More of Jim's Random Musings

I recently finished reading "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell. A very interesting book.

As a parent of a two year old boy, the book really grabbed my attention; if you're a parent of a child (or possibly considering having a child), this book will amaze you. I probably can't do the overall theme justice, but I'll try - the book basically asserts that much of our success (or failures) in life are not necessarily linked to just IQ but in our overall environment and the roadblocks or opportunities that life throws at us.

It's a huge concept to get your arms around. As I read the book, I remembered back to my freshman year of high school - I was one of 12 kids in a class size of 320+ that had a home computer - my dad purchased the brand new Apple Mac - yes, the VERY first model - and I was hooked. It's not that having the computer influenced my studies or what subjects I chose to study later in life, but just having that computer was a major positive influence in ways I probably can't even number.

Let's jump to today's world and talk about the NXT kit for a moment. This is cutting edge stuff. For under $300US, a child, a family, and even a class (or school) can have some of the very latest in robotics technology readily available. Whether a child "gets it" is not the question here - it's the access. Does your child have access to this technology?

We take for granted, I'm sure, that every child has access to a computer, but that's completely untrue. Some schools may have 2 or 3 computers for the entire school - how much actual hands-on time do we truly expect children at that school to get at the keyboard? Probably not much. And I'm fairly certain that not every kid in the USA (let alone other countries) has access to the NXT kit. I'm continually amazed at the parents and kids who tell me they just learned about MINDSTORMS - and this is a kit that's been around since 1998! Over 10 years and many parents and teachers are still unaware that this level of technology can be purchased at the local toy store and even at

"Outliers" was an eye-opener for me - it made me realize how many opportunities I had in my early years that influenced my education, my hobbies, my skills, and my career. And it made me realize just how easy it is to stifle a child's success in school and life. I'm not speaking lightly here, either - after reading the book, I found myself very upset and down as I thought about all the kids out there in school who may hold the cure to cancer in their heads or the next breakthroughs in energy technology but, for lack of opportunity, may find themselves discouraged or even completely cut-off from reaching their true potential.

The book has some adult language, here and there, but nothing super offensive - it's mainly found in some interviews with key individuals who have found success or failure in life and can explain how they got where they are. Entertaining stories of the succcesses of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and others are better understood once you get a background of their childhood and see what opportunities they had - not much was denied these guys, as you'll read about if you pick up a copy of the book.

Now, not everyone agrees with all the assertions made in the book, and I'm doing some of my own digging to verify some things covered by the author, but it's definitely worth a look if you've got the time. For those of us adults (teachers, parents, and AFOLs) who look at the NXT as a hobby and a fun experience, this book may very well open your eyes to a new idea: Just as there were certain periods in time of explosive growth in the economy and technology areas, there were also those who encountered just the right mix of chance and luck and opportunitites and were able to do some incredible things. The NXT, a toy it may be, is opening the eyes of kids everywhere to learn and try new things. It's encouraging math and science but it's also encouraging non-measurable things such as self-confidence, an acceptance that it's okay to fail sometimes when a lesson is learned, and discovering that there's almost always a solution if you look hard enough, study, dig deep, and experiment.

I realize this post is a bit "out there" but unless you've read "Outliers" it's a bit hard to explain just how much of an impact that book may have on a parent or teacher who has the ability to influence one or more children. Teachers are probably already aware of many of the concepts in this book, but not all of us are teachers. Some of us are just coming around to understanding that when we limit the opportunities given to our kids, we're limiting the opportunities they'll have later in life.

There's no real answer and I'm not asking for one - do we put an NXT in every classroom? That's not feasible and even so, it's not the best solution. Programs such as the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) are just starting to scratch the surface of changes that need to be made, here and abroad. I wonder what kind of impact ONPC (One NXT Per Child) might have if it were even remotely possible...


Unknown said…
Very thought-provoking points. I haven't read Outliers, but I read Gladwell's previous book, Blink.

I live in an area that is a regional tech center, but the public schools are profoundly lacking in providing the opportunities to access that technology. The second grade gifted class has a laptop for every student, but they are at least five years old, as the units are donated and are 'retired' from service. As a result, the systems are slow and are ill-equipped to use the software that the school board recommends.

Loaning out teh NXT sets to this class is a way to give them access and from time to time I come in to show what the system can do. It's important that the access to better opportunities, whether it be to technology or art or whatever, be made relatable to the students. A wonderful machine can be very impressive to a child, but it presented wrong, his or her first comment could be, "I can't do that."

A very important component to learning that is pretty much ignored in schools these days, thanks to some policies designed for accountability and not learning, is the ability to inspire. Teachers need to facilitate access and inspire students to move forward. FLL is a good example of this.

The irony is that as you point out, that many of the things gained are non-measurable. But those capacities are MUCH more important in life than what is taught and held accountable for schools.

If ONPC came true, over half of them would probably be left alone, a quarter of them would be used and regarded as a toy...but the last quarter would create the next generation of engineers and leaders. That's only because there would be a lot more needed than just an NXT to take advantage of the opportunity it provides.

Good thoughts, Jim!
Interesting post! I'm am going to order my own copy of Outliers - sounds like a book I'll love.

Thanks Jim!
BlueToothKiwi said…
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BlueToothKiwi said…

Just like you, I am also a father and have a 2 year old toddler. So I read your post (as well as JMeno's comments above) with interest.

I will check this book out - but in the mean time the only point I like to add is that the environment is not just what technology and world experience you can expose to a child - but the quality time a parent is prepared to sacrifice sharing what they are exposed to and improving their life skills so they not just end up a 'nerd' but a more rounded individual. To me that is a better measure of 'success' in life.

By the way - I am not as lucky as you - I had to contend with a Sinclair ZX81 as my first computer - as opposed to an Apple ! However, your points is very valid.

My two year old is a whiz with her Dulpo kit and her Fisher price computer with the mouse & key board.

She is also surrounded by three older children who are totally into technology, gadgets and NXT robotics. I am sure that many of her motor skills and problem solving skills are severely enhanced by what she is exposed to in her 'environment'.


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