David and Goliath

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

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I’ve read a few of Malcolm Gladwell’s other books, and especially enjoyed Outliers. So when I read a review of this book that was critical of Gladwell’s general style before I had a chance to pick it up, I could understand the issue. Chabris says Gladwell oversimplifies his subjects and misrepresents his findings. Gladwell responded, saying that Chabris doesn’t understand the narrative nature of his project

I think they both have a point, but I come out on Gladwell’s side in general. Chabris says that when Gladwell calls patterns “laws” he’s overstating his case by using terminology that’s used in the social sciences to describe phenomenon that have been researched and proven. I’ll give him that point. Gladwell should choose his words more carefully. Gladwell counters that using stories to make his points makes his books fun to read, and that his books are more nuanced than this critic gives him credit for. The various stories exist in tension with each other, disproving each other and refining the lessons that readers learn from them until they’ve reached a very subtle understanding. Points that are made in the beginning of the book are often disproved by the end, until the various themes of the various stories form a narrative in themselves. I’m a sucker for narrative, so agreeing with Gladwell is almost irresistible for me.

This book is more counterintuitive than some of Gladwell’s previous books, so it’s likely to meet more resistance from readers. I felt myself silently arguing with him at times. The main thesis can be distilled down to this: what we think of as disadvantages can sometimes be good, and, conversely, power has some inherent weaknesses. Some of his specific stories are controversial. For example, he shows how a famous photo from the civil rights movement was all but staged. Then he argues that dyslexia forced several very successful men to develop the personalities and skills that brought them to the top of their fields. Gladwell asks again and again, would you wish dyslexia on your child? The answer is clearly no, but the connection between the learning disability and these particular men’s success is undeniable. Gladwell sometimes exaggerates both the hidden power of the oppressed and the secret weaknesses of the powerful. For this reason I’d love to read a Marxist critique of this book. It would be ripped to shreds.

As a teacher, the chapter that discussed class sizes bothered me somewhat. Gladwell says that it is a waste of taxpayer money to hire extra teachers to lower class sizes beyond a certain point. He says lowering class sizes from 40 to 25 does make a big difference for students, but once that number has been reached, shrinking classes further has either no effect or a negative effect. Spending money to lower class sizes from 25 to 15 doesn’t help students learn more, and only allows teachers to work less. Gladwell says this as if it were a bad thing to make a teacher’s workload more manageable. As if making the work teachers do easier and more sustainable wouldn’t have a positive effect on the profession through retention, and thus an indirect positive effect on students and their learning.

Gladwell talks about how small classes are too much of a good thing. If a class is too small, students don’t speak up and participate, and there are fewer peers for them to learn from. I can see this is true in my experience. It seemed to me that when I taught classes smaller than 15, in schools where students were accustomed to classes twice as large, they didn’t take the classes seriously. It seemed to them that half the class was missing, so what was the point of doing any work? There was no sense of urgency because they figured that the teacher had plenty of time to give them individual attention to make sure they passed. I also observed the inhibited discussions and bickering behaviors Gladwell’s quoted teachers discuss.

What I would add to Gladwell’s analysis is that the less the students bring to the table, the larger the class should be, within that golden range of about 15 to 25, and, conversely, the more the students have to offer the class, the smaller the class can be, even below the golden range, without diminishing the learning experience. That’s why the elite private school he mentions, which boasts of a 12:1 student-teacher ratio, is probably not actually cheating the students and parents of anything. That’s why graduate-level classes frequently have fewer than 8 or 10 students, and they never have trouble keeping a discussion going. Older, more experienced students also have fewer problems with overcoming inhibitions and establishing the intimate but appropriate relationships necessary for a small class to function.

If his message is oversimplified, which is almost certain to happen, Gladwell seems to say that lowering class sizes as a whole is pointless, when teachers consistently say that large classes are a major problem that keeps them from teaching to the best of their ability. I feel sure that more money has been spent to lower class sizes from 35 to 25, which Gladwell says does make a difference, than from 25 to 15, which he says doesn’t. Especially in subjects that do not have state-mandated tests attached to them, schools often push class sizes to the limit they are allowed by law, to the detriment of learning and good order. Additionally, he relegates to a footnote the fact that students with learning disabilities perform better in smaller classes, disregarding the reality of inclusive classrooms.

In his footnotes Gladwell endorses the idea that we should have fewer teachers who are very, very good, and load up their classes with 40+ students and pay them a lot more. I don’t believe this is a good idea for schools, and I think Diane Ravitch, who is much more knowledgeable about education than Malcolm Gladwell, would agree with me.

I always feel like I learn something from Gladwell’s books, in this case about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, resistance to the Nazis in France, the civil rights movement, and the treatment of leukemia. David and Goliath is an interesting book, but I think Outliers is Gladwell’s best work.

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