Tag Archives: Malcolm Gladwell

Choking or Panicking?

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I’m a fan of Malcolm Gladwell‘s writing. Last night I read his article The Art of Failure where he distinguishes between panicking and choking. In short, people who panic stop thinking; people who choke over-think and lose the use of internalized skills. Both can result in failure, but choking happens to people with developed skills. Gladwell uses the example of a professional tennis player who honed her skills through years of practice in order to internalize the complex skills of touch and ball control. However, in a pressure situation, over-thinking (choking) shuts down the hard-earned instincts of ball control and causes a regression to the more novice practice of consciously thinking about shots. The tennis player loses her touch. Choking happens to skilled people and is largely triggered by the context or audience of the performance.

Near the end of the essay Gladwell reminds readers that a professional tennis player can’t change the context of his/her performance, but in many other areas of life, context and audience can be adapted to facilitate better performance.

“Choking is a central part of the drama of athletic competition, because the spectators have to be there–and the ability to overcome the pressure of the spectators is part of what it means to be a champion. But the same ruthless inflexibility need not govern the rest of our lives. We have to learn that sometimes a poor performance reflects not the innate ability of the performer but the complexion of the audience; and that sometimes a poor test score is the sign not of a poor student but of a good one.” –Malcolm Gladwell

The quote begs the question, “What is the complexion of the audience in my classroom?” The article was an excellent reminder to be vigilant about creating environments that allow students to showcase their talent and knowledge effectively. When my instinct tells me that a student choked, I need to reflect on the context and help him/her find another way to make their learning visible. How do you help create contexts of success for your students?

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