Whole Child Reform: The Easy to Follow Recipe

Whole Child Reform: The Easy to Follow Recipe

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,” he takes a close look at the many details behind successful people. In looking at highly successful people he defines as “outliers,” Gladwell cleverly reverse engineers three secret ingredients necessary to becoming a highly successful person on top of just being smart and hardworking: opportunity, strong community, and cultural legacies.

These ingredients have huge implications for education and ultimately confirm that we must address the “whole” child.

Each ingredient as you might guess is complex and not created easily, For example, if a lasagna recipe calls for tomato sauce, you better not add a can of Ragu and expect great things. To do it right we must start from scratch using only that which is fresh, ripe, and organically grown.


In his book, Gladwell uses several examples to show us that in addition to innate talents and individual effort, highly successful people have unique opportunities that add to their practical intelligence. Practical intelligence includes things like “knowing what to say to who, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect.”

While practical intelligence matters for success, it only matters to a certain extent and intellect and achievement are far from being perfectly correlated. Gladwell makes this point through the comparison of two geniuses: Chris, with an IQ of 195 and Robert, with an IQ of 130. Chris lacked many of the opportunities that Robert was given. He was poor, abandoned by his father, had an uneducated mother, and was often beaten at home by his mother’s partners. Chris never finished college and became a horse rancher. Robert won the Nobel Prize.

Being a speech language pathologist and reading about practical intelligence, I immediately correlated it with pragmatics, otherwise known as social language. This social piece of teaching a child is something we talk about in education, but it is often far from the priority.

If we accept that social skills will play a significant role in student achievement, then the teaching of this practical knowledge ought to be part of our strategic plan as educators. While many students may learn good social skills from their parents, many others do not. In order to create equal opportunity, we need to recognize and rectify this imbalance. That may require extending the school day/year, providing broader experiences, and teaching basic lessons on social skills.


Cognitive science teaches us that children learn best when their stress levels are low and when they engage in regular positive social and communicative interactions with peers. As such, we could conclude that the creation of strong school communities yields optimum learning.

Gladwell in fact supports this conclusion with an example about a community in Pennsylvania called Roseto. The residents of Roseto had remarkable health statistics. After researching diet, exercise, genes, location, etc, a physician named Stewart Wolf was left with only one conclusion: “the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world.”


The discussion of cultural legacies is fascinating and a must-read. One example he gives is that Korean pilots have a statistically high crash rate. After detailing the conversation between a NYC air traffic controller and a Korean 1st officer and Korean Captain, he shows us how the different communication styles of the different cultures resulted in a fatal crash that could have been avoided. In response to these cultural legacy issues, the Koreans are now being trained differently on how to express emergency situations with less mitigation and more commands regardless of job hierarchy.

As we think about cultural norms among Korean pilots, is it so different to compare to our students? They have all come from different homes and have been taught a variety of behaviors. It’s up to us, as educators to better understand the cultural legacies of our students so we can teach them the skills they need to be successful.

So there you have it, the three secret ingredients necessary to address the whole child and create a successful adult. All of these are well within our control if we decide as a society that that is our goal. As teachers, we understand we have students from all backgrounds with various needs. We need the school structures, supports, and accountability to help us provide opportunity for all students, even those who may not have it at home.

With these secret ingredients would Chris not have also been an outlier?

What if his educators had considered his cultural legacy and determined that he needed strategic efforts at improving his practical intelligence and created a stress free community filled with positive peer/teacher interactions for which to help teach these skills and also gave him more opportunities to gain more practical intelligence with teachers/peers through such things as summer school and extended school day activities, so that he was logging more social savvy hours? Would the smartest man in the world then be curing cancer instead of shoveling manure?

%d bloggers like this: