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The powerful force of community February 16, 2009

Filed under: Education,Things to remember — Ms.M @ 9:35 am

I love the opening chapter of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. I read this chapter over again yesterday. I thought about it again. It’s interesting how in this example of a town, Roseto, in which personal health was so tied to community health and well-being that every other factor that we think should be the stronger influences–eating habits, genes, obesity, etc., had less of an effect in this community than it did outside of it because of the powerful social force of community. If you haven’t read it, find a copy and read it. If only for this opening chapter.

If health is so tied to community, and this was discovered in the 1960’s, why do we still focus on individual health and not on community health? If health is so tied to community why wouldn’t we try to replicate what made Roseto such a socially, emotionally, and physically healthy place for ALL of it’s residents? Can we replicate that? I’m not so sure it’s as possible today to create a community that is completely separated from the modern world the way Roseto was, and full of such a strong culture that tied all its residents together.

In this chapter Gladwell talks about the doctor who made this discovery about the importance of community to health. In presenting his findings, this doctor was going against what was considered the norm at the time: That health was tied to personal choices, genes, and the work of the medical system.

“No one was used to thinking about health in terms of community…They had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was a part of, and who their friends and families were, and what town their families came from. They had to appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.” (p.10-11)

I also thought about how little community is thought about in schools. For all the talk about creating “small learning communities” and “classroom communities” there are just as many influences that make these just ideas more than realities. Why do we isolate students from one another; teachers from one another; schools from one another. Maybe community would have just as large of an impact on students as it did on the residents on Roseto. Maybe we’re ignoring the most important element in our schools.

In education there is some of this same conventional wisdom. The explanations for student success are tied to their personal choices–how much effort, attention, or motivation they have for classroom learning. Or it is tied to who they are–their individual abilities, strengths and weaknesses. And finally student success is tied to the efforts of their school system–their teachers, counselors, etc. Who’s to say that the missing link isn’t community here as well?

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