The Tipping Point

Last summer I read The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell and I began to consider implications for the Montessori movement.

If you are not familiar with the book, this blurb from the back of the book provides a decent summary.  “The Tipping Point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.  Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate” (Gladwell, 2002).

I began considering…

  • Why has the Montessori movement not reached its tipping point, yet?
  • Is the Montessori movement getting closer to a tipping point, or has it plateaued, or is it getting further away from a tipping point?
  • What behaviors in the Montessori community are hindrances to reaching the tipping point?
  • What does “a small but precisely targeted push” look like? 

I’ve started looking into Diffusion Models, which is the academic term used by sociologists to describe the tipping point phenomenon.  The Diffusion Model isn’t a new idea, in fact it’s been around for decades.  One of the most famous studies was conducted in the 1930’s in Iowa, examining how the use of hybrid corn seed spread among farmers in a particular county.  The chart below illustrates the diffusion model using the data from the hybrid corn seed study. 

It took 16 years for 257 farmers to switch to the hybrid corn seed.  The “Tipping Point” can be seen at 8 years.  Prior to this less than 20% of the farmers had switched, then suddenly the graph takes a steep turn up and the remaining farmers quickly adopted the use of hybrid corn seed. 
According to the diffusion model, the spread of the Montessori movement would follow the same pattern as the spread of hybrid corn seed, although it might take longer than 16 years. 
Now take a look at the different colors on the chart.  These colors represent distinct groups of people who are accepting the new idea (be it hybrid corn seed or someday Montessori) for very different reasons and at very different times. 
The Innovators (roughly 2.5%) are “the adventurous ones” (Gladwell, 2002).  It may be an aspect of their personality or a disenchantment with the status quo that leads to exploring these new ideas.  In any case, they boldly go where all is uncertainty.
The Early Adopters (roughly 13.5%) are “the opinion leaders in the community, the respected, thoughtful people who watched and analyzed what those wild Innovators were doing and then followed suit” (Gladwell, 2002).
The Early Majority and Late Majority are the “skeptical mass, who would never try anything until the most respected … had tried it first” (Gladwell, 2002).
The Laggards are “the most traditional of all, who see no urgent reason to change” (Gladwell, 2002).

I would be thrilled to say that the Montessori movement has reached the Early Adopters, but I don’t think it has.  In all my undergraduate education and psychology courses, and in the 9 years since college working as a professional educator in the public and private sectors both domestically and internationally, almost no one has any understanding of the Montessori method.  I run a weekly automated Google alert for the search term “Montessori”, and for a year it has only returned articles in local newspapers, often relating to bake sales and other school specific events. There was a small increase in meaningful articles around the centenary celebrations, but not in any nationwide sources.  This lack of discussion in any significant public forum clearly indicates that the Montessori movement is not part of the general public understanding or discourse.

 My reading of the history of the Montessori movement indicates that in the 30 years following the founding of the first Casa dei Bambini (1906-1936) the movement was getting significant attention from, “the opinion leaders in the community” (p197), and we might say the Early Adopters were beginning to accumulate towards the tipping point.  The something awful happened; it might have been Professor William Kirkpatrick and his criticisms of the Montessori method, or perhaps the devastation of Europe by World War II, but I think we can agree that following Dr. Montessori’s death in 1952, momentum dissipated.

I think often about the challenge of moving towards a tipping point, and more specifically, the “small but precisely targeted push” that can transition the Montessori movement from the fringes to majority.  Rest assured that I will write more about these thoughts in days to come.

Gladwell, M. (2002). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Back Bay Books.

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