Outliers: The Problem with Education

By April 9, 2020 September 8th, 2022 No Comments

There’s plenty of room for improvement in Canada’s primary and secondary education system. The most obvious problem is the lack of relevant courses, both in terms of life-skills (budgeting, taxes, nutrition) and workforce demand (programming, systems design). I’m not an expert on education, but my days are spent helping Canada’s SMBs build better teams and I see the gaps that prevent Canadian students from transforming into leaders.

I recently re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. His 2008 book aimed to answer one simple question: ‘What’s the recipe for success?’ Not the everyday kind of success, but the astronomical kind that Gates, Jobs and Ellison experienced. Gladwell’s answer is that it takes one or all of the following: a perfect set of circumstances, high socio-economic class and a birthday at the right time of year.

One chapter in particular struck a chord with me: Chapter 7 – The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes. In those thirty pages, Gladwell explores the impact of ancestral roots and race – factors that were determined many generations before you were even born.

Gladwell tells the story of a pilot and co-pilot in the midst of a particular plane crash. He concludes that the crash was due to a lack of communication, and the lack of communication is attributed to the co-pilot’s nationality. This co-pilot was Columbian. His culture had taught him a deep-rooted respect for his superiors; to accept their beliefs without reservations and to keep his opinions to himself. As the plane was nearly out of fuel and in dire need of a landing plan, the Columbian co-pilot couldn’t confidently express the nature of the emergency to the air traffic controller. Why not? The pilot, as the subordinate, didn’t want to confront his superior.

This reinforced my belief that the ability to effectively communicate with a variety of audiences is a prerequisite for success. It also seemed to shed light on the fact that we don’t need personality tests and other psychometric measures to build effective teams. We simply need to create teams with emphasis on the importance of communication.

We could, in theory, match people according to Hofstede’s Power Distance Index (PDI). The rating, (often assigned to a country,) illustrates the degree to which an individual accepts and expects the power in a group to be unevenly distributed. Most Western countries have a PDI below 40, they expect equality. On the other hand, countries like Colombia and India score well-over 60 – they naturally expect inequality.

Unfortunately, embracing the PDI as a measure of cross-team communication will leave us with relatively non-diverse teams. The technology sector in particular has been under a great deal of scrutiny for their lack of diversity, so it’s probably best not to exacerbate the problem.

Luckily, our beliefs about equality can’t possibly be so deeply ingrained that we can’t reverse them, can they? The question remains – how can we engineer employees, of all nationalities, with the confidence to speak out when they have something important to say?

The best way to affect change on malleable young minds is through education, but our educational system aspires to develop well-rounded individuals, not to raise confident leaders. In order to achieve this well-rounded status, compulsory courses mandate that students take math and science up to grade 11, a second language and a social science until grade 10, and English to graduation.

By imposing these strict rules on every student, we inevitably fabricate “bad” students in certain subjects. Take math, for example. Due to the cumulative nature of the subject, if students dislike or struggle with math in grade six, it is highly improbable that they’ll be an A+ student by grade ten. This kind of constant challenge isn’t going to develop persistence, it simply leads to a complete degradation of self-confidence.

Constantly flirting with failure often forces the student to resent the subject, and worse, they learn to fear failure. It’s this fear of failure that creates risk-averse personalities, and I would argue, that this risk-aversion was partially responsible for the plane crash in Chapter 7.

The typical classroom setting also promotes a high PDI. By structuring the classroom to have rows of desks facing the front of the classroom we literally make the teacher an untouchable figure of authority. Many students are too scared to ask questions in front of an audience and the traditional classroom configuration denies students the opportunity to be comfortable speaking with authoritative figures.

If you’ve ever been involved in hiring junior employees or new grads, it’s likely that you peeked at their transcripts. For whatever reason, we’ve accepted the ingrained belief that better grades equate to a better performer. While grades may be an indicator of intellect or knowledge, they don’t tell you about the individual’s capacity to be part of a team. In a market where talent is so scarce, we can’t afford to discount people because of poor grades. On the other hand, adding good team players can do wonderful things for retention.

The traditional interview process is a one-on-one conversation about an individual’s past accomplishments and skills. Is it beneficial and realistic to focus on what an individual has done in the past while working on different projects with different people at a different company? Perhaps we need to assess the person’s potential and passion. We need to gauge their ability to mesh with the existing team and to contribute to culture. The best way to accomplish this, is an assessment process that involves multiple team members from different organizational levels and relevant functions.

Companies that aspire to build great teams will undoubtedly deal with international issues that impact team performance and culture. Hofstede’s Power Distance Index illustrates why we struggle to build cohesive teams, but the solution lies in education.