Malcolm Gladwell popularized the tipping-point concept, which certainly applies to schools


In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that social change can happen quickly with little input, in the same way viruses cause epidemics—what he calls tipping points. This concept explains radical change under the right circumstances. He compares it to a measles epidemic in kindergarten when one child introduces the virus, which immediately spreads to everyone, reaches a critical mass, then quickly runs its course. A situation may be placid one moment and explosive the next.

Having become a teacher eager to break its sterile patterns, I have yet to see much change. As I have articulated, we teachers continue to teach much as we always have. Even when we work alongside a colleague who creates new ways to reach students, we rarely adopt her ideas. We reside in a deeply conservative profession, determined, so it seems, to be who we were. As a teacher of teachers, I am still baffled about how to crack this barrier, but I intend for this book to provide a wedge.

I have seen teachers create innovations that never make their way into neighboring classrooms. A teacher in a team develops an effective contract to guide classroom behavior, but her colleagues do not adopt it and continue to have behavior issues. Another finds ways to escape the tyranny of the textbook, only to be shunned by colleagues. Constructivism, which has roots in Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky, remains largely unknown among teachers. The Progressive and Open Education movements faltered before they could find a foothold in schools. Montessori’s rich successes remain largely outside the reach of public classrooms. Two relatively recent approaches, “differentiated instruction” to improve teaching methods and “backwards design” to improve planning, are slowly making inroads but remain largely unknown and unpracticed; perhaps they will reach a tipping point; we’ll have to see.

Do you see other potential tipping points?

For more on this crucial issue see Chapter 16 “Leverage Tipping Points” in Teaching from the Middle of the Room: Inviting students to Learn from Amazon: