at a high school in Reno, NV. Our scores are the highest in the state and our students go on to some of the finest universities in the country. Many of our AP students look good on paper, but out of the 87 that I teach, only 9 would make great teachers. Why do I feel confident making this statement?

In Nevada, the school year is 180 days which means I am able to observe students over an extended period of time. The knowledge I have of each student is similar to the amount of information a NFL scout has on a prospective quarterback. In other words, I know quite a bit about each student's ranking in my three criteria.

If each principal knew a candidate's intellectual ability, their willingness to work hard and stay late, and their charisma/ability to interact with students, then the hiring process would be much easier and much more successful.

Of course, this assumes that there is a huge group of talented people in the applicant pool. Unfortunately, none of the nine that I mention want to go into teaching. They want to be doctors, lawyers... not because they have any great passion for law or medicine, but because it pays well. Basically, they're smart enough to know that if you're going to work hard you might as well be compensated for it. Teaching isn't the NFL, and talented students have many other (often more profitable) options.

Steve Sailer

Among the 277 quarterback chosen in the NFL draft in the 1980 and 1990s, the higher choices did much better than the lower choices.

For example, seven quarterbacks were chosen first overall in the draft, and, on average, they earned 4.1 Pro Bowl recognitions each, started for 11 years, played in 171 games, and threw for 37,000 yards.

In contrast, 110 quarterbacks were chosen 201st or worse in their draft year, and, on average, they achieved 0.1 Pro Bowl selections, 0.3 years as a starter, a 13 game-long career, and threw for 1,531 yards.

Graham Cunningham

I could not agree more! Please write the follow up piece on New England. I think the would make a very interesting case study compared to the NFL's perennially weak franchises.

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a Florida teacher

While I enjoyed reading your article in The New Yorker, and your comments here on your blog, what makes me cringe as a teacher is how often people write about this issue, of how to hire the best teachers, without having any understanding whatsoever of the actual hiring procedures being used in various districts.

In short, a far more useful argument to the here and now would also focus on the reality of what happens in many school districts that often keeps the best teachers out. For example, I reside in a school district where:

(1) Nepotism still reigns supreme. You could be the best teacher in the universe and you won't get an interview in this town if the elementary school principal is not your brother, or uncle, or father, husband, etc. First, all children and grandchildren of current employees must be given jobs. THEN, and only then, are other applicants considered. That's the way it's always been and that's the way it will always be. Ironically, this is a very conservative town, so the nepotism, by conservatives, exists generation after generation in large part because of the liberal union structure -- which conservatives may complain about, but benefit from greatly.

(2) Corruption still reigns supreme. You could be the greatest new teacher in the universe but because of centralization of all applications of teachers required to be filed with the district's central office (instead of resumes directly from new teacher to principal), all it takes is one corrupt person in that central office to yank your application out of the pile for you to see your career yanked, too. It may take you years to figure out that your application has never been in the pool, but that is what happens, too. Discrimination and politics are just as alive and well as nepotism.

(3) Cover-ups. Although so few ivory towner type economists and researchers are actually aware of what actually goes on in some school districts, the school districts go to great lengths to cover up. Here in this district we have the Gallup Teacher Insight tool, a profiling multiple choice survey which allegedly gives the district your "profile" as a teacher, but also gives the district another excuse to yank your resume and application, simply by telling you, the teacher applicant who is the wrong color, religion or political party, a lie about your survey results. Now you're out for reasons you still don't know.

There are so many corrupt, low life, overpaid district administrators in some school districts that for a teacher who has seen such to even begin to contemplate the kind of theories you and others set forth is like trying to imagine the best way to plan and build a greener city when the real problem is that trash hasn't been picked up and removed for decades.

If only someone with a name and media pull would start to look more closely at all the garbage out there in the application process, maybe then more of us could support your vision of the future.


As for the quarter backs, would it be so hard to actually simulate the NFL circumstances? I mean, at a regular mid week training, a potential NFL QB can be exposed to a typical NFL type attack (6ft 5 tall guys closing in on the QB really fast) that would give at least an indication how the candidate would react in an NFL game. This doesn't address the question whether someone could actually improve/learn but it seems more useful than college game experience.

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  • I'm a writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of four books, "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference", "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" and "Outliers: The Story of Success." My latest book, "What the Dog Saw" is a compilation of stories published in The New Yorker. I was born in England, and raised in southwestern Ontario in Canada. Now I live in New York City.

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