On Tuesday of this week President Obama was at Julia Masterman School in Philadelphia, PA for his annual back-to-school speech. About 10 minutes in he said to the students, “You’ve got an obligation to yourselves, and America has an obligation to your education.” The speech itself is available here if you’re in the mood for a good old fashioned back to school motivation.
I was curious about Masterman, and then amused to learn that Kevin Bacon, yes as in six degrees of Kevin Bacon (separation) was an alumn. (So are Will Smith – yes Independence Day & Men in Black, Will Smith, and a cadre of other famous and celebrated talents.)
President Obama’s speech, is as one would expect, full of truisms and classic advice which rings both true and generally a little trite, with the marked exception of his anecdote about his mother at 11:30 into the video. The president describes a moment with his mother when he was a teen, wherein she chastized him for the general mailaise and indiference of youth, and emphatically instructed him to exert some ‘effort’. The moment the president describes is for him, for our nation, for the world an ‘inciting incident.’ It was clearly a moment that altered, influenced and shaped the man who is now widely regarded as the leader of the free world.
In dramatic writing an inciting incident is often defined as that moment after which nothing is the same. An action has been taken, and event has occurred which triggers or incites all of the things which follow. If you prefer, think of it as a critical initial state in chaos theory – the moment in the butterfly effect that if it had not occurred would no doubt have altered the course of human history. President Obama’s first teacher, his mother, with a handful of words, a practiced demeanor an open heart triggered a change in him which would impact not only his life but the life of millions of others.
Obviously for educators the importance of each contact, each communication, each encounter can not be overstated. But it can and certainly has often been ‘sterilized’ by our cautious, letigious and too often polite exchanges with our learners. We’ve done amazing work mastering the tracking and monitoring of cognitive learning, but when the learning lies in the affective domain – when it springs from the behavior (or more commonly when it fails to appear in the behavior) of our learners, we often find our selves, our systems and our students incapable of effectively communicating the need for behavioral modification. We have few methods for documenting affective order issues, and even fewer mechanisms for correcting them. It is unfortunately easier to ignore the occasional absurdities than to confront them, but I submit that as an army of ‘little behavioral anomoles’ begin to gain momentum, we will eventually reach a “Tipping Point,” the moment Malcom Gladwell described as a “moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.”
In fact aren’t we hitting them every day? According to Gladwell, “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.” He gives guiding principles for these viral epidemics that include the law of the few, the stickiness factor and the power of context.
The epidemics depend on the persistence and depth of penetration of messages (perhaps what Richard Dawkins called memes – units of cultural ideas, things which can be imitated).
This stickiness factor can manifest in a variety of ways, from mass populous repeating catch phrases, to learners sharing ‘approaches’ to the evasion of coursework, manipulation of the instructor, or other behaviors that diminish the learning experience for everyone involved. Notably they can and do have equally positive effects. When we model trust and genuine compassion, that’s a message with the power to penetrate as well.
Gladwell’s epidemics also require context. In other words, the actions and interactions of our colleagues with regard to behavioral education is an equal player in the suppression of problematic or the spread of helpful epidemics that Gladwell suggests can lead to tipping points of change.
Finally Gladwell points to the law of the few, the notion that there are thought leaders, and influencers who can have far greater impact than their numbers would suggest. Gladwells research regarding the relative importance of the few is based at least to some degree on the work of psychologist Stanly Milgrim, who in 1967 gave us a meme which suggested that everyone in the world could be connected through a sort of web of familiarity. Milgram tested his theory of interconnectedness by inviting people to attempt to pass a letter from themselves to a ‘target’ person with whom they were unfamiliar, and the results became embedded in our culture. Milgram found that on average there were “six degrees of separation” between each of us, and any given other individual. This theory, though admittedly a little silly, has given rise to all sorts of memes in our popular culture, including at least one game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Perhaps Milgrim’s notion, his meme is in fact correct, that we are all interconnected, and that the degrees of separation are calculable. I would submit that if he is correct, even to the tiniest degree – then mathematically speaking, that interconnection charges us with a tremendous obligation. Because as that interconnection exists not just between each of us and one other person, but between each of us and every other person, isn’t it incredibly likely that our actions toward those whom we teach and from whom we learn are potential inciting incidents, triggers in a butterfly effect, and tipping points?