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Posted By: Karen McComas on December 24, 2003
When I first read Gladwell's book (and I'll admit, finding this discussion, even though way behind everyone else, has inspired me to go back to the book and read it again), my first application of the tipping point theory had to do with how individual students reached those AHA! moments in their learning attempts. I suspect that my theorizing in this way was shaped, in part, by an experience I had.

Over a decade ago I discovered the technology of MOOs and after playing around a bit on a MOO, I decided I wanted to learn how to "do" (program) some of the things others were able to do. I found a manual online and printed the thing off. I read that manual over and over...and never felt so dumb in my entire life. I would sit there and look at a sentence I read, realizing I didn't understand that sentence at all, and dissect it word by word...saying to myself, "I know what "the" means...I know what "command" means..." etc. While I knew what the individual words meant, combined as they were in this programming manual they were like a foreign language. One fine summer day, when we were at my in-laws retreat on the river, I started in on my 12th read of the manual. Holed up inside, much to my husband's dismay, I started. Somewhere in the first ten pages, I read a sentence that made sense (light bulbs went off in my head). I swear, it was all I could do to not run outside yelling, "Eureka!" Once that single sentence made sense to me...then another sentence...then another...until I was able to write some fairly complicated programs. My point with this story was that apparently my tipping point came on the 12th read...and I often wonder what my professional life would be now (my work on MOOs has led to some extremely satisfying professional relationships and experiences) had I stopped before that 12th read.

As I relate this story to my students, I emphasize the fact that each person in each context has their own tipping point. That is, to simply read an assignment one time won't necessarily ensure understanding for everyone. Sure, one or two students might grasp the reading on the first pass, but many others will require multiple readings before reaching their tipping point. Likewise, some students can study for 5 hours a week and grasp the concepts, while others have different tipping points and might require 10 hours of study per week.

Students understand the tipping point theory in this context. It is rather common throughout a semester to have a student turn in a piece of work with their required reflection (content reflection, process reflection, and premise reflection as described by Mezirow) and talk about having "tipped" as they completed a piece of work. Sometimes students will "tip" on an early piece of work, thus making the rest of the semester a complete and total breeze for them...other times students will tip late in the semester...and sadly, some students never tip within the confines of a semester (not to say that they won't tip later because they often do).

It's a fascinating idea to think about...and I plan to do more reading and writing about this for my own sake. I'll check back...hoping that some people are still reading the posts here.

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 The tipping Point by Bruce Rosenbloom on October 1, 2003
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