Are you a maven?

Mark Alpert knows about stuff.

He’s a professor emeritus at the University of Texas School of Business, teaching at UT since 1968 about marketing and consumer behavior. And he’s what Malcolm Gladwell calls a maven. In his book, The Tipping Point, Gladwell described meeting Alpert for lunch. Alpert freely shared his knowledge on everything from hotels to cars to the best way to save a buck on movie rentals.

The term maven comes from the Yiddish for someone who accumulates knowledge. It can also mean a person seen as an expert or connoisseur. But Gladwell’s definition reveals the objective of a maven is not arrogance. It is to use the information to help others make good decisions and live a better life.

Gladwell explained how one of Alpert’s colleagues raved about his unselfishness. This was a result of Alpert helping her save thousands of dollars on the purchase of her house and car when she moved to Austin. But it’s not just the information a maven possesses which makes them unique. According to Gladwell, it’s their desire to help without expecting anything in return which makes their advice so compelling.

This is why Alpert suggested to Gladwell he should stay at the Century Wilshire bed-and-breakfast when he traveled to Los Angeles in the near future. And why Gladwell couldn’t resist acting on the recommendation. Mavens don’t force their beliefs down our throats. They are well-versed in their areas of expertise and they want to help us navigate the world in a more efficient way.

A Curriculum with a Larger Purpose

Gladwell’s theory in The Tipping Point is social epidemics can spread just like viruses do. At a certain point, there will be a sudden change of results in a particular social arena due to three types of people: mavens, connectors, and salesmen. Connectors know a lot of people. Salesmen persuade others to do something they might not otherwise do. But mavens are the information brokers. Although we may sometimes act as connectors or salesmen in our job as teachers, we are most effective in our role as mavens.

What is the social epidemic we are trying to manufacture and get to tip in our classrooms? It is helping our students navigate their journey with the intention of fulfilling their greatest potential. This means we cannot just be information brokers about the math or the science or the art we teach in our classrooms.

Arthur Wellesley Foshay’s career in education spanned 62 years and ran the full spectrum from classroom teacher to consultant for the U.S. Office of Education. Foshay’s paradigm of education went beyond simply the intellectual category of gaining knowledge. It went even beyond the social and emotional ranges which have recently been added to the theory of educating the whole child. In fact, Foshay promoted six purposes of a student’s curriculum to support the ultimate objective of engaging in a more fully human experience.

From Foshay’s point of view, educating the whole child means addressing the following six purposes: intellectual, emotional, social, physical, aesthetic, and transcendent. While reading textbooks and literature can aid a student in these areas, it is personal human experiences which provide the greatest instruction. And just like students need teachers to help them gain intellectual knowledge in a particular subject area, they also need teachers to model and mentor the other five purposes as well.

Our Intention is Information

Mark Alpert didn’t just spew out his knowledge to Malcolm Gladwell about business marketing, metrics, and management. He shared how to use coupons to save money at Blockbuster Video (The Tipping Point was published in the year 2000) and get a better hotel rate at the Park Central Hotel in Manhattan. Why? Because this information could be valuable and useful to Gladwell in his everyday life.

The first step to become a maven for our students is to become an expert on our human experiences. By expert, we don’t mean every past decision we made was great, or even that every future decision will be perfect. We mean we use reflection to learn something from every experience. Gladwell emphasized although mavens are teachers, they are students as well. They are always looking to gather more information so they can pass that knowledge and wisdom on to others.

This is something I did or didn’t do, and it worked out well for me.

This is something I did or didn’t do, and it didn’t work out very well.

Remember, the intent of mavens is not to persuade. It is to inform. There is a reason car salesmen have a negative reputation (although not all fit the stereotype). Their life is affected by the action you take or don’t take. Which sometimes causes them to manipulate the information they present to you.

But a maven does not gain anything when you take their advice. They are not getting a cut from the bed and breakfast when they refer you to stay there.

This makes it tricky when we try to evaluate our effectiveness in accomplishing our number one job of teaching for impact by making a difference in the lives of students. A car salesmen knows whether he was effective or not by his bottom line. However, we may not see our return on investment as teachers for 20 years…if we ever see tangible evidence of our efforts.

We can be mavens for our students. We can provide information which helps them live a more rich and satisfying life. But it is going to require an unconventional approach. Our education system is set up to focus on the intellectual. This is where the accountability measures are staked for both students and teachers. While many people think it’s nice to touch on some of the other categories of Foshay’s curriculum like the social and emotional, they are often not addressed with intentionality. Our students need information, and they need us to be a role model, in these other areas as well.

More Than Just the Intellectual

Clayton Christiansen, whom we referenced in our last article with deliberate and emergent strategies, always asked his students to consider the following three questions on the final day of class:

  1. How can I be sure that I will be successful and happy in my career?
  2. How can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse, my children, and my extended family and close friends become an enduring source of happiness?
  3. How can I be sure I live a life of integrity—and stay out of jail?

If we want to be mavens who help our students successfully answer these questions, we need to focus on more than just the intellectual category of the curriculum. Like Mark Alpert, we need to know about a lot of stuff. We need to understand our own journey so we can provide a compass to help our students write their stories.

Stories which feature them striving for their full potential…and making a difference in the world.

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